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Book Review: Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

How did America's first Secretary of the Treasury become the star of a Broadway musical? With a really good biography.


Alexander Hamilton

Penguin Press, 2004, 818 pages



The inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton! In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, National Book Award winner Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America.

According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.”

Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time.

“To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.

Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.

Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.





How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?


The first song I ever heard about Alexander Hamilton was not from the Broadway musical. It was from some cheesy educational album about American history that my fifth grade teacher played for the class. I cannot identify the source (just try Googling for "lyrics about Alexander Hamilton" that aren't from Hamilton, let alone for a half-remembered song that's over forty years old) but for years, one line distinctly stuck in my head, the singer woefully lamenting:


"... and Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr."


And since then, until beginning my literary tour of presidential biographies last year (and of course, the explosive popularity of Hamilton), about all I remembered about Alexander Hamilton was that he was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and he was killed by Aaron Burr. So Lin Manuel-Miranda deserves many props for creating this generation's Schoolhouse Rock, thanks to which which Millenials and Zoomers can now recite the minutiae of early American Constitutional battles, cabinet appointments, presidential elections, and political scandals to a hip-hop beat.

Alexander Hamilton is a massive tome written in 2004 by noted biographer Ron Chernow, who surely had no idea at the time that it would become a Broadway musical and a pop culture sensation. And while Lin Manuel-Miranda mostly stayed true to Chernow's book (and history), he did take some artistic liberties — and I don't just mean recasting all of the Founding Fathers as black. Almost everything in Hamilton is true, more or less. But Alexander Hamilton the biography is such a deeper, denser work that it deserves to be its own thing and not overshadowed by catchy tunes.


Every other founding father's story gets told
Every other founding father gets to grow old


Hamilton 10$ bill

Alexander Hamilton hasn't exactly been forgotten by history. I mean, he's on the $10 bill. As John Adams (not a Hamilton fan, to put it mildly) pointed out, he got far more pomp and ceremony and commemoration than his contemporary patriots Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry.

But Hamilton has, according to Chernow, never really gotten his due, and it turns out, there are some very political reasons for that.


It's all the same
Only the names will change


Here's an argument I am likely to return to again and again as I make my way through American history from the beginning: we in $Current-Year suffer from both chronocentrism and presentism. There is a persistent belief I have observed, really ramping up in the last 20 years, that the politics of the present day are unique and singularly nasty, that the level of partisanship is unprecedented, that never since the Civil War have the parties been so polarized or the rhetoric so toxic.

Harken ye back to the late 18th century. After the honeymoon period of Washington's first term, Alexander Hamilton's Federalists and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans (later the Republicans, and not to be confused with either today's Democrats or today's Republicans, though see below) really went after each other. Hamilton and Jefferson each quite literally believed the other man was an existential threat to the newly-formed United States. Men were "cancelled," censured, ostracized, tarred and feathered, and (thanks to the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams's administration) imprisoned for being on the wrong side. In the fervor following the French Revolution, Jacobin clubs sprang up across America, and Hamilton believed the Republicans were literally planning to send him and his fellow Federalists to the guillotine if they got the chance. And in fairness, many Republicans would have done that if they had gotten the chance. Possibly including Jefferson himself, who was an eager and enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and was never really willing to recognize that things might have gotten just a little bit out of hand over there.

Hamilton was no lamb, of course. He slung invective with the best of them, and he delivered it in voluminous treatises that had even his contemporaries groaning at the oceans of words.

The American Mephistopheles



American Mephistopheles

The image above is from an Alt-Right site that claims Hamilton was a secret Jew. Hamilton's biography really puts into focus that 18th century politics are 21st century politics... or rather, that contemporary politics are really just arguing the same issues with a different set of labels.


We won't be invisible
We won't be denied
Still
It must be nice, it must be nice
To have Washington on your side


To Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans, Hamilton was "the American Mephistopheles." They saw him as an upstart radical at best, but more likely a malevolent schemer who had George Washington under his spell as he plotted to sell the new nation out to Britain and mercantile interests. All Federalists were accused, throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, of plotting to restore monarchism, but Hamilton in particular had to fight rumors his entire life that he'd said as much in a speech earlier in his career. In the same way that a quote taken out of context today can sound damning no matter how the speaker tries to spin it, Hamilton did once call democracy dangerous and the people "a great beast" and imply that the British monarchy was the best system of government. (He actually said it in a "...actually, it's terrible except for all the alternatives" kind of way, but he expressed his political thoughts in encyclopedic polemics, and parsing nuanced sound bites out of that worked about as well then as it does now.)

