His premise is that the great men of America’s founding generation are figures of the present as well as the past. Their essence is found in the principles they prized and the institutions they created—which we, as their inheritors, are bound by duty to understand, whether we like it or not. From their lives and the facts of the founding, Brookhiser plumbs for answers to questions that should concern us more than they do: How do we organize ourselves as a free people? What are the obligations of citizenship? And what does it mean, finally, to be an American?

There’s no better instance of Brookhiser’s method than his Alexander Hamilton, American, published in 2000. The book quickly established itself as the best short biography available of this “most audacious, visionary, and tragic of America’s Founders” (as the historian Richard Norton Smith describes him). Hamilton’s life is rich material for storytelling, swinging as it does between the poles of war and peace, grinding poverty and high finance, harlotry and true love, the frontiers of empire and the capitals of Europe, the most penetrating philosophical reflections and the crassest political maneuvering. Yet the theme of Hamilton’s life, Brookhiser wrote, “is his identity as an American,” an identity that he created for himself and that set the course for generations of immigrants.