Book Review: “Alexander Hamilton” (2004) by Ron Chernow

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I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of American history is spotty at best – only the bare minimum is covered in Dutch schools – so if you had asked me one year ago who Alexander Hamilton was, I probably would have said something along the lines of: “That name does ring a bell… One of the founding fathers, I think? Maybe. I don’t know.” One little Broadway cast recording later, I found myself diving headfirst into Thomas Paine and picking up the 800-page biography that started it all. The combined popularity of Chernow’s book and the juggernaut of a musical it inspired has brought Alexander Hamilton right back into popular consciousness in a major way, and I have been watching this development with great interest. What happens when a controversial historical figure gets dusted off and put back into the general public’s spotlight two hundred years after his death?

Memes, of course.

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

All right, that’s enough musical talk – back to the actual book.

Over the course of this (admittedly enormous) biography, it becomes clear that Chernow is a man on a mission: to contradict gossip spread by Hamilton’s adversaries and set the record straight once and for all. He convincingly clears Hamilton’s name on many counts and manages to shed light on his mysterious past. How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

(I’m sorry, I’m sorry.)

To his credit, Chernow never shies away from pointing out Hamilton’s flaws and acknowledging screw-ups either, of which there were many. Hamilton emerges as a man who could never walk away from a fight and was obsessive, arrogant, and loud. However, Chernow shows us that Hamilton was also charming, hard-working, devoted to his family, and an absolute genius. The very reason that Hamilton rubbed so many people the wrong way throughout his career seems to be that he was a man ahead of his time, representing a change some Americans were not willing to accept just yet.

The amount of research Chernow has done for this project is positively staggering, and he takes great care in letting the reader know which of his sources are reliable and which reports should be taken with a grain of salt. He discusses the political allegiances of the press, debates the likelihood of questionable rumours, and weighs possible scenarios against each other before leaning towards the most probable turn of events. Chernow cannot help but include certain anecdotes that have become part of Hamiltonian lore because they are just too good to leave out, but always adds a disclaimer: we may never know if this actually happened, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if it did?

Since Hamilton was the first treasury secretary of the United States and created an ingenious financial system, a thorough discussion of economics is inevitable, resulting in at least fifty pages that went completely over my head but were probably an absolute goldmine for historical stock market nerds. The political discussions were much easier for me to follow, although I’m sure that much was still lost on me. Regardless, I feel like I grasped the majority of it and I definitely learned a lot about the difficulties the Americans encountered when they tried to build an entirely new country from the ground up.

By far the most interesting choice Chernow has made is to begin and end the story of Hamilton’s life with his wife, Elizabeth. Both the prologue (“The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow”) and the epilogue (“Eliza”) paint a loving picture of a woman who, Chernow argues, has been treated very badly by other historians in the past:

Because Eliza Hamilton tried to erase herself from her husband’s story, she has languished in virtually complete historical obscurity. To the extent that she has drawn attention, she has been depicted as a broken, weeping, neurasthenic creature, clinging to her Bible and lacking any identity other than that of Hamilton’s widow. In fact, she was a woman of towering strength and integrity who consecrated much of her extended widowhood to serving widows, orphans, and poor children.

Elizabeth Schuyler was a good woman who did great work long after her husband’s death, and without her efforts to conserve Hamilton’s legacy, Chernow’s biography would never have existed. In a sense, Chernow finished what she started, and he makes it very clear that Elizabeth deserves our respect. Giving her the first and final words of the book may be what impressed me the most, and its significance was definitely not lost on Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton. His Eliza is a powerful character and the show ends with her standing in the spotlight. After all the powerful men in her life have passed away, she is the last one standing, wondering if she’s done enough. This book is proof that the answer is yes. Yes, she has done enough.


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