After Hamilton died, a lot of US presidents for the next fifty years were Southern slaveholders who wanted Hamilton and his legacy to stay dead and buried. Hatred and demonizaton of Hamilton has resurfaced throughout American history, and is echoed even today, as Jefferson's Republicans eventually became Southern Democrats, who became today's Red State Republicans. (Only the names will change...) "States rights" is not just a contemporary dog-whistle — it's a battle cry that has echoed down through the centuries.

Hamilton was a Federalist. He believed in a federal government with a central bank, the power of taxation, a standing army, all the things most Americans take for granted today. But it was not so in his day — Thomas Jefferson's vision of America was a pastoral, agrarian land, not an industrial empire. (Jefferson fancied himself a "gentleman farmer," never mind the way he drove himself into debt building his massive Monticello mansion in the French style he so admired, with the labor of his hundreds of slaves). The Republicans wanted a decentralized republic in which individual states would run their legislatures and economies more or less autonomously. Everything Hamilton created — a national bank, national debt, international trade agreements, and a mercantile economy — the Republicans despised.

So besides the fact that "America's first Secretary of the Treasury" doesn't exactly have the same cachet as "President" or even "Vice President" (though both in Hamilton's day and today, the SecTreas is usually more powerful than the VP), the reasons for Hamilton's relative obscurity might be more than just a general lack of interest in the guy who laid down the foundations for early American capitalism.


Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?


As I read biographies of the Founding Fathers, the same men in the same situations turn up over and over again, because of course biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton are all going to talk about the elections of 1796 and 1800, for example. But even with undisputed facts, there is a lot of history that is inferred, and a lot more that's interpreted.

David McCullough's biography of John Adams, for example, paints him in a very favorable light. A little vain, a bit irascible, but a fundamentally decent and honest man, and more than that, a likeable one. Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is not uncritical, but still treats Jefferson with respect and admiration and paints him, again, as a man you might have enjoyed sitting down to dinner with (if you could ignore who was serving the dinner...).

If you've seen the musical Hamilton, you know that Lin-Manuel Miranda casts Jefferson as the bad guy, and treats John Adams with a few dismissive lines, and not even an actual role.

While Ron Chernow gives more time to Adams and his views, his treatment of both Jefferson and Adams are clearly the basis of their antagonistic portrayal in Hamilton. According to Chernow, Adams was pompous, prickly, paranoid, thin-skinned, and held onto grudges, and unlike McCullough, Chernow does claim that Adams really did call Hamilton a "Creole bastard." Chernow is also freer with his lambasting of Jefferson and his many hypocrisies, of which trying to have it both ways with being "anti-slavery" while also being a slave-owner was only one. Jon Meacham described Jefferson as conflict averse, indirect, urbane, and suffering from feet of clay on moral issues. Chernow is less kind, describing Jefferson as a duplicitous weasel who'd smile and mumble platitudes to your face while letting his colleagues knife you in the back.

So it's fair to question whether Chernow is gilding his own subject a bit. Chernow is an excellent writer and a very thorough biographer, and it's obvious he greatly admires Alexander Hamilton.


A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey, neighbor
Your debts are paid 'cause you don't pay for labor
"We plant seeds in the South. We create"
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who's really doing the planting


Nevis

Today, the Caribbean island of Nevis looks like this.

In Hamilton's time, the Caribbean sugar plantations were hellish places. Even if you weren't a slave or a slave owner, nobody living on a place like Nevis was untouched by the horrors, and Hamilton, who was indeed born a bastard (though calling his mother a "whore" was almost certainly exaggeration), got away as soon as he could and never looked back. Chernow speculates that his early exposure to the horrors of slavery would have left an indelible impression on him, but it is just that — speculation. Hamilton pointedly avoided ever referencing his upbringing or the place he grew up.

Both Chernow and Lin Manuel-Miranda make much out of Hamilton's anti-slavery sentiments, casting him as a staunch abolitionist. Not all historians agree with this view.

