Alexander Hamilton

by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

As I write this, of course I am assailed with the soothing sounds of Lin Manuel Miranda singing, “Alexander Hamilton, my name is Alexander Hamilton.” I read this book previous to the musical being the hit that it turned out to be, and was skeptical about it because a reader friend of mine had read it and not loved it, but what can one do? It looked big and bulky, and hey, I like history as much as the next gal, so I knew I’d give it a try. The book is interesting, and has a lot of valid points about one of the lesser known founding fathers, but there were some glaring problems that detracted from the book as a whole. And lets be honest, the whole thing could have been about 200 pages shorter and saved us all some heartache.

Things I knew about Hamilton previous to reading this book: 1) He was a bastard 2) His father was Scottish 3) He was friends with Lafayette 4) Aaron Burr killed him in a duel 5) complicated Secretary of State issues and enemy of Thomas Jefferson 6) wanted a central bank 7) wanted strong federal government. I’m interested in political science (hey, it was the major I actually graduated with, if not the major I started with…) and knew about the various shady dealings and undercutting that happened while Washington was President, but I was unaware (and largely uninterested) in the minute details of the Hamilton Saga. This book certainly resolved those issues. Now I know more than I ever wanted to know about the man. The book starts (mercifully) and largely follows a chronological timeline. Chernow paints a detailed and well researched picture of what Alexander Hamilton’s life must have been like on the island of Nevis. He dispels myths that have been perpetuated about Hamilton’s potential mixed race ancestry and details the difficulties in his mother’s life. He also plants seeds of what Alexander’s life would be by referring to the violence young Hamilton must have found commonplace. Chernow also examines Hamilton’s schooling and his talent for writing and oratory. He painfully details how Hamilton made it to the United States and began his associations with the movers and shakers in the Colonies.

Chernow’s writing style, by and large is detailed but not concise. I usually enjoy such writing, and most of what Chernow wrote interested me. I did not; however, love the portion of the book where he discusses in detail and at length the financial systems of the day, and Hamilton’s ideas for a financial system, and everyone else’s ideas about finance. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy finance. I like financial planning. I considered having economics as my college minor because I had enjoyed learning about it as a high school student. I’m not uneducated or uninterested in the subject, so when I say that this portion of of Chernow’s book was dry, and long, and unnecessary… I really mean it. For anyone who doesn’t enjoy or understand finance, I could see them walking away from the book at that point forever. Chernow also came across as a Hamilton apologist proclaiming his attitudes towards slavery as very progressive, yet he didn’t refuse the slaves his wife’s family had and his own wife owned. He glosses over criticisms of Hamilton’s character and seemed to almost idolize the raw ambition that made Hamilton universally despised amongst his contemporaries. We live in the era of Donald Trump… unfortunately, and while yes, there are media outlets that hate the man, they didn’t create an ego maniac, they simply report on him. My attitude toward Hamilton is very similar. If EVERYONE living at the time thought he was a disgusting dirtbag (and most people did) they can’t all be wrong. They can’t all be jealous political rivals. However; Chernow seemed to take delight in ignoring the critics, whilst not addressing their criticisms in any helpful or definitive way. He seems to brush them off without giving real evidence to the contrary.

Fans of US history should look into this book. If you like a deep dive into dry old finance, by all means, check it out. But for most people, the Hamilton musical should be more than enough to give you a glimpse into Alexander Hamilton’s life (and, those tunes are delightful!).

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1 Comment »

  1. Megan says:

    Wonderful! You’ve convinced me not to put this in my summer reading list or, at the very least, skip the parts about finance altogether. Keep ‘me coming. (I know you will;)

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