My first CBR 10 Bingo entry: Not my wheelhouse!
I don’t read much history and I don’t read many biographies; an historical biography might be an actual first for me. I confess, I was swept away by the Hamilton Mania triggered by Lin-Manual Miranda’s fabulous musical about the founding father who grew up an orphan, immigrated to America, fought in the American Revolution, started the First Bank of the United States, and died as a result of a gunshot wound administered by Aaron Burr. Let’s face it, prior to Hamilton, the only reason most Americans had even heard about the Hamilton-Burr conflict was because of the first Got Milk commercial. It’s ironic that it took a guy of Puerto Rican descent to teach Americans about their history, even as nearly half of them don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
So I picked up this acclaimed biography partially because I couldn’t get the music out of my head but mostly because I wanted to know more about the historical figure I’d gotten to know via hip hop. I initially intended this review to be a dissection of the accuracy of the musical, to answer questions like: Did John Adams really call Hamilton a Creole bastard? Were Hamilton and his sister-in-law Anjelica Church in love with each other? Did Thomas Jefferson really sport an afro? (Answers: Yes, possibly, and undetermined.)
The more I read, though, the more I realized how critical our nation’s early history is to understanding the political struggles we face today. This book is a masterpiece if for no other reason than it shatters the myths our grade school history classes would have us believe about the nobility of the Founding Fathers. Those men accomplished great things, but they were first and foremost politicians: flawed human beings desperate to advance their own agendas. So rather than a running list of the nifty trivia I learned (ok, here’s one: British troops really did march out of Yorktown to the tune of an old English ballad called “The World Turned Upside Down”), I’d like to share some deeper insights.
The Federal vs. state rights debate has long defined American politics
The struggle between state rights and federal authority goes back to the very beginning. Hamilton passionately believed a strong central government was vital to maintaining the unity of the country. In the Federalist Papers he wrote, “A nation without a national government is, in my view, an awful spectacle.” His political career, including the formation of the national bank, was focused on building a strong government that would bind the states together; without it, he feared it would be too easy for states to secede and thus break the union. On his deathbed, his thoughts turned to the nation he helped build and he commented, “If they break this union, they will break my heart.” Jefferson, on the other hand, was the equivalent of a modern-day Tea Party supporter, except without the religion. (Jefferson was a deist; he did not, for example, believe in the divinity of Christ). He was suspicious of national government and championed individual state rights. Writes Chernow, “Both Hamilton and Jefferson believed in democracy, but Hamilton tended to be more suspicious of the governed and Jefferson of the governors.”
What we tend to forget is that in those early days, the nation was an unstable compound. The idea that the nation could fall apart was more than a dramatic rant from your alarmist Facebook friends–it was a legitimate possibility. These men weren’t just arguing to get a rise out of each other; for them, the future of our country was at stake. While the Founding Fathers were sorting all this out, the French had moved from revolution to Reign of Terror. The losers in France were literally losing their heads; a fact not lost upon American politicians fighting for their own ideologies. Remember that next time you think you’re being controversial by getting into a debate with your conservative uncle over Thanksgiving dinner.
Politicians have always been jerks to each other
Early on in the biography, Chernow describes a congressman named Samuel Chase, who was dubbed by his political foes as “Bacon Face.” This man signed the Declaration of Independence and was later a Supreme Court justice. I don’t remember a thing about his politics or what he stood for, but his resemblance to pork is going to define him for me forever.
Almost makes Turtle Face sound like a compliment
Nobody in this book comes off as a bigger jerk than Thomas Jefferson, who hated Hamilton so much that he once talked shit behind his back while the latter suffered from yellow fever. As Hamilton and his wife were recovering from a disease that was killing 20 people per day in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to Madison claiming that Hamilton was a cowardly fake. Chernow observes, “At one stroke Jefferson heaped heartless abuse on a sick man and inverted reality. Not only did Hamilton have yellow fever, but he had shown outstanding valor during the Revolution, while Jefferson, as Virginia governor, had cravenly fled into the woods before the advancing British troops.” Jefferson was a raging hypocrite in more ways than just the old “This slavery is a darn shame, I wish we could end it. Now wait here while I have illegitimate children with my slave mistress.”
Something doesn’t add up
Being a jerk had consequences back then
Back in the day, if you were going to call somebody cowardly, you had to be careful. If word got back to the maligned party that you had impugned their honor, you could find yourself looking down the barrel of a dueling pistol. While Hamilton was, on paper, opposed to dueling, he was also a fierce defender of his reputation. On multiple occasions before he and Burr clashed, Hamilton demanded apologies or explanations from fellow politicians under threat of meeting on the field of honor. Notably, Hamilton confronted James Monroe and accused him of leaking papers that implicated him in speculation and revealed his affair with Maria Reynolds. Monroe responded by calling Hamilton a scoundrel, which apparently were fighting words in 1792! The altercation nearly resulted in a duel; ironically, the confrontation was smoothed over with the help of none other than Aaron Burr.
The point is, these guys might have been jerks, but they couldn’t just go around spreading lies about each other without facing serious and potentially fatal consequences. Even today, if somebody were to unjustly insult Alexander Hamilton, I suspect he’d come back from the grave to demand restitution.
OMG I JUST HAD THE BEST IDEA FOR A SCREENPLAY
Today, politicians spew contempt and insults over social media and never have to face any consequences more serious than mockery from late-night comedians. Total. Wusses.
Shooting Hamilton was the only thing of political consequence Burr ever did
I’m convinced that if Aaron Burr hadn’t shot and killed Hamilton, most people would never have heard of him, since he never made any significant impact on the formation of our nation. A consummate opportunist, Burr courted whatever political party would benefit him at the time. Chernow notes, “He produced no major papers on policy matters, constitutional issues, or government institutions. Where Hamilton was often more interested in policy than politics, Burr seemed interested only in politics.”
Curiously, the disagreement that led to the duel between Hamilton and Burr was initiated by Burr. Having heard of an insult to his name, Burr demanded an explanation or apology from Hamilton, who became obstinate and refused to satisfy Burr. The controversy could have been settled had Hamilton merely claimed to being misquoted, but he declined to do it, choosing instead to face down Burr on a field in Weehawken, NJ. Although Hamilton had spent his life defending his honor, the duel with Burr turned out to be his first and last. Every other potential confrontation had been settled before reaching that stage.
Still opposed to dueling and being a fairly religious man, Hamilton told his second, Nathaniel Pendleton, that he had no desire to kill Burr and that he was not going to fire his pistol.
Guys, Hamilton threw away his shot.
In Manuel’s musical, Burr sings, “Now I’m the villain in your history.” One suspects, though, that Burr would have preferred to be remembered as a villain rather than as a footnote, which is what he was destined to become before that fateful day in 1804.
This biography is a bear of a book. It’s 731 pages of dense yet highly readable writing, but you can expect to spend some time with it. I gained so much introspection from it, I value every bit of the 2 months I spent poring over its pages. If you like history, I promise it will blow you away.