The fact is, even for abolitionists, slavery was often, well, "complicated." In fairness to Chernow, he actually does bring up the points that Hamilton's critics do: that his in-laws, the Schuylers, owned slaves, and there is evidence that Hamilton may have on occasion engaged in slave-related transactions. (The case for him ever personally owning slaves is much weaker.) But as Chernow points out, even the New York Manumission Society that Hamilton helped found had to deal with the inconvenient fact that many of their founding members... owned slaves.

Today, we view this as a sort of cognitive dissonance, and damn any historical figure who ever had any involvement at all in the slave trade, however peripheral. But to do business in Colonial America was to be immersed in a slave-based economy.

We know from Hamilton's writings and speeches and his actions that he was morally opposed to slavery, that he was in favor of abolition, and that he was even progressive for his time, believing that blacks and whites were not fundamentally unequal. But his support for abolition seems to have been at best lukewarm and it was never a cause he crusaded for as ardently as all his other causes. Perhaps this was political realism, just as buying household servants for his in-laws the way he'd order household furniture was just the way people did business. But he was never afraid to fight a losing battle against impossible odds. To him, slavery was, in all likelihood, just one of the evils of the day.

Shipping, Slashing, and America's First Sex Scandal



Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens


"Cold in my professions, warm in my friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you... You should not have taken advantage of my sensibility to steal into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed."


Historians and historical shippers are of course fascinated by hints that Alexander Hamilton and his friend, John Laurens, who died at the end of the Revolutionary War, might have been more than friends. Hamilton's own son described omitting some letters to Laurens, while preparing his father's papers for a biography, because of their content. But while florid expressions of affection between two men like the one above might read as more than a little gay today, it wasn't that uncommon in the 18th century. Chernow does address the possibility that Hamilton and Laurens were lovers, but the evidence is that there really isn't much evidence. Obviously they would have kept it secret if it were true, and there does not seem to be any other evidence that Hamilton ever had a thing for men... whereas there is a great deal of evidence that he really liked the ladies.


But Hamilton still wants to fight, not write
Now Hamilton's skill with a quill is undeniable
But what do we have in common?
We're reliable with the

Ladies!


Like maybe his sister-in-law?

Angelica Schuyler Church

Hamilton married into the wealthy Schuyler family of New York, and his in-laws all loved him. Especially his sister-in-law, Angelica.

There are many letters between them of an overtly flirtatious nature. But Angelica wrote similarly when speaking of Alexander to her sister, Eliza, so any "flirtation" between them was happening with Eliza's knowledge and approval. There were rumors even in Hamilton's day that he might be carrying on with his married sister-in-law, but as with John Laurens, there is no evidence that it ever really happened, and a great deal of evidence that it didn't (like the fact that the pious Eliza certainly would not have been okay with it if she thought her sister and her husband's flirting was anything serious).

But these weren't Hamilton's only amorous escapades. There was also the Maria Reynolds affair, which made Alexander Hamilton the star of America's first sex scandal.

Maria Reynolds


[Hamilton:]
I hadn't slept in a week
I was weak, I was awake
You never seen a bastard orphan
More in need of a break
Longing for Angelica
Missing my wife
That's when Miss Maria Reynolds walked into my life, she said:

[Maria:]
I know you are a man of honor
I'm so sorry to bother you at home
But I don't know where to go, and I came here all alone…


Maria Reynolds and her husband were little more than low-life shakedown artists running a con as old as time: the outraged husband bursting in upon his cuckolding wife and demanding remunerative satisfaction from the offender. Even Chernow is somewhat baffled that Hamilton fell for it, but "the Reynolds affair" would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Initially, of course, he tried to keep it quiet, even as he learned what marks always do, that once you start paying, you will keep paying.

When it blew up into the open, it wasn't because Hamilton's political enemies wanted to embarrass him over his adultery. It was because they wanted to prove he was guilty of financial shenanigans. They thought they'd caught him using his position as Secretary of the Treasury for financial speculation and misappropriation; instead, they caught him paying hush money to a mistress. (In Hamilton, it's Jefferson, Madison, and Burr who confront Hamilton. In reality, none of those men were directly involved, but one of his direct accusers was future president James Monroe.) The embarrassed gentlemen dropped the matter when they realized they'd only caught their nemesis banging a trollop.

But this didn't prevent the affair from turning up again, and this time, it went big.

And Hamilton tried to deal with it the way he always did: with a Wall of Text.


