Reviews

Alexander Hamilton

I finally finished reading the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow late Saturday night.

I should have timed it better. If I had finished earlier in the day, I might have been able to find others who have read the book to talk about it. I’ll get that chance next week, when I see the musical with a friend who has also read the biography. Meanwhile, I have some general notes about the book.

  1. The musical called attention to the fact that Alexander Hamilton was more fascinating than history had let us to believe, but the book, at a wrist-crushing 731 pages, delves into layers, nooks, and crannies that a two-hour show could never contain. Everything you learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda is given more depth and context. If anything, the Hamilton portrayed in this history book is even more larger-than-life that conveyed in a Broadway show. It left me even more incredulous that the US treasury had considered replacing his image on the $10 bill. Hamilton was never president of the United States, but he basically invented the entire U.S. banking system.
  2. Jefferson is a villain.*
  3. Burr is a super villain.*
  4. John Adams sucked.*
  5. The extent to which slavery was a factor in establishing the U.S. as an independent country will never not shock me.
  6. So many echos to be found in modern politics: the political power of racism, the sex scandals, the 1%, fake news, the incompetent presidents.
  7. It’s also beautifully written and novelistic. I mean, the illegitimate son of a sex worker in the West Indies immigrates to America, becomes a hero of the Revolution, writes most of the Federalist papers, creates U.S. banking infrastructure, fathers seven children, all before he could turn 50. You can’t make this stuff up! (*In points 2 to 4, I summarized my reaction to Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and John Adams, the Denethor of the piece. Chernow is not as reductive. He describes all these complicated men with clear-eyed nuance. He’s fair, but not afraid to call anyone on their shit, especially the abolitionists who never stopped owning slaves.)

Bottom line, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a very long read, but worth it for anyone interested in early America, the role of slavery in the nation, how governmental administrative structure was built from the ground up, and why Hamilton’s story make such a damn fine musical.

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