By Ron Chernow
832 pages, Penguin Books, New York, 2005
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
Alexander Hamilton, 1775
Alexander Hamilton is my favorite founding father—a fact I would not have discovered if it weren’t for both Ron Chernow’s immeasurable writing talents and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical genius in bringing this essential historical figure back into the forefront of American discourse. Miranda and Chernow are national heroes. Thank god Ron decided to write a book about him and Lin decided to condense that book into one of the greatest musicals Broadway has ever seen. And you think I’m hyperbolizing.
After consuming the entirety of the musical’s soundtrack during my summer road trip in 2016 (I’m certain videos of me singing “Satisfied” off-key and frighteningly loud exist in the electronic graveyard of my old cell phone), and the same summer listening to the 12-hour abridged audiobook of Chernow’s biographical masterpiece, two years later I finally read the behemoth of a book that started the frenzy: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Here are my key takeaways.
First—Hamilton’s life, in brief: Born illegitimate in Nevis, Caribbean. Father abandons him. Mom dies when he is 13 years old. Taken in by a cousin who shortly after commits suicide. Hurricane destroys the island. He writes about it, gets published. Rich men, impressed by his precociousness, pool together money to send him to New York to get an education. Arrives in New York, begins studying at King’s College (now Colombia University). American Revolution imminent. Hamilton rises through the ranks to become George Washington’s right-hand man. Marries Eliza Schuyler. Becomes valiant war hero at the Battle of Yorktown. Establishes a law practice after the war. Central player in the creation of the Constitution. Lead architect of “The Federalist Papers”—wrote 51 essays in six months. Becomes first Secretary of the Treasury. Establishes ingenious government financial system still largely in place today, including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard. Has an affair. Writes about said affair and distributes pamphlet to the public to explain himself. Son Philip dies in a duel. Hamilton dies in a duel with Aaron Burr in the same spot as his son three years previous. Eliza outlives him by 50 years, carries on his legacy.
Even a brief overview of his life illustrates the undeniable fact that his rise to the top was nothing short of legendary. Chernow writes: “That this abominable childhood produced such a strong, productive, self-reliant human being—that this fatherless adolescent could have ended up a founding father of a country he had not yet seen—seems little short of miraculous. Because he maintained perfect silence about his unspeakable past, never exploiting it to puff his later success, it was impossible for his contemporaries to comprehend the exceptional nature of his personal triumph. What we know of Hamilton’s childhood has been learned almost entirely during the past century.”
The other undeniable fact worthy of admiration is Hamilton’s superhuman work ethic. Chernow observes that Hamilton’s life “was a case study in the profitable use of time.” The comprehensiveness of Hamilton’s roles in life are astonishing even at face value: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, first Secretary of the Treasury, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Constitution, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New-York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Chernow asserts that Hamilton’s impressive work output came from “the interplay of superhuman stamina and intellect and a fair degree of repetition.” Hamilton would often speak extemporaneously, organizing complex ideas into a logical structure while someone scribed his words onto paper, which would need very little correction for the press. His sources were “varied, esoteric, and unpredictable.” Chernow wonders (as do I) if at times Hamilton’s life “had seemed one fantastic act of overcompensation for his deprived upbringing.” Like most successful people, Hamilton hid a mass of insecurities: “He always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man, the unspoken melancholy of the prodigy, the wounds left by his accursed boyhood.” If Hamilton’s life were a case study in overcoming adversity and excelling to great heights, his degree of success might be an anomaly.
This biography doubles as a historical refresher on the major events of the American Revolution and newborn nation. Whether through luck, acute forethought, or a knack for making things happen, Alexander Hamilton was involved in nearly every notable event of the time period. Of particular interest to me were Hamilton’s encounters with other founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson. Apart from my vague awareness of Jefferson’s indefensible stances on slavery and his affair with his slave Sally Hemings, I never seriously called into question Thomas Jefferson’s character until I read this book. For all the posthumous honor bestowed on America’s seemingly favorite founding father after Washington, Jefferson’s moral character was wanting in more than one degree. The realities of his poor character were exposed to me in this book. His biography is one rife with moral contradictions. I’ll highlight three such instances:
- Unlike Washington and Hamilton, Jefferson never actually fought in the Revolutionary War. During his time as Virginia governor, the traitor Benedict Arnold and the British burned and pillaged Richmond in January 1781. The capital of Virginia was left defenseless despite warnings from Washington to Jefferson. Jefferson fled in the early hours, giving up the capital without a single shot fired and allowing munitions and government records to fall into British hands. He was accused of dereliction of duty, though the Virginia Assembly exonerated him of any wrongdoing. Jefferson’s cowardly shirk of duties strongly contrasts with Hamilton’s “image as a romantic, death-defying young officer, gallantly streaking toward the ramparts” cultivated at the Battle of Yorktown.
- Jefferson despised the institution of slavery but did nothing to end it, especially as long as, in his words, “there remains any prospect of paying my debts with their labor.” Jefferson was overtly racist. He believed black people were innately inferior to white people in terms of both mental and physical capacity. Despite his belief, he didn’t have any qualms about entering into a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, possibly when she was as young as 14 years old (it is unclear whether the relationship was consensual or not, but it seems a high probability that it was not given the power dynamic). Chernow writes: “Hamilton offered testimony of his own inexcusable lapses in this area, while the sphinx-like Jefferson was a man of such unshakable reticence that it took two centuries of sedulous detective work to provide partial corroboration of the story and his sexual liaison with Sally Hemings.” At least Hamilton, for all his faults, was true to his principles in both word and deed. No one pretends Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds was an excusable offense. It most certainly was not. But at least Hamilton had the guts to fess up to it once it became public with the “Reynolds Pamphlet” despite the guaranteed negative consequences to his public reputation. Jefferson made no such overture, yet some call his silence tactful.
- While Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson led a vicious whispering campaign against the President that “portrayed [Washington] as a senile old bumbler and easy prey for Hamilton” to influence him. Jefferson denied the accusations to Washington’s face, but the historical record clearly indicates that the “campaign of vilification” against Washington indeed came from Monticello. Jefferson didn’t even go to Washington’s funeral, which seems exemplary of his pettiness.
A smidgen of redemption for Jefferson might be located in his mastery of sunny, optimistic words that captured the idealism of the revolution, best embodied in the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the primary drafter (although many of his words in the Declaration of Independence directly contradict his opinions, e.g. “All men are created equal.”). Perhaps I should read a biography of Jefferson’s life to give him a fair chance (let me know if you have recommendations), but from this evidence it seems easy to charge Jefferson as morally repugnant.
Alexander Hamilton is a challenging read but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it. It’s thick, both in physical size and density of advanced vocabulary. At times, its comprehensiveness lends itself to a handful of dull moments. But few authors I’ve read surpass Ron Chernow in diversity of words, eloquence of style, and exceptional organization—all without losing the soul of the story.
If you needed any more reasons to read this book, consider Hamilton’s lasting impact on our modern world:
If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenuous mechanisms to bind the nation together. […] Except for Washington, nobody stood closer to the center of American politics from 1776 to 1800 or cropped up at more turning points. More than anyone else, the omnipresent Hamilton galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation, serving as a flash point for pent-up conflicts of class, geography, race, religion, and ideology. His contemporaries often seemed defined by how they reacted to the political gauntlets that he threw down repeatedly with such defiant panache. […] Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.
Rating: 5 stars
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- Hamilton the Musical (the show and the soundtrack)
Photo credits: @judsongates on Instagram