My wife suggested that I watch Hamilton when it became available to stream on Disney+, but just as I was about to start it I realized that I was potentially in danger of ruining a good book (think of the poor wretch who watched the movie Jurassic Park before reading the book!), so I grabbed my kindle and nabbed a copy of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. This is my second round with this historian having polished off/consumed/struggled through/conquered his biography of George Washington a couple of years ago. The PR blurb suggests that the book inspired the uber-popular production of Hamilton, so I was glad that I started with the book. Below are 5 takeaways.
Alexander Hamilton is more important than we think
The obvious purposes of Chernow’s work is to prove that Hamilton has received less credit than he deserves compared to other founding fathers. George Washington is etched in our national psyche. Franklin and Jefferson are (or were until five minutes ago) darlings of the Enlightenment and proof to the secularists that America is not a Christian nation. Samuel Adams has a beer company named after him. You get the idea. But Hamilton is largely ignored. Chernow charts the course of Hamilton’s ascension from modest beginnings in the West Indies to a personal aid of Washington to the main force behind the Federalist papers to the architect of the United States government as we know it. Chernow states that “if Washington was the Father of the country and Madison the Father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the Father of the American Government”. A significant portion of this book is dedicated to crediting Hamilton’s Herculean accomplishments in conceiving, producing, and nurturing a functional government out of the chaos that was the United States of America in the 1780’s.
Alexander Hamilton never seemed to wander around in a normal human muddle. With preternatural confidence, he discerned clear solutions to the murkiest questions.
Two Are Better Than One
Like the superiority of water over the individual elements of hydrogen and oxygen, Chernow shows how the two persons of Washington and Hamilton combined to make an incomparable pair. According to Chernow, Hamilton’s dynamic ideas and near sighted zeal would have prevented much of his success had it not been linked to the steady, ethical, patient hand of a farmer, George Washington. Washington was the man our nation needed, and no history I have read has convinced me otherwise. Washington was not brilliant. He was not a great strategist. He did not understand the intricacies of government. But he really was the only one who could bring the nation together and by all human definition, he really was a great man. Hamilton, on the other hand, was brilliant, industrious, sometimes flamboyant and vain, but always bursting with plans, ideas, and words. Some historians have suggested that Washington was Hamilton’s pawn, but Chernow dismisses this idea. Washington and Hamilton were perfectly suited to complement each other, and both admired and appreciated the other, despite times of (somewhat understandable) tension between them. Together, they managed a successful war and two presidential terms and taught our toddler nation how to walk.
Politics Is a Dirty Business
Because my generation tends to think of anyone older than us as somewhat prudish, I think many would be surprised at the political ruthlessness of our founding fathers. Jefferson, while Secretary of State for Washington, essentially founded a newspaper to attack the sitting president and his Secretary of Treasury. The two party system became evident early on in our nation as the Republicans and the Federalists – neither of which is to be confused with either parties today in any meaningful way – attacked one another. The Republicans conjured nightmarish visions of a despotic government reminiscent of the British monarchy they had recently fought against, while the Federalists feared mob rule. Like today, both parties tend to have blinders to their own weaknesses. For example, Jefferson and Madison remained stubbornly optimistic about the French Revolution far beyond what was reasonable in light of what was actually taking place. In the end, it was Monroe who broke Hamilton’s confidence regarding his affair with Mary Reynolds and it was a Republican newspaper that made sport of it. It was a Federalist newspaper that printed of Jefferson’s rumored affair with his slave, Sally, and that he fathered many of her children.
Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself.
Depravity is Universal, Forgiveness is Precious
Every generation is blind to its own sin. The conditions of slavery in the West Indies as well as in the United States was truly despicable. The founding fathers who managed to craft one of the greatest statements of human liberty often lived in schizophrenic tension with that document. Of all the founding fathers who owned slaves, George Washington was the only one who released them, and that was upon his death. Hamilton, for his part, opposed slavery and probably never owned slaves. He fought for abolition and took political risks to pursue its demise, also earning some of the ire of the politically powerful Virginians. Perhaps growing up in the West Indies gave him clearer insight than others. But all men are sinners, and Hamilton is no exception. Despite being blessed with an excellent wife whom he loved, Hamilton inexplicably involved himself with a married woman named Marie Reynolds and was subsequently blackmailed by her husband. In order to clear his good name (irony!) he published a pamphlet about the affair so that his political opponents could not claim that he had misused government funds.
Eliza Hamilton forgave her husband but never forgave James Monroe for sharing the confidential details of this episode in Hamilton’s life. Eliza fought for half a century to preserve the legacy of her husband while seeking no glory for herself. Hamilton was adored by his children as well as Eliza’s family. If that is more than he deserved, he might remind us that it is more than anyone deserves. Jefferson and Adams both lived long lives and had time to shape their legacies. Hamilton, besides dying relatively young as the result of a duel with Aaron Burr, not only missed this opportunity but was also the subject of much degradation at the hands of others. Had it not been for Eliza’s faithful stewardship of his writings, eventually collected and organize by his son, we would only know Hamilton by what his enemies said of him.
Even Good Historians Write Stupid Things
This is a good biography, replete with original sources and quotations. I imagine that there is a pretty strong rivalry between Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians, and various other -onions in the scholarly community. I would think that Chernow can hold his own. And yet he wrote these words concerning Hamilton’s adultery:
The problem was that no single woman could seem to satisfy all the needs of this complex man with his checkered childhood.Ron Chernow
I snorted out loud when I read this. Furthermore, it made me take some of the more analytical statements that he makes with a grain of salt. But if there is anything I learned from the life of Hamilton, it’s that no one is perfect. Even good writers make words put together badly, and even good historians lose themselves in baseless philosophizing. Despite this truly terrible sentence, the biography as a whole is well worth reading and I highly recommend it.