Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I did it! I finally finished reading the mammoth biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

It’s no secret by now that this 800+ page history book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical Hamilton. And — oh yeah — let me just mention right here that I have tickets to the show FOR THIS WEEKEND!

Once I actually got the tickets, I became firm in my resolution to read the book. I was not giving away my shot to learn more about the ten-dollar founding father without a father. And so, in early April, I dug in. First, I started with the audiobook — a 36 hour audiobook! — figuring I’d make slow but steady progress. And I did — but took a break to listen to a couple of other things, and then couldn’t get back into the flow.

Next, I turned to the Kindle edition, with a vague plan to treat it as a serial read — maybe I’d devote 10 – 15 minutes a day, and sooner or later I’d get through the book.

I had to finish it.

After all, there were a million things I hadn’t known.

But it turns out, I just couldn’t wait.

Pretty soon, I was reading like I was running out of time.

(Sorry. I’ll stop. Soon.)

But seriously, I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant, LONG, minutely detailed, and exhausting book — but emphasis on the brilliant.

Sadly, it also made me realize that while I thought I’d gotten a pretty decent education when it came to US history, apparently my teachers skipped quite a bit. I was fairly good on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but this book showed me how little I knew about the early, post-war years of our country, the political factions and their intense rivalries and scorching hatreds, and the incredible animosity between Hamilton and, well, so many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I actually had only the slightest clue about the process of the creation of the Constitution and Hamilton’s role in it. The book is eye-opening in the extreme — and while said eyes did actually glaze over a bit, especially during the chapters on Hamilton’s economic plans, national debt, banking, etc — I learned a tremendous amount that was new to me and/or gave me new perspective on political discord and the origins of controversies that linger to this day.

The writing in Alexander Hamilton is quite wonderful and never dull, and I loved how, thanks to Hamilton’s compulsion toward the written word, so much of his own written record is incorporated into the book. It’s enlightening as well to see writings of George Washington and other historical figures, and particularly moving to see the written record of the love and affection between Hamilton and Eliza.

The behind the scenes look at Hamilton’s time on Washington’s staff during during the war, the maneuvering and struggling to get the Constitution ratified, the deeply bloodthirsty political battles — all are written so vividly, and with such great use of language from the historical record of correspondence, newspaper articles, and personal memoirs — that I often felt like I was in the room where it happened.

So how is it that an 800-page history book can bring a woman of the 21st century to tears?

Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Easy. By the time the duel with Aaron Burr rolled around, I was ready to put the book in the freezer. (Yes, that’s a Joey Tribbiani reference. Always appropriate.) I didn’t want it to happen. Make it stop! It feels especially silly getting emotional over events that (a) are carved in stone and actually happened and (b) happened over 200 years ago. Kind of similar to how I felt reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — I wanted to somehow have the story work out differently so that Anne Boleyn could keep her head, but damn history! It happens anyway, despite my feels.

There are places where Hamilton’s writing and Chernow’s analysis are startlingly relevant. I’ll just leave a few bits here:

After a protracted inquiry into Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary which resulted in a finding that all charges were baseless:

Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Hmmm. (But her emails…)

Or hey, how about how a President selects key advisers?

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.

Lest we think political discourse was more genteel and polite back in ye olden days…

On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

And then there’s this commentary on a document about Adams published by Hamilton:

“And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr. Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

I ended up highlighting a LOT as I was reading — either wonderfully phrased words from Hamilton himself or interesting bits about the customs of the day or insightful hints of how Hamilton and his friends, family, and foes thought, as gleaned from their journals and letters.

I may not be all that young, scrappy, or hungry, but I did end up devouring this book once I got into its rhythms. Again, it’s weird to say that a book about history, some of it quite well-known, can be suspenseful, yet that’s how it felt. The author manages to take the events and people of the historical record and make them feel alive, and writes with a flair for capturing the intensity and drama of Hamilton’s life, as well as the emotions and experiences of Eliza, Angelica (the Schuyler sisters!), and Hamilton’s closest friends and harshest critics and enemies.

Okay, and I did come away from the book despising Aaron Burr (the damn fool who shot him), because it seems clear that Hamilton went to the duel determined not to shoot Burr, but Burr went there planning to shoot to kill, if he could.

Beyond the dramatic ending, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton, the man who grew up impoverished and of questionable birth, who grew into one of our nation’s finest thinkers and leaders. What an amazing reading experience!

Yes, just about everyone has fallen in love with the Hamilton musical. (I admit, I was very late to the party myself, but have been doing my best to catch up!) If you’re someone who mainly knows the story of Hamilton courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I encourage you to give this book a shot. It’s worth the effort, and gives a whole new meaning to all those amazing lyrics that we all quote at random times. (Right? Not just me? Thanks.)

It’ll probably be a while before I venture back to the non-fiction shelf to pick up a history book or political biography… but Alexander Hamilton has proved to me once again that reading non-fiction can be just as much of a thrill as reading a great novel, when done well and in the hands of a gifted writer.

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6 thoughts on “Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

  1. I agree, I am strong on the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, but weak on all the other parts! I love history and think this would be an excellent book for me to read. Enjoy the show!

    • If you own the book already, you could just read it in small pieces — it’s a lot less intimidating that way! I’m so excited for the show. TOMORROW!

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