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When Ron Chernow speaks Friday at Lafayette on “Intertwined Lives: Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and the Birth of the American Republic,” he’ll be doing so after a long trip through history that began with a fascination about money and has resulted in a deep interest in heroes of the Revolution, including the young French aristocrat known as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Free and open to the public, Chernow’s talk is the second in the Lives of Liberty Series, part of the College’s yearlong celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette.

bn-lv990_nyprof_j_20151225152140During the 1990s, Chernow, a freelance journalist and graduate of Yale and Cambridge universities, wrote and published three books that nearly typecast him as a biographer of tycoons.

The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, published in 1990, won the 1990 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The Warburgs, published in 1994, followed, offering the story of the banking family’s roots in 18th-century Germany through its prosperity on Wall Street. Then, in 1998, he published Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., described by Time magazine as “one of the great American biographies.”

Chernow, whose background includes a stint during the 1980s as director of financial policy studies at the Twentieth Century Fund, a prestigious New York think tank, found himself wanting to explore something different.

“I felt I was becoming a prisoner of this stereotype—somebody who only did books about moguls,” he says.” When I would give lectures, people would shout out things like, ‘Do Carnegie next!’”

Instead of Carnegie, Chernow chose “founding father” Alexander Hamilton, who, as the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the Bank of New York, and co-author of the Federalist Papers, served as a bridge between finance and politics.

“Hamilton was a perfect transitional figure for me,” he says. “Writing about him would open doors on many different subjects. It would expand my range.”

Chernow says that as he wrote Alexander Hamilton, which was published by Penguin in 2004, he became more and more interested in the time of the American Revolution.

“I felt quite liberated writing about Hamilton,” he says. “Usually, when I’ve finished a book, my impulse is to jump to an entirely different era. But my mind continued to linger on this era. There was still unfinished business, intellectually and emotionally.”

For Chernow, researching Hamilton offered him his first in-depth look at 18th-century America.

“I was curious whether Hamilton and the other founders would seem much larger or much smaller than life,” he says. “I found that whatever their flaws—and there were many—they turned out to be much greater than I had imagined. They were philosopher kings, men of great integrity with enormous passion.”

And so, for his next book, Chernow chose to focus on George Washington.

“The lives of Hamilton and Washington are so intertwined,” he says. “As I finished Hamilton, I almost felt that I was starting Washington.”

During his research on Hamilton, Chernow says, he found descriptions of Washington as “moody, irritable, temperamental”—descriptions of the Revolutionary War general and first American president that surprised him.

“I got very curious about what the man was really like,” he says, explaining that through Hamilton’s eyes, Washington became “real and convincing.”

“Hamilton saw that beneath that cloak of reserve, there was a very passionate man,” Chernow says. “Washington began to make sense to me,”

Chernow says his research on both Hamilton and Washington also offered glimpses of the young Marquis de Lafayette, who, upon arriving in America to help the cause of the Revolution, became fast friends with young patriots Hamilton and John Laurens.

“They were all handsome, dashing, intelligent, idealistic, and rather romantic young men,” he says. “They seem to have latched on to each other very quickly.”

Chernow says Lafayette also quickly made a favorable impression on Washington.

“At the time Lafayette arrived, there were dozens and dozens of French officers who were flocking to the Continental Army,” he says. “And they all thought they were God’s gift to the Continental Army.”

Chernow says that while those officers wanted only to parlay their experience into increased opportunities back in France, Lafayette was different.

“I think Washington saw in him a much more genuine idealism,” he says. “I think Washington saw in Lafayette a poetry, a fire, and real passion for the cause.”

And, Chernow adds, Lafayette, unlike most of the other French officers, spoke English and was able to communicate well with fellow officers and those serving under him.

“Washington also saw that when Lafayette went into battle, he was very daring and aggressive,” Chernow says, explaining that while Lafayette’s appointment as a major general had been meant merely as an honorific in thanks for his monetary assistance, Lafayette took the role seriously.

“In fact, he made a believer of Washington and the other generals,” Chernow says. “After a point, it was not just an honorific title, but one that he earned in battle. For somebody so young, who had just arrived on these shores, it was quite amazing.”

Chernow adds that his research showed that accounts of Washington and Lafayette regarding each other as father and son are true.

“There is no parallel in Washington’s life to this kind of relationship,” he says, explaining that Washington’s letters to Lafayette reveal a deep fatherly concern that goes beyond his words to anyone else, and Lafayette’s letters reveal a “filial respect.”

“Lafayette was very unlike Washington, but I think that he was the sort of son that Washington would like to have had,” Chernow says, explaining that Washington’s own stepson was “lazy and dissipated,” and that Lafayette’s father died when his son was quite young. “There must have been a mutual need.”

Chernow says his exploration of the lives of Hamilton, Washington, and, to a lesser extent, Lafayette, seem part of a recent trend to return to “the fundamental documents and doctrines from the founding of the country.”

“A lot of issues from those days seem quite topical now,” he says. “We’re seeing fundamental political issues that drive us back again and again to the founding documents.”

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