Richard Brookhiser has written a biography on Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton, American), curated the exhibit “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America” at the New-York Historical Society, and written and hosted the PBS documentary “Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton.” Brookhiser has written other books on the Founding Generation, including George Washington, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and John and Abigail Adams. He has also written and hosted “Rediscovering George Washington.”
In addition to his work on the Founding Fathers, Brookhiser is a columnist for American History and has worked for National Review since 1977. He also wrote a column for the New York Observer for twenty years, and has free-lanced for a number of magazines including The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Commentary, and Vanity Fair. In 2008 he was awarded the National Medal of the Humanities and in 2011, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
HamilTEN Questions with Richard Brookhiser
1. What first made you interested in Alexander Hamilton?
I first became interested in Alexander Hamilton by writing a biography of George Washington (Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, 1996). Many of the founders were in effect Washington’s second tier, either as fellow officers or figures in his administration. Of all of them Hamilton seemed the most attractive—brash, prickly, smart, hard-working, helpful, honest. Who wouldn’t want to know him better?
2. Why did you decide to write the biography “Alexander Hamilton, American”?
He was a great man with a great story: his accomplishments were vital, and the arc of his life was startling.
I had some particular reasons too. He published his first article when he was 15, and so did I. He was a New Yorker, and New York doesn’t pay enough attention to its revolutionary history. If we were Boston or Philadelphia, the Grange would be on every guided tour.
I had been vacationing for a number of years in the Virgin Islands, so I had some feel for that slice of Hamilton’s life (one book on local dialect said that “the City,” without any other specification, always means “New York”—it is a very old connection).
In all my books on the founding fathers—besides Washington and Hamilton I have written about the Adamses, Gouverneur Morris and James Madison—I have been particularly interested in the role of fatherhood. They saw themselves as the progenitors of a new nation; what then were their own relations with their fathers, wives and children? Hamilton’s were fraught.
3. You mention your conection to Hamilton through journalism. Alexander Hamilton published many of his important essays, including the Federalist Papers, in newspapers. He even founded his own newspaper, the New-York Evening Post, which still exists today as the New York Post. Do you find that being a journalist yourself give you special insight or a different perspective on Alexander Hamilton than others who have told his story?
Like him, I know how to hit deadlines, and I know the importance of news-pegs. The hurricane letter appeared in the Royal Danish American Gazette when he was 15, and I published my first piece in National Review when I was 15. So we are both work horses, and we were both precocious. As for world-historical genius, well…
4. What would you say sets your book apart from other biographies on Alexander Hamilton?
I took the time to write a short one—78,000 words.
I also tried to make it both psychologically and politically acute. Hamilton was a man engaged with a troubled past. There are a lot of clunky psychobiographies in the world, but any good biographer has to probe his subject’s inner, unconscious life. Hamilton was also engaged with ideological and political rivals. I have worked for a journal of opinion (National Review) for almost forty years, and I have covered nine presidential election cycles. I know how ideas clash in the arena, and I also know what a deal and a stab in the back are.
5. In 2004, the 200th anniversary of Hamilton’s death, the New-York Historical Society hosted an extensive exhibit called “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America,” which you curated. Why was this title chosen for the exhibit?
Hamilton, more than any of the other founders, understood the modern world of commerce and finance; he was also among the most prescient on judicial, military and diplomatic affairs. Mount Vernon and Monticello are temples of human flourishing, but they belong to Jane Austen’s world. Hamilton worked on Wall Street.
Besides, the alliteration—man, made, modern—was cool.
6. You also wrote and hosted the documentary “Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton” for PBS, which took very unique approaches to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, such as visiting a woman’s prison in the Virgin Islands to talk about Hamilton’s mother being imprisoned by her first husband on St. Croix. What was your goal in telling Hamilton’s story through this format?
My producer/director, Michael Pack, and I had made an earlier PBS documentary, “Rediscovering George Washington,” which used the same technique. The goal in both cases was to show episodes or problems in the hero’s life which are analogous to modern situations. The past isn’t dead, it’s still going on. (There are still women in jail in the islands—and here.) We wanted to get away from the clichés of historical documentary: talking head historians, shots of marching costumed feet, and snippets of ye olde music.
7. What was your most interesting experience in filming the documentary?
Two stand out. We interviewed Larry Flynt, as a modern stand-in for the muckraking journalist James Callender. Flynt described uncovering political sex scandals with great relish. He is a man who loves his work; don’t fall into his hands.
We interviewed tough guys from Baltimore, to get a modern perspective on the Hamilton-Burr duel. One had a shoulder tattoo, “Death B4 Dishonor.” What else was the code duello? Said another, of Aaron Burr: “He be heated. He’s coming there to kill you.”
8. What is your favorite fact about Alexander Hamilton?
There is a wonderful letter from his father-in-law Philip Schuyler to Betsy. A store-owner in Kinderhook, a Hudson River town, saw a man pacing in the street, talking to himself. When he came in to change a $50 bill, the store-owner refused, fearing that he had “lost his reason.” Schuyler asked his daughter to ask her husband “if he can’t guess who the gentleman was.” It was Hamilton himself, of course, maybe hashing out some Federalist paper.
9. What is your favorite piece of writing or quote by Hamilton?
“Minds of the strongest and most active powers…fall below mediocrity and labor without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits. [But] when all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigor of his nature” (Report on Manufactures). He’s writing about himself, and about us. He could have labored without effect, but genius and luck saved him. He wanted to make it easier for later Hamiltons.
10. If you could ask Alexander Hamilton any question, what would it be?
Tell me about your mother.