Alexander
Congratulations
You have invented a new kind of stupid
A 'damage you can never undo' kind of stupid
An 'open all the cages in the zoo' kind of stupid
'Truly, you didn't think this through?' kind of stupid
Let's review
You took a rumor a few maybe two people knew and refuted it by sharing an affair of which no one has accused you


Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No. V & VI of “The History of the United States for the Year 1796,” In Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, is Fully Refuted was a 98-page pamphlet in which Hamilton aired all his dirty laundry in an attempt to explain that actually, he was completely innocent of wrongdoing. Of financial wrongdoing, he was, but proving this by describing in lurid and embarrassing detail what he'd actually been doing.... did not go over the way he hoped.

Poor Eliza never spoke openly about the affair, but it was brought up over and over again for the rest of Hamilton's life. Whenever he was in town, Republican papers would mockingly refer to his "selfless charity to damsels in distress" and his "gallantry towards the fairer sex." The subtext of this was always quite clear, even when they didn't reference Maria Reynolds by name: it was the 18th century version of an unending string of Monica Lewinsky jokes.

This would not be the first or the last time Hamilton stepped on his own dick, so to speak. If Hamilton were alive today, he would be that online guy who will relentlessly, pedantically, tirelessly, and unceasingly argue every damn point right down to the ground in unending walls of text and threads that go on forever and ever. The guy who everyone acknowledges is brilliant and witty and a helluva writer, and has no few admirers, but just as many enemies who Can't Fucking Stand That Guy.

Hamilton, holding no official government position after Washington leaves office, would return to law practice, but never be out of politics. (Fun fact: he ghostwrote Washington's farewell address.) Still the defacto leader of the Federalist party, he remained the bête noire of both John Adams (who took way too long to realize that his cabinet was full of men more loyal to Hamilton than himself) and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton became almost unhinged about Adams, to the point where he began to say he'd rather see Jefferson as President. This wasn't helped by Adams squashing his plans to raise an army to go take Louisiana and Florida from the French.

Thanks to the complicated electoral politics of 1804, Hamilton found himself simultaneously working against both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton hated Jefferson, but he loathed Adams, and perhaps this schizophrenic desire to keep the Federalists in power while also sinking Adams was the cause of his Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. In this polemic against Adams in which he argued for fifty pages that Adams was unfit to be president (but also, don't vote for Jefferson), he displayed a lack of foresight unmatched since the Reynolds Affair. He weakened Adams, but all but killed his own political reputation.

He wasn't done in politics, however. Which brings us back around to...

Aaron Burr (Sir)



Aaron Burr


[Burr:]
While we're talking, let me offer you some free advice
Talk less

[Hamilton:]
What?

[Burr:]
Smile more

[Hamilton:]
Ha

[Burr:]
Don't let them know what you're against or what you're for

[Hamilton:]
You can't be serious

[Burr:]
You wanna get ahead?

[Hamilton:]
Yes

[Burr:]
Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead


Burr was a recurring character in the story of Hamilton's life. They were associates, contemporaries, both lawyers, at some points both in the same party, and both, incidentally, noted philanderers (according to Chernow, Burr shared his romantic exploits and compared his mistresses in letters to his daughter, Theodosia), but very different people. Hamilton wore his heart and his political views on his sleeve; Aaron Burr was a politician's politician who never took a position without checking which way the wind was blowing. As Chernow describes him, he was a man with essentially no principles, just ambition and vices. Reviewing my observations above about biographers and how they paint their subjects, I would be interested to someday read a biography of Aaron Burr by a more sympathetic biographer: he was apparently a fascinating man, if not necessarily an admirable one.

Chernow spends a lot of time covering the 1800 and 1804 elections, in which Hamilton maneuvered to keep Aaron Burr from receiving the nomination, and later blocked Burr's run for Governor of New York.

In 1804, Burr, who was Vice President under Jefferson but about to be booted from the ticket, was on his way out. He was broke and his career was over. He saw the hand of Hamilton in all his misfortunes, and enraged by rumors that Hamilton had spoken disparagingly of his character, he challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Code Duello



Hamilton-Burr Duel

Dueling was part of Colonial society, at least among gentlemen. It was technically illegal, but rarely prosecuted. And Hamilton, for all that he was a small-statured little cockerel who'd been described as "feminine" and worse, was never a coward. He was thin-skinned and very sensitive to slights on his honor. He had fought duels before. During the heated debates inflaming the public over the John Jay Treaty, Hamilton challenged two men to a duel. (They ended up settling things peacefully.) He almost challenged future president James Monroe to a duel. At one point, he was so angry by what John Adams was saying about him that he wrote a strongly-worded letter to the President that was, in the language of the time, understood to be a prelude to a challenge. (Adams brushed him off.)

