A few weeks ago, I started listening to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Thirty-five hours (818 pages) later, I’ve finally finished! There can be no more exhaustive biography written about this illegitimate/foreign-born, egotistical, philandering, unyielding, ambitious, hardworking, sensitive, family-oriented, forward-thinking, brilliant, dedicated, loquacious, articulate Founding Father than this. Hamilton “was the messenger from the future that we now inhabit. . . . [He] argued for [and helped to build] a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system.” Although this book is l-o-o-n-n-g and my mind wandered more than once, I now have a much better, and definitely more realistic picture of, not only Hamilton, but of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Aaron Burr. Chernow weaves excerpts from letters, eye-witness accounts, and newspaper articles into his narrative, telling the remarkable yet contentious and often downright ugly story that is the birth of our Nation. He leaves nothing out.
This book also, once again, reminds me that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same. In his thorough account of the formation and subsequent growth of our fledgling government and of these mortal men who “appear to us in two guises, as both sublime and ordinary, selfless and selfish, heroic and humdrum”, Chernow describes many of the same demons we continue to wrestle with today: class, economic, gender, and racial inequality, the contentious debate over immigration – including “wild hordes of Irishmen”, the weaponization of the press – by both parties, the debate over isolationism, and the inability of the then Republicans and Federalists to accomplish anything, “being too much out of temper to do business together.” You would think after 200+ years, we would have learned how to get along better. I know, I know, spoken like a true elementary school teacher.
Alexander Hamilton’s life contains all the elements of a best-selling, epic novel (either that, or a highly acclaimed, award-winning musical production), including intrigue, suspense, love, war, infidelity, and a cast of characters of which the most talented and creative writers can only dream, all culminating in a violent, tragic finale. I’m glad I read this book for many reasons, the least of which is to keep up while watching Broadway’s Hamilton. I also feel a connection with this extraordinary man Chernow describes as “[t]he first great skeptic in American politics, [who] refused to believe that the country was exempt from the sober lessons of history.” Knowledge is power. That’s why we read.
I’m giving Chernow’s book four stars only because it read, at times, too much like a textbook for my taste: “Since Hamilton’s abiding literary sin was prolixity, the time and length constraints imposed by the Federalists may have given a salutary concision to his writing”. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, though, so who am I to judge? That said, I have two more of Chernow’s books on my holds shelf in Libby – Bill Gates and George Washington.