Those of you in the US, do you remember the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign in the early 1990s? One very popular commercial featured a history buff who gets a random call from a radio station offering him a prize if he can answer the question, “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?” As I recall, the camera pans to a picture of Aaron Burr, the original bullet in a glass case, the pistols, etc. Unfortunately, the history buff has just stuffed a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth, so his attempts to say “Aaron Burr” are incomprehensible to the radio host. With time running out, he pours himself a glass of milk–but there’s only a drop left in the carton. Eventually the host tells him his time’s up. Dial tone. Caption: “Got milk?”
That was probably the first time I’d heard of Aaron Burr, and at the time I knew precious little about Alexander Hamilton. He was one of the US Founding Fathers, and his face is on the ten dollar bill. That he died in a duel? News to me. Funny commercial, though. As an immigrant to the United States, my knowledge of US history was very basic, as I suppose is true for most non-Americans, and while a lethal squabble between the third Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary was not inconsequential, it wasn’t as big of a deal as, say, the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War.
I’ve always been fascinated with history, so when Ron Chernow’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON appeared on a book club list a number of years ago, I saw an opportunity to fill a gap in my knowledge–and for just $1! Chernow’s 800-page tome ended up gathering dust on a shelf for a few years while I caught up on a lot of other reading. Then, a few months ago, having read a short biography of George Washington, I figured it was about time I dusted off Chernow and dug in. When I discovered the enormously successful hip-hop musical “Hamilton” was based on Chernow’s work, that solidified my resolve. After all, I could hardly see the musical without reading the book first, could I? 🙂
The thought of reading an 800-page book on one of the more obscure (he was at that time, anyway) Founding Fathers sounds daunting. But from the opening chapters, I was hooked. Hamilton’s story is very compelling, and Chernow brings it to life with his absorbing narrative style. Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies, his broken home and questionable parentage, the hurricane that changed his life, and his move to the American Colonies set him apart from the other Founders from the outset. He came to this country with nothing but money raised to send him to college in New York, and his wits. From that, he rose to become Washington’s right-hand man, not only virtually running the government, but creating the government through his co-crafting of the US Constitution, and writing the majority of “The Federalist Papers”–still considered today the authoritative commentary on the Constitution. If that was all Hamilton did, it would be enough. But he also established the first National Bank, and, as Treasury Secretary, built the financial structures that not only made America prosperous, but are still at the foundation of the country’s economy today. He also had a successful law practice, wrote copious amounts of articles, papers, and letters, and raised a large family.
Given all this, I was surprised to learn that Hamilton is not regarded as a national hero. In fact, my wife had the impression that he wasn’t a very nice person. Up until a few years ago, the Treasury was going to replace him on the ten dollar bill with someone more famous and, I suppose, illustrious. As a foreigner reading Hamilton’s story (as related by Chernow), this makes no sense to me. You couldn’t get more of an illustrious American hero than Alexander Hamilton. For a nation founded upon immigrants, surely the immigrant Hamilton is the prime example of the American Dream? But this is one of Chernow’s major strengths: while Hamilton is the hero of his story, he doesn’t shy away from painting a full portrait of the man, warts and all. His life wasn’t scandal-free, and he did cultivate political and personal enemies.
But Chernow also digs a bit into the lives of those around Hamilton, and it seems even while he was alive he had to contend with a bad press. His actions and intentions were constantly misunderstood or misinterpreted, often, it seems, deliberately, by his opponents–particularly Thomas Jefferson. I found it fascinating to read about the other Founders, and get a glimpse at their characters. Jefferson does not come off at all well in this story. He treated Hamilton abysmally, and sunk to levels of character assassination that Hamilton, in good conscience, couldn’t reciprocate. John Adams, while of the same party, had no time for Hamilton, and did little to promote his virtues. Even James Madison, with whom Hamilton had worked on the Constitution, turned against him, siding with Jefferson, and going along with spreading ill-repute of his former colleague. I suppose, given that his detractors long outlived him, it’s no wonder their version of Hamilton got more attention. This, despite Eliza Hamilton’s attempts to manage her husband’s estate, collect his papers, and make the case in his favor.
To sum up, this book is as close to a definitive work on Hamilton that you will find. It’s balanced, and thoroughly researched. Though not originally a historian by training, Chernow has written a scholarly work that ranks with the best of historians. Chernow’s degrees are in English Literature, and he started out as a journalist, and I think this background plays to his advantage with a book like this. For a large historical work, ALEXANDER HAMILTON is immensely readable, at times as gripping as a novel. It’s little wonder Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by this book to write his musical. I felt I had come to know Hamilton so well, I dreaded those final chapters, and that last encounter with Aaron Burr. Chernow’s narrative is heart-wrenching, especially as he argues his conviction that Hamilton shot first, and deliberately aimed high, hitting a tree behind Burr, so there would be no doubt in Burr’s mind that he had no intention of killing him. This was supposed to give Burr time to reflect, and maybe come to terms. Instead, Burr aimed and shot to kill.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American government, and early American history. I also commend it to those who love a great biography. I have read few better. Indeed, this might be one of the best works of history I’ve ever read. A very easy five Goodreads stars.
PS: I still haven’t seen the musical–and given the ticket backlog (not to mention the price), I may as well wait for the movie version!