A Dull Portrait


A Dull Portrait The Young Hamilton: A Biography By James Thomas Flexner Little, Blown 497 pp $15 00 Reviewed by Joseph E. Illick Professor of History, San Francisco State University Among the...

...A Dull Portrait The Young Hamilton: A Biography By James Thomas Flexner Little, Blown 497 pp $15 00 Reviewed by Joseph E. Illick Professor of History, San Francisco State University Among the less celebrated sidelights of the Bicentennial was the publication of psychological biographies of the Founding Fathers Claude-Ann Lopez and Eugenia W Herbert, despite a disclaimer that they "preferred not to follow the bolder of the current psychohistonans," provided a provocative personal portrait of The Private Franklin The Man and His Family, one unlike the picture that emerges from the Philadelphia philosopher's Autobiography Peter Shaw analyzed The Chaiacter of John Adams, giving us deeper insights into a man who already is the fortunate subject of several probing biographies The most daring and important study in this vein was Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson An Intimate History Panned by historians and banned at Monticello, Brodie's book shattered the stereotype of our third President as the embodiment of Enlightenment rationalism Her portrait, balanced and believable, presented Jefferson as a person who tried to temper his feelings through intellect and reason, perhaps more so than most men, but whose passion, guilt, indignation, and despair, even his weakness" could not help affect his ideas Depicting Jefferson first in the context of his family relations, Brodie moved on to consider established patterns of behavior evident in his marriage and sexual relations with women after the death of his wife, and in his hatred of certain political rivals One of these was Alexander Hamilton, and the two antagonists have often been used by historians to personalize the warp and woof of our early national history In the Age of the Industrial Revolution, Hamilton was the hero and Jefferson the villain (a biography published in 1901 wondered whether Jefferson as a statesman was not inferior to Ulysses S Grant) Claude G Bowers' Jefferson and Hamilton The Struggle for Democracy m America (1925) redressed the balance and more Jefferson's image has been the brighter ever since, Brodie's treatment notwithstanding A psychological approach to these two men, moreover, is no novelty Four years before the appearance of Bowers' book, Harry Elmer Barnes proposed moving beyond the manifest content of the contrast between Hamilton and Jefferson—the former standing for justice, stability and order, the latter for liberty and its universal applicability—to a psychological analysis (See "Some Reflections on the Possible Service of Analytical Psychology to History," Psychoanalytic Review, Number 8, 1921 ) Barnes found in Jefferson's boyhood the conditions for nurturing "an abnormal anti-auihonty complex"—an angry giant of a father who died too early to be dealt with and a cheerful, loving mother About Hamilton, Barnes wrote "[he] knew little of the normal family life His mother died when he was but 11 years of age His father's business failures threw Alexander on the support of his mother's family His contact with his father was very slight from that time onward and offered no opportunity for male parental domination and the development of that anti-authority complex which distinguishes the ardent apostle of liberty " Barnes made nothing of Hamilton's illegitimacy or the atmosphere of repression in the West Indies, a white-run black society Because the most thorough and credible biography of the theoretician of Federalism, John C Miller's Alexander Hamilton and the Gi owth of the New Nation (1959), avoids any psychologizing, the appearance of James T Flexner's The Young Hamilton, billed as a "psychological biography," seemed to promise the completion of Barnes' unfinished business Indeed, Flexner himself tells us, "In all my career as a biographer I had never come across documents so revealing, although he notes that other scholars warned him Hamilton's "inner feelings would remain hidden " In view of Flexner's distinguished career, it seems presumptuous to say he should have heeded those cautions Nevertheless, his portrait of Hamilton ranks as one of the drabbest psychological biographies of a Founding Father, matched only by David F Hawke's Franklin (1976), a similarly truncated affair Hawke stopped short of the American Revolution, Flexner barely gets through it, leaving us a Hamilton without the Constitution, the Washington and Adams administrations, Aaron Burr, and Mane Reynolds But the issue here is not whether the early part of a distinguished life can be isolated and handled well—it can, as Catherine Drinker Bowen has shown in her sensitive John Adams and the American Revolution (1949) Rather, the issue is that Flexner has nothing fresh and convincing to say The parents, for instance, are familiar figures Rachel, "sexually wayward," and James, "exile from a wealthy, aristocratic world " It comes as no surprise either that young Alexander was mocked on the streets of Chnstiansted for being a bastard, or that this might affect his later behavior It would be news that the major influences on Hamilton's life were his first cousin, Ann Venton, and the Reverend Hugh Knox, but Flexner nowhere tries to substantiate these assertions The suggestion that George Washington served as a father figure only qualifies Hamilton as an American The author does try to be more specific about the relations between Hamilton and our first President "Washington exemplified in many ways the aristocratic ideal Hamilton had nurtured during his battered years with his father A resemblance to James Hamilton would have been more difficult to recognize had Washington not been embattled with very similar difficulties—but now not personally, not meanly There was in the Continental Army a perpetual need to scrounge for food and clothing, not for two sons and a complaining wife, but for men by the thousands" George Washington, in short, managed as James Hamilton could not It is obvious (in my opinion, too obvious) that Flexner sees in the above analogy of family to public life an explanation of young Alexander's attachment to Washington My credulity is stretched, open as I am to psychohis-torical explanations I can, for example, accept Wmthrop Jordan's argument that the American people—for reasons, among others, having to do with the Oedipal conflict—needed to kill the King but soon found it necessary to adopt a Father Where Jordan makes his case carefully, however, Flexner seems uninterested in sustaining his suggestion about the nature of the attachment between the older and younger man The bulk of The Young Hamilton concerns the fighting of the Revolutionary War, an old battleground to the author of four volumes on Washington, if not good biographical material I speak in the face of such an authority as Arthur Schlesinger Jr , who in the publisher's blurb tells us "A master portraitist has drawn a brilliant picture of one of the most fascinating and enigmatic of our great Americans " There is abundant testimony to Flexner's mastery of some subjects, and no one could doubt the fascination of Hamilton As for the "brilliant picture," we must put that down to the fact that Schlesinger is hostile to psychohistory and Flexner, after all, has produced a traditional biography In the history profession new personnel have seized on the idea of letting the people speak, of giving words to the inarticulate This development is, of course, partly a response to the times, especially the civil rights and peace movements and the new student constituency Yet it is also a response to scholarly innovation quantitative approaches to the past, most notably the demographic history movement that began in France, and qualitative perspectives, specifically, the application of the methodology of psychology to history The practitioners of these approaches have not always been polite in crowding the more traditional scholars, nor have the members of the threatened professional elite been generous in reaction But status revolutions are like that (Although genteel George Washington accepted the upstart Hamilton, members of the gentry like Jefferson and Adams could not stand him ) And we can expect the tension to persist Why not9 It makes interesting material for senior seminars...

Vol. 61 • June 1978 • No. 13

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