Friday, July 30, 2004

Federalist Historiography

This is not the worst book I've ever read; but it's probably the worst this year. I regret beginning to review with such an opinion, but it gives me the energy to finish. Chernow writes badly. He actually writes the sort of journalese that Fowler was trying to kill a century ago - and I thought he had succeeded. Chernow is capable of writing "lost in helpless [sic] confusion" and " [Nevis] society frowned on religious as well as interracial marriages." He is pretentious. He describes Hamilton's father as 'noble'; by Chernow's own account, he was the fourth son of the laird of a Scotch manor by a baronet's daughter. Gentleman? Yes. Armigerous? Possibly. Noble? Nonsense. He is ignorant. Chernow does extensively treat the Articles of Confederation. He does not mention, and does not appear to suspect, that they were not fully ratified (Maryland standing out) until 1781. He is servile. Every action of Hamilton, even his campaign to restore those New Yorkers who had given aid and comfort to the British, must be praised and adulated. One comment at Amazon called this a hagiography, and that's about right. What even he cannot whitewash, he omits. For example, around 1794, Hamilton leaked the secrets of the Cabinet to a hostile ambassador; even Samuel F Bemis, who generally supports Hamilton, must call this an "extraordinary action." Chernow omits this aspect of the conversation - but then he uses Hamilton's memoirs as his sole source, so I suppose this may count as more ignorance. Indeed, his archival research is very limited. Chernow has read, and relies on, the recent edition of Hamilton's papers; but beyond that, his sources are overwhelmingly recent, tertiary, and partisan. His publishers' claim that this is "authoritative" work is, at least, hype. (Other terms suggest themselves, but I am no lawyer.)

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