Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. “To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.
Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.
My thoughts -
So this was definitely not a thing I'd planned to do when I thought about what I'd read in 2016.
Of course, I also hadn't planned on falling head-over-heels for a hip-hop musical about the least-known founding father, so clearly my scouting for the year wasn't the best.
This book was, honestly, fantastic. You know how you are flipping channels, and you see PBS is showing Ken Burns' "The Civil War", and you think, "Oh, yeah, that's supposed to be good. I can watch an episode, and maybe if I like it I'll look it up on Netflix later or something", and then the next thing you know it's 4 hours later and you're trying to find a kleenix because you're crying about a confederate soldier, and you don't even know what's happening except you have to keep going because how can history ever be this compelling?? Yeah, it's that kind of good.
Chernow uses an immense number of primary sources, and spends pages and pages on things like the formation of the US banking system, and manages to make none of it seem dry or boring or lecturing. I would venture to guess that Chernow is a fan of Alexander Hamilton (because how could he not be?), but he doesn't shy away from exploring Hamilton's weaknesses (pride; impulsivity; inability to keep his mouth shut) while also showing what an incredible man he truly was.
I think this was also an incredibly pertinent book to be reading right now, in a time where politics is incredibly divisive, and nearly everyone I know looks at the future of our country with some serious trepidation. It was a good reminder that, frankly, our founding fathers weren't exactly saints, either. They were men who had great ideas, and the will to put them into practice. They were also highly morally ambiguous, liars and cheats, philanderers, libelers, and spendthrifts. They will willing to use their public platform to rouse the general public to revolt, with or without the benefit of the truth. They were often mean-spirited, vindictive, and petty. They hired journalists to assassinate each other in the press. I mean, sound familiar??
I'm not saying I suddenly have great hope in the future of the American political system. But I am saying reading this biography gave me some much needed historical perspective. Our history wasn't as golden as I was taught in the history books. We've always been lead by people - sometimes good, sometimes not that great, but always flawed and struggling. This isn't the first time our leaders appear.....less than inspiring. And, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "You have no control. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"
This is fascinating history, and I'm thankful I took the plunge into this amazing beast of a biography. Highly recommended.
Finished - 6/25/16
Source - my shelves via Audible
MPAA rating - PG-13 - it's history, so it can be rough
My rating - 5/5