Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

This is an excellent book. I picked up the audio book version (almost 36 hours of listening time) because, it seems like everyone else on the planet, I was curious after hearing about the musical “Hamilton” that was based on this book. I have not yet seen the musical, and I have only heard about half of its soundtrack, but yes, the book does make me want to see and hear it all.

I have lived in the United States for almost 24 years, and been a citizen for 14, and I must admit that a lot of this history is new to me. Growing up in Canada I did hear a lot about some American history, but not a lot of it was from the Revolutionary War. To become a citizen, I did need to learn some history, but it was mostly lists of things, like the Amendments to the Constitution, and what were the original 13 colonies. I live near the site of a Revolutionary War battlefield, and have seen the re-enactments, but it was nice to see the big picture of what led to the war and how everything started. Alexander Hamilton seemed to be involved in a lot of events in the early history of U.S., and the story of his life is also the story of the beginning years of U.S. history. 

My family is probably tired of hearing me talk about the things that I learned in reading this book, but some things were just so remarkable to me that I needed to share. Some things I found so upsetting that I still thing about them – is it crazy to feel so sad about things that happened over 200 years ago? I can’t get the image of John AndrĂ© out of my mind, being led to the gallows after being found guilty of being a spy. He had the plans for the fort at West Point on him when he was caught, plans that had been passed to him by Benedict Arnold. He was a British officer, but he was not in uniform when he was caught, so instead of the gentlemanly getting shot, he would be hung. The description of AndrĂ© placing the noose around his own neck really gutted me. And this is only one very small part of the book, during the Revolution. The entire book affected me, and really did help me understand more about the United States than I did before.

Hamilton went from a destitute childhood in the Caribbean to a really remarkable career in the United States. He was ambitious and hard working, and his ability to argue and write on deadline was amazing, particularly for someone who did not have a lot of formal schooling. He was George Washington’s military aid for many years, he wrote most of the Federalist papers, he was the first Treasury Secretary, and he pretty much invented how the U.S. government should work. I didn’t really know much about the Federalist papers before I read this book (other than they always seem to come up at Supreme Court nomination hearings, particularly among conservatives), and I think this was the part of the book I found the most educational. 

With our current political situation, it was very interesting to read about what the Founding Fathers intended, and why things are the way they are. I keep hearing that things are so different now, but really, things are about as confused and partisan now as they were then. Some people were out for the best interests of the country, and some were out for themselves. And it has given me different ways to think about some people who before this were just statues or pictures on our money. Thomas Jefferson does not look very good, nor does John Adams. I think I am going to read other books about these gentlemen, because I want to know more. The discussions about everything that went into the founding of the country that involved keeping the slave states happy was very interesting, particularly the fact that it was felt that slavery would eventually fade away, but no one really wanted to enforce that at the time of the country’s founding, because if they did, there wouldn’t have been a country. Instead of fading away, things made slavery more entrenched, and set the stage for the Civil War.

All of the descriptions of the pamphlets and news sheets that everyone wrote in to argue their political points of view were fascinating, and made me think of cable TV and the internet. Everything that happened just reinforced for me the fact that things really haven’t changed that much – just the way we propagate the information to each other has. If Alexander Hamilton were alive today he would be working as a lawyer, running a blog and podcast, and trying to raise money for a run for some political office. 

The image of Alexander Hamilton you are left with at the end of this book is of a proud, amazingly hard-working, self-made, incredibly smart man, who was also flawed and too concerned about what others thought of him. He had a lot of detractors in his lifetime, as well as admirers, and he would probably love all of the attention his story is getting on Broadway. He and Aaron Burr (another person who seems to be quite despicable) had many opportunities to try to prevent their duel, but neither one wanted to relent because of pride and their future political aspirations. Hamilton’s eldest son had died in a duel 2 years before Aaron Burr killed him – and Alexander Hamilton used the same guns for his duel that his son had! When he died he had 7 children, the youngest 2 years-old, and yet he felt his pride more important than his support of them and his loving wife. So sad. The description of Hamilton’s funeral had me crying in my car.

If you have any interest in early American history or Alexander Hamilton, I encourage you to read (or listen) to this book. I very much enjoyed it.

Grade: A

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