Book Review: “Alexander Hamilton”

LEAH PALMER

“Hamilton: An American Musical” is a cultural phenomenon, an unprecedented work of art that has taken the nation by storm. This theatrical tribute to the life of America’s first Treasury Secretary has won countless awards, including the Tony award for Best Musical, a Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But how did Alexander Hamilton, a relatively obscure founding father, become the subject of the latest American obsession? Ron Chernow.

In 2004, Ron Chernow, Yale graduate and acclaimed author, penned this intimate examination of Hamilton’s 47 short years. In his book, Chernow records the minutia of Hamilton’s life with painstaking accuracy. But he also sketches out his characters in sparkling detail.

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Chernow’s biography begins with a young Alexander, the bastard child of a French prostitute and an economically unstable Scot. Left orphaned on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, Alexander begins at a young age to push his way out of poverty. Even as a pre-teen, he has an unquenchable eagerness to do, to make, and to learn. He reads voraciously, works hard, and moves beyond his circumstances.  Employed as a mercantile clerk, he quickly proves his precocity in both monetary and diplomatic matters. Soon, Hamilton’s town pulls together enough money to send the teenage Hamilton to college in America, and at age 17, our future Treasury Secretary takes a boat to New York, never to return to his humble hometown.

In the first few chapters of Hamilton, Chernow takes readers on a dizzying exploration of Hamilton’s college years. Between the ages of 17 and 22, Hamilton learns the rudiments of military theory, publishes multiple political pamphlets, and becomes one of America’s youngest Founding Fathers– all while taking classes at King’s College, now known as Columbia University. But Hamilton also goes through many of the same things that college students today do. He doesn’t get into his “first choice” college; he has to take remedial classes; he writes excruciatingly long papers; he struggles with math and chemistry; he even changes his major a couple of times. Despite all of these difficulties, however, Alex comes out of his college years to “intern” for George Washington.

Chernow moves through Hamilton’s mid-twenties and thirties, treating Hamilton’s middle life with as much energy and excitement as he treated his time in the Revolutionary War. The early years of Hamilton’s legal and political career unfold with complexity and intrigue as the board is set for the American experiment to begin. Then Chernow brings us to the rising action: Hamilton’s ascension as Treasury Secretary. We watch as this orphan-turned-superstar essentially takes over the War department and the State department, in addition to his own Treasury department. Hamilton rises swiftly to prominence in everything he does; but after his mountaintop, there quickly comes a valley. In the last few chapters, Chernow takes us through a series of horrible events in Hamilton’s timeline, all of which lead inexorably to Hamilton’s final demise.

At first glance, Chernow’s biography could seem identical to every other: dense and long, filled to the brim with facts and dates. But Chernow doesn’t stop at facts. His treatment of Hamilton is as much psychological as it is historical. Chernow gets into Hamilton’s head, bringing the dead Founding Father vibrantly back to life. Chernow establishes that the young Founding Father was probably bisexual. He also reveals that Hamilton had a deep intellectual and romantic relationship with his sister-in-law. And through letters penned by Hamilton himself, Chernow brings to light the fact that Hamilton seemed to crave death, a fact which may have explained his all-too-premature passing.

But Chernow refuses to transform the historical Hamilton into an infallible hero; instead, he treats Hamilton’s weaknesses with as much honesty as he does Hamilton’s achievements, never sidestepping the Founding Father’s lapses in judgment. Hamilton had an enormous ego; he went around the political system to ensure George Washington’s election; he betrayed his ever-faithful wife and had an affair with an uneducated tramp. Chernow doesn’t shy from these facts. Instead, he uses them to establish that Hamilton was human.  He may have been George Washington’s second-in-command; he may have single-handedly established the American financial system; he may have written more words than all the Founding Fathers put together. But in the end, he was just like us.

Reading Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton has taught me many things. It has inspired me to work hard in every single class that I take—even if I don’t think it will apply to my career– because I never know when those classes will be helpful in the future. Hamilton struggled in math and didn’t plan on becoming a mathematician, but he nevertheless put his head down, hired a tutor, and kept on working hard in his math classes. It was good that he did, because knowing trigonometry greatly helped him in his military career. Alexander also showed me that it’s okay- and even beneficial- to not know what I want to “be” when I grow up; he was a clerk, writer, med student, law student, soldier, and aide-de-camp before he settled into his final career as a politician. All of his experiences in those different areas prepared him to be an extremely well-equipped Secretary of the Treasury. The main idea that runs throughout Hamilton’s life is this: opportunities will come into our lives, and the best way to prepare for these opportunities is to work hard and be diligent in everything we do.

So before you listen to the exquisite soundtrack of “Hamilton: An American Musical” (if you haven’t already), check out Alexander Hamilton, the biography. Be in awe of Hamilton’s myriad talents. Appreciate Chernow’s in-depth treatment of Hamilton and his contemporaries.  And realize that Hamilton was once like us: a college student, unsure of his path and worried about failing his classes. He too, had relationship problems and had to learn to ask for forgiveness. He, too struggled with his sexual identity and his faith. But he changed the world in irrevocable ways. And we can, too.

Post script: Next semester (spring 2017), the Honors Program is offering an Uncommon Reads focused on Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. It will be taught by Sean Adams, the chair of the History department. Read the course description here!

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