"Washington has a monument," Brookhiser intones. "Jefferson has a memorial. It's often said that New York City is Hamilton's monument."
That would be more than enough for any man, yet, as this engrossing film from producer Michael Pack makes clear, it doesn't quite do justice to the genius of Hamilton. First secretary of the Treasury, a drafter of the Constitution, author of two-thirds of the Federalist Papers, and father of the U.S. economy, Hamilton was also the prototype of the self-made American success -- the original Horatio Alger hero, and then some.
Unlike the planters, wealthy merchants, and successful lawyers from established families who comprised the other founders, Hamilton was born in the Virgin Islands, "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler," as John Adams sneered in one of his less charitable moments. (To be fair, Hamilton could be lacerating about Adams, too.)
He was a bastard -- but some brat. At age 11, orphaned and penniless, Hamilton found work in a St. Croix counting house. There he learned that strong application could yield advancement. He was so gifted at administration that his boss was willing to leave the 14-year-old Alexander in full charge of the business when he left for four months.
Also in St. Croix, Hamilton saw the suffering of slaves, forced to work endless hours in the scorching sun harvesting sugar cane. The camera lingers on the lanky, bamboo-shaped stalks. Most slaves, Brookhiser notes, "died within seven years." Hamilton became a fervent and lifelong opponent of slavery.
So prodigious were his talents that a few of the merchants on St. Croix sponsored his emigration to the colonies to further his education. He was 16. Within the next two decades, he would serve as deputy to Gen. George Washington, achieve glory in battle himself, excel at the law, and, from nothing, create for his adopted country its first monetary system, its first fiscal system, its first accounting system, and its first central bank. He also founded the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the New York Post. In a touching moment, the film captures the ritual in which newly minted Coast Guard officers -- to this day -- salute the grave of the service's founder.