Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

You know that scene in “Spaceballs” where Dark Helmet asks “How many assholes we got on this ship?” and the entire crew raises their hand and says “Yo!”?  The more I read about our Founding Fathers, the more I picture George Washington as Dark Helmet and the rest of the Founding Fathers as the crew of the ship.  They were all such assholes.  They were petty, vindictive, and cocksure.  This is also somewhat comforting of a revelation because it shows modern politics to be not nearly the black hole of pettiness and despair as it would seem without the historical context.  We revere our Founding Fathers like we revere our guns; with a tunnel-vision that is so narrow as to be awe-inspiring.

Without a doubt, the king of the Founding Assholes was Alexander Hamilton.  He also happened to be truly brilliant, a polymath of the highest order, and perhaps the most prolific writer the world has ever known.  His story is equal parts inspirational and a testament to the dangers of letting the demons of your past destroy you.  Ron Chernow’s biography does a good job of highlighting both the good Hamilton and the bad Hamilton.

The Good Hamilton:  Dude was a genius.  Anything he put his mind to he excelled at.  He overcame astronomical odds to rise farther above his station than would seem possible.  Before all you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” people take him on as your personal hero, remember he had lots of help; free passage on a ship, free schooling, a decent support system.  People love to overlook those things.  Hamilton could also write.  And boy, did he write. Ask his opinion on the color blue and you’ll have a 10,000 word essay about its transcendent beauty by nightfall.  Personally, I also think that he’s by far the main reason why the United States has lasted as long as it has and grown as powerful as it has.   He wrote the book on American economics.  Probably about 100 books if you joined all of his essays and laws together.

The Bad Hamilton: Dude had skin as thin as your 100-years old grandmother.  Insult him, cross him, look at him funny, and you’ll soon see a 10,000 word essay published in the paper on how horrible of a person you were.  Partly, this was understandable.  People did hate him.  Irrationally so.  Many thought he didn’t deserve to be where he was just because of where he came from.  He suffered decades of bilious rumors and innuendo both during his life and decades after his death and was determined to fight tooth and nail against it while he could.  This also led him to see attacks where there weren’t any and to fight against ghosts of his own making.  Want some insight as to why Hillary Clinton is the way she is? Get to know Alexander Hamilton.  The worst thing about Hamilton is a shared dishonor.  He and Thomas Jefferson double-handedly brought into existence our dreaded two-party system through their often petty squabbles with each other.

I have a few minor critiques of the book.  First, it seems to diminish in readability during the post-Treasury period of Hamilton’s life, becoming somewhat of a slog to get through.  I am not sure if it’s because Chernow got tired of writing his 800+ page project or I got tired of the 800+ page book or Hamilton’s later life was that much less exciting.  Second, Chernow spills a lot of ink talking about Hamilton’s personal rise and fall, but having read the book, I see plenty of evidence of a rise and little evidence of a “fall”.  Hamilton was Hamilton from start to finish.  Even when he was out of favor politically, he was still always in the thick of things, if behind the scenes.  The only fall was his untimely death at the hands of Aaron Burr.

If you can stand to get through such a large book, Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” biography offers great insights into the life of the most interesting of America’s Founding Fathers.  There’s lots to love and lots to hate about the man.  Both are on display in this book.

A brief note to fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit “Hamilton: The Musical”: Mr. Miranda is a genius.  I am as overly obsessed with the musical as you are.  But please recognize the fact that he takes great liberties with historical facts to present a compelling story.  This should go without saying, but people are people.

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