Whew. I finally finished the EPIC Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow did a masterful job here, however the sheer weight of the 818-page tome made me especially grateful for my Kindle. I started reading it after I’d become obsessed with the soundtrack of “Hamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired. I heard Miranda say once that hip-hop was the only genre that could have captured the story, simply because it gets more words per measure. An example: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”
Years ago I read Gore Vidal’s Burr. I knew of the legendary duel between these two Founding Fathers. I also remembered the irony of Hamilton being an illegitimate child born in the Virgin Islands. However, somewhere I’d missed (or forgotten) Hamilton’s profound influence on our country’s birth, especially our financial system. And remember the Federalist Papers? Those essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution? Yeah, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of them. He was kind of a big deal. And his origin story is pretty compelling as well.
“He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.”
“He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy.”
“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends.”
I will admit to skimming through chunks of the middle—I got a bit bogged down in the detail of the political and highly partisan infighting. Nonetheless, it did remind me that our leaders have always fought, always been driven by principle—not to mention ego. No one mentioned here (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr…) is without fault, least of all Hamilton himself.
Hamilton’s life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. He was passionate in all areas of his life and frequently his ego got the better of him. The one stabilizing influence was his wife Eliza Schuyler. From all appearances this was a love match. Eliza stood by him through scandals and long absences. His death left her in debt, still she worked to preserve her husband’s legacy as she built one for herself. Throughout her very long life, she served widows, orphans, and poor children. She established a school and an orphanage. Eliza even gave older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance into West Point.
Aaron Burr comes off especially poorly.
“For the rest of his life, he never uttered one world of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.”
If you–or someone on your gift list–loves history, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, stick with the soundtrack to “Hamilton” and hope that Santa slips a ticket into your stocking (hint, hint).
From Aaron Sorkin and “The West Wing”