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Citizen Hamilton: The Wit and Wisdom of an American Founder.

Citizen Hamilton: The Wit and Wisdom of an American Founder. By Donald R. Hickey and Connie D. Clark. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006. Pp. 177. $19.95.)

Alexander Hamilton, after almost a century on the sidelines, is back squarely in the limelight. There is no surer sign of this than the publication of Citizen Hamilton: The Wit and Wisdom of an American Founder. The bulk of this stylishly produced volume consists of short quotations from Hamilton organized by subject and arranged alphabetically. The book also includes a brief account of Hamilton's life, a chronology, a judiciously chosen bibliography, and an index. As a whole, the book provides a quick and easy introduction to Hamilton.

There is no doubt that Hamilton was one of the leading Founders. His contributions to the early republic were simply extraordinary. His collaboration with Washington over a period of two decades surely rivals that between Jefferson and Madison. But in some ways, he is an odd subject for a book such as this. A reader should not expect any poetic flourishes, or good ones, anyway, from Hamilton. Nor should they expect any wry wisdom of the kind Lincoln dispensed, let alone the sidesplitting humor provided by Franklin. The editors themselves make the point. Hamilton wrote at "breakneck speed," and "he sometimes fractured his syntax, and he was often verbose." The authors note also that he lacked the "wit or eloquence" of a Franklin, Jefferson, or Lincoln. What saves Hamilton and this volume is, as the editors note, his "direct and forceful" writing style and his "powerful" and "compelling" arguments that are "usually bottomed on basic principles."

There is, however, a further difficulty. Hamilton's particular arguments were almost always made in a very specific context and as part of a broader and sometimes very intricate argument. Some of the force and much of the significance is sometimes lost when the context for a quotation is absent. Consider the two entries here under "immigration." One is proimmigration, the other anti-immigration. The turbulent wake of the French Revolution, of course, explains Hamilton's apparent change in views. There are times though when Hamilton's words do stand alone and, more importantly, speak down through the ages. Consider his laconic but penetrating account of American political principles: "Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and reason." Or consider his reflections on war in The Federalist: "Let us reflect that peace or war will not always be left to our option; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count on the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others." By far the longest entries in the volume come under the headings "taxes," "war," "government," and "liberty." These were the preoccupations of Hamilton's remarkable career. And, as they are still the stuff of modern politics, today's readers are likely to find sufficient wisdom in this volume of Hamilton quotations to lead them to a fuller study of Hamilton's words and deeds.

Peter McNamara

Utah State University

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Author:McNamara, Peter
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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