I learned from watching an interview with Lin Manuel Miranda that he was inspired to create the musical Hamilton after reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004) while on vacation. I had been sucked into all the hype surrounding the new musical and was looking into reading the book myself. Then I saw how long it was and changed my mind. However, a couple of things made me reconsider. First, the movie of the stage production of Hamilton came out on Disney+ so I was able to see it all for the first time. Second, Cannonball Bingo happened, and I decided that Alexander Hamilton would be perfect for my white whale square. (And it would have been if I’d only read it faster.)
Alexander Hamilton is certainly full of dense history and politics, but I enjoyed imagining the actors from the musical as I read. It’s also very well written. Chernow makes sense of the myriad details and did well at humanizing his subjects–getting inside their heads as much as possible with the information he had. Chernow detailed all of the amazing aspects of Hamilton’s life that I’d learned from the movie, including: Hamilton’s illegitimate birth, his mother’s death, his amazing deliverance to New York, his role in the Revolutionary War and his work with George Washington, his affair with Maria Reynolds, his son’s death at a duel, and then Hamilton’s own death in a duel at the hands of the Vice President of the United States.
Chernow was also able to go into significantly more detail about the politics of the time, Hamilton and Jefferson’s constant political fighting, and Hamilton’s amazing contributions to building the country up from nothing. Hamilton’s ability to work hard and plan and execute his ideas was incredible. It was almost a running joke that Hamilton could simply stand up and orate off the top of his head for over six hours. I had also had no idea that Hamilton was so instrumental in the National Bank, our understanding of the Constitution today (especially the implied powers), the stock market, and even our military academies. Hamilton did seem to do best when he worked under the calming influence of Washington. Left to his own devices, Hamilton was too honest, outspoken, and driven to not make significant political enemies.
There is no way to talk about everything in this book, so I will stick with only a couple things that struck me as I read. First, was how much I could relate all the political drama of starting a country to politics now. The brand new United States fell quickly and dramatically into partisan fighting. The leaders of the country were doing everything they could to sabotage one another, and the papers printed every hysterical accusation they could come up with. Hamilton apparently wanted the U.S. to become a British colony again, he was stealing money from the Treasury, and the world would fall apart if the Federalists retained power. It was actually reassuring to see that the U.S. had made it through circumstances very similar, or even worse, than today.
Secondly, I had a deep interest in the women in this book. Chernow does a relatively good job of discussing them, considering this is a book on Alexander Hamilton and that there is almost no information on the women in his life. But his mother, his wife, and his mistress are all fascinating figures. I’d like to think that circumstantial evidence points to Hamilton getting his brain from his mother. It’s just sad that she was not able to realize her full potential. Pushed into marriage at a young age, her very unlikable husband wasted away the small amount of money she had and actually put her in jail when she tried to leave him–thinking this would make her appreciate him. Yet she was able to leave him and go into business for herself–something pretty unheard of for women at that time. Because her first husband refused to divorce her, her relationship with Hamilton’s father could never be legally realized.
Eliza Hamilton is also a strong, captivating figure. She stood by Hamilton’s side for years–through the public humiliation of the first sex scandal in the United States, and through her dedication to his legacy for years after his death. Because she did not save her own letters, we are missing a lot of her life. I was incredibly frustrated reading about the duel, and the position she was unknowingly put into. Hamilton headed off to the duel with Aaron Burr without telling her. She had no idea that her husband was risking his life, possibly leaving her with seven children, significant debt, and no income. And after he was mortally injured, they only told her that he was having spasms until she arrived and saw the damage herself. In pretending to “protect” Eliza by keeping information from her, they kept her from having any sort of control over her own life. Also, Eliza was more than strong enough to know the truth. She had to deal with losing her mother, father, son, and husband within the span of four years, and she went on to do incredible work on her own.
Finally, Mariah Reynolds was the woman who tempted Hamilton into political ruin. It is unclear whether her initial intentions were to use the relationship for political or monetary bribery or if she actually liked him. But even Mariah was forced into marriage at only fifteen years old to a husband who used her as a prostitute.
There is so much fascinating history in this book, with so many interesting figures, I feel like I could go on forever. Although I’ll read a dense history book every once in awhile, I would not have read Alexander Hamilton if not for the musical and the movie. But I’m glad I read it, and I would recommend it to anyone who has a lot of time to read.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.