Hamilton Takeover: Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow cover

Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow
Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
Series: no
Published: April 26th 2004
Rating: history has it's eyes on you

Much like everyone else on the planet I read this book because of the musical Hamilton.  Raise a glass if you have spent the last two years or so obsessed with it? Yeah, me too. Dense historical biographies aren't usually my thing. Which is weird; because when I do read them, I generally like them.

I false started this book a couple of times over the last few years.  I would start it, get interested, then get distracted.  It is a 750-page book that is incredibly detailed.  You have to make a commitment to reading it. I finally restarted it as an audiobook about three weeks ago, and that seems to have done the trick. I have about an hour in the bus to work each day. For a book that is this intensely detailed and exhaustive it is fast paced, entertaining, and engrossing.

First of all, the book in incredibly well researched. Ron Chernow was not phoning it in by any means. The book chronicles Hamilton's entire life. Which incidentally, were dramatic from birth to death and almost every moment in between. The sheer amount of primary source material that he must have waded through is mind boggling.  He shares theories, rumors, anecdotes, and either backs them up or disproves them with research. There is a surprising amount of gossip about Hamilton. A lot had to be cleared up. 

Most importantly, Alexander Hamilton himself comes across as a real human.  He was pessimistic about human nature, insanely driven, and never really knew when to let things go. He was a genius in many ways who also made terrible decisions. Reading this book made me recognize what a remarkable talent he was while at the same time being glad that I wasn't married to him. Even being friends with him was probably exhausting. Hamilton, in this book, is likable, and I was invested in his story, but I did want to sit down with him more than once and have an intervention. He had people who were against him, but he was his own worst enemy. It would be interesting to read a book about Adams or Jefferson to see how he looks from that perspective.

At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.

We have such a strange rosy view of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers.  We forget that they were human.  Washington was a bore, Adams was unstable, Jefferson was was manipulative, and Hamilton was egotistical. They had contradictions. Slaveholders espoused the rhetoric of freedom. Immigrants went on anti-immigrant tirades. Credit was sometimes taken when it wasn't due. And yet, they masterminded the world first successful colonial revolution, peaceful transfer of power, and created a system that while it isn't perfect by any means certainly strives for it.

I am going to tell you what you really want to know: While reading the book can you match up songs with the chapters? Yes, yes you can.  For extra fun, add in the John Adam rap from the mixtape. If you are a fan of the musical, the American Revolution, finance, or in the story of a fascinating character this book is well worth the investment in time to read.

From Goodreads:

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.

In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.”

Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. “To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.

Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.