But he had also lost his eldest son, Philip, to a duel. Later in life, Hamilton had come to view dueling as barbaric and un-Christian. So he and Burr went through the preliminaries, in which the way these things were usually handled was that seconds would negotiate between the two parties, trying to craft a statement that might qualify as an "apology" sufficient to satisfy the offended party without anyone losing face. But Burr was (according to Chernow) in a murderous mood and would settle for nothing less than a repudiation of any and all slights upon his character, and Hamilton, being the relentlessly truthful and pedantic man he was, was unwilling to state that he'd never said anything bad about Burr, because obviously, he had.

So they went to New Jersey to duel, but the way these things were also done — sometimes, when neither man really wanted to be a murderer — was that the first man would fire his shot wide, or in the air, and the other man would understand that he was "throwing away his shot" and if he didn't want to murder his opponent in cold blood, would do the same, and then they'd have another round of negotiations to try to settle the affair. Shots fired have a way of clarifying the mind.

The problem with this is that you can't know what the other man's intent is. Hamilton made clear to his friends before the duel that he was going to "throw away his shot" — fire into the air. His friends tried to talk him out of this. Chernow argues here that the evidence shows that Burr could not have known beforehand what Hamilton's intentions were... but that years later he as much as admitted that after Hamilton fired, he knew that the shot had gone wide. And yet he shot Hamilton anyway.

Chernow also repeats a few apocryphal but might-have-been-true second-hand stories that Burr had been practicing his marksmanship in the weeks before the duel. So, as Chernow tells the story, Hamilton went to the duel planning not to kill Burr, and expecting that Burr would recognize that it was political suicide to kill him. And it was... but Burr killed him anyway. Burr was politically dead, deeply in debt, and felt like he'd been taking shit from Hamilton for two decades.


"... and Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr."


So Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President, killed the former Secretary of the Treasury in a duel, and spent the rest of his life in political exile. He still enjoyed some popularity — he was a hero to southern Republicans for killing Hamilton. He supposedly floated the idea of a venture to take over Mexico. He ended up marrying a rich widow, but he cheated on her, and her divorce lawyer was one of Hamilton's sons. His daughter, Theodosia, was lost at sea.

Eliza Hamilton, age 94


[Eliza:]
I established the first private orphanage in New York City

[Company:]
The orphanage

[Eliza:]
I help to raise hundreds of children
I get to see them growing up

[Company:]
The orphanage

[Eliza:]
In their eyes I see you, Alexander
I see you every

[Eliza and Company:]
Time

[Eliza:]
And when my time is up
Have I done enough?

[Eliza and Company:]
Will they tell our story?

[Eliza:]
Oh, I can't wait to see you again
It's only a matter of

[Eliza and Company:]
Time


Eliza Hamilton survived her husband by over fifty years. She spent her entire life trying to rehabilitate his reputation in the face of sometimes hostile presidential administrations. She held a grudge against James Monroe for the Maria Reynolds affair, who came by to bury the hatchet thirty years later and got told off. She was a dedicated abolitionist, philanthropist, and helped raise money for the Washington Monument.

Alexander Hamilton

What makes this biography great is not the recounting of history and Hamilton's place in it, but making Hamilton a real person, the person that Lin Manuel-Miranda found so compelling that he wrote a musical about him while on vacation. Hamilton really was one of the Great Men of history, a force of nature who wrote like the wind, sought fame and glory, never shied from a fight, but remained principled and honest to the end. I've barely touched on some of the lengthiest and most important episodes in Hamilton's story, but I hope this review persuades you that the entire book is worth reading.

I like Hamilton. It deserves its accolades. But Lin-Manuel Miranda is not a historian; Ron Chernow is. Alexander Hamilton goes into detail and covers nuances that get a witty lyric or two in the musical. This really is reading the book vs. watching the movie.



Also by Ron Chernow: My review of Washington: A Life.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, highly recommended, history, non-fiction, reviews, ron chernow
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