Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow
A 2017 Book review.
If you are a native of Australia, as I am, you are unlikely to have had any idea who Alexander is prior to the release of a hit musical in his name Hamilton. The biography, being reviewed today is over 800 pages long, it was quite a brick to lug around during the time it took me to read it… and yet, it was totally worth it.
The story of Hamilton is a riveting one, I don’t want to give too much away, after all it takes 800 pages to get through his life story, but it involves one of the first political sex scandals in the US, the American revolution, his rise from poverty to one of the most powerful men in the United States, thousands of pages of prolific writing and policy generation and some of the most well known luminaries of American politics… It also feature duels. Yes, duels. Two men settling matters of honor by organising to shoot at each other.
So who is Alexander Hamilton?
Hamilton is one of the founding fathers of the United States, along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington. The founding fathers set down the framework for what exists as the United States of America as we currently know it, no doubt some of these names ring a bell for people throughout the western world.
Rather than summarise Alexander Hamilton (we have Wikipedia for that) or try to sum up an 800 page book, in a much shorter review (go and read the book), I thought I would simply review the book by dropping in some interesting things that I found in the reading of the story.
Firstly, while we sit around worried about how much of our information is being stored for all time, news feeds, myspace pages, facebook posts and the like, tens of thousands of pages of writing, correspondence, articles and journals exist from the pen of Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries, enabling a biographer to really dig very deep into the thoughts and goings on of the people of that era. So being able to re-read your whole life is certainly not a new phenomenon.
Ron Chernow is a master when it comes to biographical writing, really conjuring up the personalities of the characters that feature. I have previously read Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, and I highly recommend that read as well. Chernow goes to great pains to paint a vivid and informative picture of the age and environment in which these luminaries lived.
Far from simply being a story about an interesting man, Alexander Hamilton is a history lesson, a portrait of the political landscape of the time, a discussion of human nature, sociological enquiry and compelling drama. I have learned much about the time, and will continue to read more about the time and events surrounding the founding of the United States thanks to this book.
Things that I learned.
Firstly, when the United States was founded, it looked like this:
All on the east coast, and looking very different to the United States that we know today. I had no idea that at the time of founding, the US was so small. That was interesting to me, also that big middle part (Louisiana) was bought by the US for only $15Million. So let that sink in for a minute!
Thomas Jefferson seems like a bit of an ass. Ok, yes he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and was the third President of the United States, but he was still a hypocritical, game playing, sneaky politician. Basically the kind of politician that I cannot stand. The dynamic between Jefferson and Hamilton makes for interesting, yet very frustrating reading.
Thirdly - Slavery.
Well slavery is disgusting. That’s nothing new, but I did not realise that there was an active abolitionist movement as old as American Revolution. While it seems that some of the Abolitionists were paying lip service to the abolition of slavery (as they still had some slaves), any discussion of the Union of the states absolutely forbade the discussion of abolition. The southern states simply would not sit at the table to discuss a United States if there was talk of freeing slaves, yet a clause in the original setting up of union allowed for 3 votes for every 5 slaves to be counted, giving slave states a clear upper hand in elections during the years preceding civil war.
Hamilton was a Boss. He has all the makings of an amazing lead character. Brilliant, a prolific writer, thinker and doer, even at the expense of his health. He was a visionary, with an unwavering and seemingly 20/20 view of the future of the United States, even in the face of criticism and staunch opposition. Flawed, overly sensitive, easy to wind up, a debonair, handsome ladies man with a chip on his shoulder about his humble immigrant beginnings, Hamilton’s strength for writing outstanding critical reasoning pieces contributed to his downfall as he felt the need to write to personally address every grievance or attack on his honour.
Given that he was a politician, there were ample attacks on his character, attacks which essentially handed Hamilton the shovel with which to continually dig his own proverbial grave.
I could not have any more respect for Hamilton’s complete and unwavering vision for putting together the foundation of the United States. From helping draft the constitution and writing the most comprehensive interpretation of it to promote its ratification (his Federalist Papers) to the creation of the US Treasury, Coast Guard, First National Bank and advocating for a strong national military (Although perhaps this has been taken a bit to the extreme since then).
At the expense of both his physical and mental health, Hamilton dedicated his life to helping to guide and execute a vision for the United States that built the foundations for its future success for hundreds of years. Always answering critics completely and honestly, in a professional sense Hamilton acted with the upmost integrity, never abusing his power for fiduciary gain, despite the rumours started by his detractors.
While his personal life was perhaps less blemish free, his widows unending love and admiration for her husband speaks to the possibility that Alexanders foibles as a man were not a surprise to her, and somehow they had come to terms with his infidelity.
Reading Alexander Hamilton, I realise how far we have come and how much humans must always have been acting the same since the beginning of time. The political machinations are much the same as they are now, sling mud with no base in facts and some of it will stick, point to deficiencies in others, and where there are none, make some up. Infighting, hypocritical game playing and fear mongering still feature prominently in politics across the globe. I learned much about a time and series of events that were otherwise unknown to me. Hamilton’s legacy is the execution of his vision for a country that no one else could see with any clarity, and I admire the commitment to vision.
I wish at some level that we still lived in a time where people could write 20,000 word essays on subjects of public debate and people would read them. It seems more accountable and complete than the sound byte/tweet/15 second video information that we have now, but I suppose that’s a reflection of the times. Instead of Facebook, at the beginning of the Union, factions merely started various newspapers to churn out propaganda, rumours and name calling.
The book was given to me by a dear friend, as a cautionary tale to avoid being worked to death in the pursuit of a vision that perhaps not everyone understands right away, and I will take that away. There is no answering some critics, some people will sling mud for no reason other than to advance their own standing. Taking all of these things personally will do you no favours, no matter how smart you think you are. It’s also a great encouragement, to know that at the changing of the guard, there exists opportunity for those with complete, well formed and well thought out visions to create new paradigms which enables change for the next several hundred years.
“I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be” – Alexander Hamilton
Do yourself a favour, avoid the cliffs notes, don’t just Wikipedia it, but go and read Alexander Hamilton, I have a feeling that everyone will be able to take something different out of the story of this extraordinary man.
Special thanks to Fiona for the book, and to Dr Jekyll for letting me sit in the café and write this review on a rainy Saturday morning.
Keep reading, keep drinking coffee and as always, just be nice.
- Josh Reid Jones
Josh Reid Jones - Founder of The Just Be Nice Project and Odin Sports