For anyone studying Hamilton’s pay book, it would come as no surprise that he would someday emerge as a first-rate constitutional scholar, and unsurpassed treasury secretary, and the protagonist of the first great sex scandal in American political history.
By Ron Chernow
In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.”
As a child I was pulled around to colonial sites left and right- Revolutionary War battlefields, monuments and gravestones, artifacts of the people who had founded our nation, buildings steeped in the history of early America, documents that shaped our government. As a young adult I built on that fascination of the past by obtaining a degree in History. I now consider myself pretty well-versed in that particular era of study. This book showed me that I still have so much more to learn.
I will confess right away that I picked this title up because I, like many these days, have been swept up by Hamilton fever. The hip-hop/R&B musical about the life of that titular founding father has been a musical constant on my Spotify account for months. And though I have an academic background in history, I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to. When looking for things to read outside of my normal genres this book, which inspired the Broadway musical, piqued my interest.
Do not let the length deter you. If you have any interest whatsoever in early American history, or if you just want to read snippets of founding fathers being really catty towards each other (which is amusing and delightful), pick up this book straightaway.
Alexander Hamilton was a man who shaped the United States in more ways that the average American can even fathom; a man whose contributions were in part downplayed due to an early death, political infighting, and the executive prominence of his greatest rivals. As this book demonstrates, though exhaustive research based on primary sources and the contributions of other modern scholars, Hamilton was instrumental to the founding of so many things we take for granted. Our two-party political system, our economic philosophy, our checks and balances government, our federal power, and our Constitution itself. To quote Chernow, “Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.”
Hamilton, an incredibly bright and ambitious man from humble beginnings, was an actor in nearly every major political event of the late 18th century. He literally saw it all and seemingly knew everyone, regularly crossing paths (and in some cases making great enemies) with the first five Presidents, as well as dozens of other names that those versed in American history would be familiar with. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, a General, a noted attorney, a political party leader. He championed the federal government, acted as a major cheerleader and defender of the Constitution, and was the driving force behind many of the systems and policies still in use today. Yet he was a flawed man as well, hot headed and ambitious, never afraid to lash out with vitriolic words towards his opponents and their causes. Along with his lasting triumphs were poor judgments, including a baffling sex scandal, alienation from the political party he helped to found, and the very duel that cut his prolific life short.
I don’t mean to write a concise biography of my own, I only wish to emphasize how astoundingly ubiquitous this man was. Before being introduced to the Hamilton musical (which takes several historical liberties naturally*) I knew nothing about him aside from his duel and his presence on our $10 bill. Now, I not only know more about him, but about the very era he came from. Chernow’s book masterfully combines the details of Hamilton’s life within the context of the times, outlining the people and institutions that surrounded him to create a full picture of the founding father. Other historical figures that I thought I knew a great deal about took on other dimensions- Washington, Jefferson, Madison- I learned more of their own contributions, and also about the lives and works of others who have been downplayed in general history due to their lack of a presidential term- Jay, King, Schuyler, Pickering, Clinton, and of course, Aaron Burr.
Ultimately Alexander Hamilton is a biography of ambition, creation, and tragedy. It is the story of a man who has been downplayed in his country’s history books for so long, despite accomplishing multitudes and creating a lasting legacy that I can’t even fully wrap my head around.** Anyway, read this book. I can’t stress it enough.
… And if you are still not swayed to dive into this work for its historical merits, I implore you to read it for the quotes alone. As previously stated, some of these guys were downright sassy. I chuckled several times over the course of my reading, and highlighted passages with even more frequency. I will leave you with one final urging to pick up this book, and with one of my favorite pulls- Aaron Burr’s description of James Monroe:
“Naturally dull and stupid; extremely illiterate; indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him; pusillanimous and, of course, hypocritical; has no opinion on any subject and will always be under the government of the worst men; pretends, as I am told, to some knowledge of military matters, but never commanded a platoon nor was ever fit to command one… As a lawyer, Monroe was far below mediocrity.”
Sick burn Burr, sick burn.
*It needs to be stated that I am amazed at how in depth Lin-Manuel Miranda went when writing the book for Hamilton. Though some details were changed, and the timeline was manipulated in sections, the themes, quotes, and even song titles harken back to not only passages of this book, but to the very documents penned by Hamilton and his contemporaries.
**I could also go into a rant about how the man who literally created our economic system is being bumped off our currency, while Andrew Jackson gets to stay. I’m all for putting a woman on our money, because it’s about time, but they are bumping the wrong person. Sure sure, the $10 is the next up for a re-do due to security issues, etc. etc. I don’t care. Drop Jackson. It’s silly.