Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton
New York: Penguin Books, 2004
Growing up I would read fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings because that pseudo-medieval world intrigued me. It felt interesting and fascinating in a way that my own world was not. I had never much been interested in American history in general. It just seemed, on the whole, ugly and crude and glorifying at all the wrong moments. Then I listened to the Hamilton (the musical) soundtrack, and like the rest of you who listened to it (at least the ones with human souls and a pulse) I was captivated by the world of the American Revolution. This old world and its iconic personalities and dramatic events drew me in, except in this case it had some more direct bearing on my world at present. So I picked up this 731 page monstrosity and spent the last several months leisurely reading about the life of the now-ascended Alexander Hamilton.
This book is the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the musical that everyone loves—or should love. Chernow attempts an exhaustive biography, going into detail not only on Hamilton himself, but on the places, events, and people in his life. It seems funny to say this, but it is also the work of a (modern) historian who substantiates his claims and, at times, quibbles with previous biographies and other speculations about Hamilton’s life.
What emerges from this biography is an incredible story about a person of an exceptional and unique intellect whose life itself is equally as exceptional and inimitable. It’s a little played out at this point, but he was very much an immigrant that bought hard into the nascent American identity and experiment, and whose genius, rather than leadership qualities, qualifies him more than any other on those terms as a “founding father.”
The first thing worth saying, which I think might be the appeal of many who read this book, is its relation to Hamilton the musical. I was inspired by the musical to know more about Alexander Hamilton, and throughout reading this book I would compare it to the version of Hamilton’s life from the musical. As is expected, the musical leaves a good bit out, and also changes things around for the sake of storytelling—and that is all well and good. There’s nothing particularly disappointing or shocking about understanding the real circumstances of Hamilton’s life, it’s just interesting. The only one it really affects negatively is one’s spouse who must endure the constant “Actually, what really happened…” chorus that now occurs every time we listen to the Hamilton soundtrack.
The second thing that I thought was particularly interesting was Hamilton’s religious beliefs. As a young child who endured horrific tragedies, Hamilton consumed the works of Alexander Pope and his first publication was an ode to one of Pope’s works. During the substantive portion of Hamilton’s life he was only nominally a Christian, viewing religion—like most others of his day—as something essential and expedient to good government and national stability. But he did not conceive of its practice beyond the instantiation of a general morality. But in his later years, especially following the death of his son Philip, Hamilton became more religious in both his writings and in his habits. The remarkable thing to note is that while most of the other founding fathers were Deists, Hamilton spurned this view several times (probably because his nemesis, Jefferson, was the chief among the deists…) and maintained an adherence to conventional Christian beliefs. So there’s that.
The third thing was the picture Chernow paints of the bickering and politicking of the Revolutionary period. The Hamilton Mixtape has a song called “No John Trumbull” that explains that these serene paintings made by Trumbull of a united group of founders was, at best, momentary. There was debate and fighting and harassment and conspiratorial accusations before, during, and after the Revolutionary war. The heated rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson was particularly vehement. As a biography on Hamilton, of course the reader (and author) are more sympathetic to Hamilton, without ignoring his own faults and flaws.
Finally, the last thing worth mentioning is the overall picture of Hamilton that the biography paints. He was a person of genius intellect and almost indefatigable work ethic, which combined with a good bit of luck and patronage allowed him to do some incredible things. Yet he was also deeply flawed. There are points which make the reader think that he began to believe the legends that began to arise about himself. He had an affair which lasted the better part of a year. Even in his later, more sober years, he died in a duel which was unnecessary and could have been avoided many times. His downfalls were more a product of his own vices and lack of judgment than anything his enemies did or could do to him. Hamilton seemed to have one volume and a particular dislike for nuance, prudence, or compromise. I think that makes him a perfect analogue for our own age, for better and worse—and perhaps why so many are drawn to the way the musical brings that intensity to life.
Hamilton’s besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism. (220-221)
A captive of his emotions, he revealed an irrepressible need to respond to attacks. Whenever he tried to suppress these emotions, they burst out and overwhelmed him. . . . Again and again in his career, Hamilton committed the same political error: he never knew when to stop, and the resulting excesses led him into irremediable indiscretions. (405)
Anyone who even reads the Wikipedia entry on Hamilton will be able to see why he is such a dynamic figure for our age. He is an immigrant with an otherworldly ability to work. His mind is incisive and combative and views compromise as capitulation. Most importantly, the better portion of his legislative work (e.g., the electoral college) was directed against populism and the slimy politicians it produces: “demagogues” who could sway the masses through fear and charisma, but had no moral character, political insight, or any intellect to speak of. He is like a more realistic superhero—someone with extraordinary gifts and abilities who fought against the more deadly vices of society, which happen to the vices of our age as well.
Yet his story is also a moral story as well. For all his virtues he had many vices. And while it is unrealistic to think that one could possess every virtue and lack any vice—to have Hamilton’s genius and drive and somehow couple that with a personal serenity and wisdom that would seem to blunt the full exercise of his gifts—we would do well to try. We could do worse to try and be like Hamilton, even if we don’t have his passion and intelligence, but we should also try to do better where he failed. To be more prudent, to be less combative, to be open to compromise and to assume that our “enemies” might not be the villains we assume them to be. It seems to be the great virtue of this biography that Chernow strips away any idealistic picture of Hamilton that was not justified by his actual character—so that the reader can come away with a more sober, but realistic understanding of both Hamilton, and of ourselves as we navigate how Hamilton will affect our lives.