ALEXANDER HAMILTON

A Life

By Willard Sterne Randall

HarperCollins. 476 pp. $32.50 Although Alexander Hamilton was arguably the most consequential of America's Founding Fathers -- aside, of course, from his patron and mentor George Washington -- his reputation occupies a faint, cliche-ridden corner of popular legend.

The legend goes something like this: Hamilton was the "base-born brat of a Scots pedlar" (as John Adams called him, and the feeling was mutual) who arrived in New York as a pushy teenager, obtained an instant education, was inflamed by Revolutionary enthusiasms and managed, by 1777, to worm his way into a colonelcy and Washington's confidence. He married for money into the Hudson River squirearchy and became, successively, the star of the New York City bar and the nation's first secretary of the treasury, having been the most influential advocate, if not designer, of the 1787 Constitution. He believed in linking government to the "rich, the well-born and the able." Into the bargain, he was an energetic skirt-chaser, conducting disgraceful affairs with his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, and a shady Philadelphia lady named Maria Reynolds. (Not for nothing did Martha Washington call her tomcat "Hamilton.") And who can forget that he was killed, in his 50th year, by Aaron Burr in a duel that no one has ever fully understood?

The Hamilton legend is replete with quarter-truths and half-truths, confirming the historian John Lukacs's sage observation that, in history, half-truths are at times more dangerous than outright lies. Certainly Hamilton was too interesting, and too important, to be defined by cliches, and this readable new biography might be described as a work of restoration. Its subtitle, "A Life," suggests that so complex a figure led more than one, and the emphases here are at times arbitrary.

Willard Sterne Randall begins his work, appropriately, with a glance at Hamilton's origins, often described as "mysterious." Was he illegitimate? Under prevailing Danish law in his native corner of the West Indies, his mother's abandonment by her first husband, well before Hamilton's birth, left her ineligible legally to marry his father. But his parents did live together long enough -- 15 years -- for their cohabitation to qualify under common law as marriage. A mixed verdict, perhaps.

Did illegitimacy matter, even if it was questionable? It did, and not merely because, as Hamilton lay dying in July 1804 of Burr's gunshot wound, two eminent clergymen stiffly refused him Holy Communion on that account. According to Randall, Hamilton was always aware of his social and legal marginality, and that awareness led to behavior that made some tragic differences in his life. The reader must wait about 300 pages for that judgment to ripen; but when it does, it is severe.

Speaking of the scrape Hamilton got into as a result of his year-long affair with Maria Reynolds, leading to blackmail and political embarrassment, Randall suddenly becomes a hard-bitten moralist: "He had quite simply married Betsy for the Schuyler money and name, not for her looks or charm or wit. Once he had his own money from his lucrative law practice, his vanity and pride compounded his lust for Betsy's more beautiful, more sophisticated sister. He set aside any pangs of conscience, any rules of polite society, as his vanity, his lust, his psychological baggage propelled him back into Maria Reynolds's bed."

In its jarring severity, this judgment leaps almost out of the blue in a study that otherwise treats Hamilton with sympathy, both as a public and private man. Before suddenly unearthing this "psychological baggage," Randall steadily emphasizes Hamilton's responsibility, brilliance, diligence and charm, beginning when he was a mere abandoned lad of 17 on the island of St. Croix, managing, with adult competence, a complex shipping business. One would not have expected such harsh words about a figure otherwise hailed by the author as a precocious student, a valuable adviser to Washington during the Revolution, a military hero, a man who gave up a profitable law practice (in which he was among the few willing to defend the interests of expropriated and exiled Loyalists) to promote constitutional revision and see it through to completion. When the Articles of Confederation were failing, he became the foremost advocate of the new Constitution as the leading author of "The Federalist." He wrote 51 of the 85 brilliant essays, the final 21 in the space of three months.

Randall, discussing Hamilton's labors as first treasury secretary toward a workable national financial structure, observes that his agrarian-minded rivals were simply ill-informed: "Neither Jefferson nor Madison understood money. Both were virtually always in debt, typical of most of the southern planter class." The author may exaggerate the fiscal naivete of Hamilton's rivals, but not by much. Certainly the fierce battle over the establishment and funding of a federal public debt and borrowing as a deliberate instrument of governance, to say nothing of a central bank -- the keystones of Hamilton's fiscal system -- were as important as the French Revolution and the Jay Treaty in estranging onetime allies in the work of constitution-making and stirring party divisions. The parties, indeed, fought over successive versions of Hamilton's Bank of the United States well into the first half of the 19th century. And echoes of the argument may be dimly heard even today, when populist pundits chime in on the alleged misdeeds of the Fed. But without Hamilton's fiscal inventiveness, the American republic in its modern form would be unimaginable.

Clearly we owe enough to Alexander Hamilton to get the picture right, and Randall's biography is a useful contribution to that restorative process, along with some important but apparently forgotten works of the last generation by Clinton Rossiter and John C. Miller. (They do not appear in Randall's bibliography.) Like all portraits of less than blockbuster length, this biography is, again, a bit arbitrary in its emphases -- far too much detail for this reviewer's taste about the Revolutionary War, far too little about Hamilton's political battles as treasury secretary, his at times humiliating romantic embroilments, or about the obscure feud that cost him his life. Still, this is a readable and worthy corrective to two centuries of textbook cliches.