Excerpts from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I first read the book in 2018, in my first year of law school. I’ve enjoyed rereading it more than I expected.

Hamilton was both a theoretician and a great executive

“Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive. He and James Madison were the prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of that classic gloss on the national charter, The Federalist, which Hamilton supervised. As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government, Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state—including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard—and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 4)

“As the first treasury secretary, Hamilton had to devise rudimentary systems for bookkeeping, checking, and auditing, many of which endured for generations. Hamilton threw himself into the most mundane tasks, as if glorying in the managerial challenge. To pedestrians passing him in the street, the treasury secretary could seem an aloof, cerebral man, shut up inside his thoughts, seldom making eye contact with strangers. One New York newspaper joked that anyone hoping to be treasury secretary should “appear in the streets but seldom and then let him take care to look down on the pavement, as if lost in thought profound.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 291)

Hamilton’s appetite for information was bottomless. To his port wardens, he made minute inquiries about their lighthouses, beacons, and buoys. He asked customs collectors for ship manifests so he could ascertain the exact quantity and nature of cargo being exported. The whole statistical basis of government took shape under his command. In a significant decision, he decided that customs revenues could be paid not just in gold and silver but with notes from the Bank of New York and the Bank of North America, an innovation that began to steer the country away from use of coins and toward an efficient system of paper money.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 292)

“Hamilton had always been punctual—“I hate procrastination in business,” he once said—and lost no time assembling a first-rate staff, imbued with a sense of public service. On the day he was nominated, five assistants, including auditor Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of Connecticut, were confirmed as well. When Samuel Meredith of Pennsylvania was appointed treasurer, the hard-driving secretary lectured him, “I need not observe to you how important it is that you should be on the ground as speedily as possible."" (Chernow, 2004, p. 292)

Hamilton was incredibly prolific

“Hamilton’s mind always worked with preternatural speed. His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades. Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax. His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with few revisions. At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought. He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 250)

“To understand Hamiliton’s productivity, it is important to note that virtually all of his important work was journalism, prompted by topical issues and written in the midst of controversy. He never wrote as a solitary philosopher for the ages. His friend Nathaniel Pendleton remarked, “His eloquence…seemed to require opposition to give it its full force.” But his topical writing has endured because he plumbed the timeless principles behind contemporary events. Whether in legal briefs or sustained polemics, he wanted to convince people through appeals to their reason. He had an incomparable capacity for work and a metabolism that thrived on conflict. His stupendous output came from the interplay of superhuman stamina and intellect and a fair degree of repetition” (Chernow, 2004, p. 250)

“Since Hamilton’s abiding literary sin was prolixity, the time and length constraints imposed by The Federalist may have given a salutary concision to his writing.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 250)

“Hamilton developed ingenious ways to wring words from himself. One method was to walk the floor as he formed sentences in his head. William Sullivan left an excellent vignette of Hamilton’s intense method of composition. One who knew his habits of study said of him that when he had a serious object to accomplish, his practice was to reflect on it previously. And when he had gone through this labor, he retired to sleep, without regard to the hour of the night, and, having slept six or seven hours, he rose and having taken strong coffee, seated himself at his table, where he would remain six, seven, or eight hours. And the product of his rapid pen required little correction for the press.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 250)