Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow

I fell into this mammoth biography the way that many are falling into it right now - as a direct result of an obsession with the Broadway musical.  I wasn't sure I'd be able to finish this tome before going to see the show itself - but I managed, and with almost two weeks to spare no less!  Coming at it from that angle, reading the book has added a depth of understanding and additional appreciation of the mastery behind Lin-Manuel Miranda's show.

I remember very briefly learning about Hamilton in history classes in school (I always loved learning about history).  But my entire recollection could be summed up with: he was considered a founding father, set up the National Bank, was never elected president and died in a duel.  And while all of that is true, it certainly glosses over his many many contributions to our nation, as well as some of his not-so-smart moves.

Chernow is far more thorough in this accounting of Hamilton's life.  We learn of his rough childhood in the West Indies, his Revolutionary War service, the love he held for his wife and family, his stupefying affair and subsequent sex scandal, and his all out political fights with Thomas Jefferson and others.  I will admit to not being able to clearly follow the description of the financial systems that Hamilton set up - but that isn't shocking.  My mind naturally shuts off when numerical concepts are being discussed.  If I had one thing to disagree with, it would be Chernow's attempt to attribute Hamilton's love of his family solely to his orphan childhood in the Caribbean.  I can agree that to a point his childhood would have shaped a devotion to the family he made with his wife, but I felt like his constant repetitions of this point started to sound like that was the only reason a man could love his family.  It's a small thing in the course of the book, but it did irk me toward the end.

I did appreciate that Chernow kept the reader updated with what Aaron Burr was up to at different intersecting points of their lives.  Thomas Jefferson as well, who on the whole does not come off well in this book.  (Not that he needs to, I just don't know much about him at all.)  In fact, I am leaving this book curious about the lives of some of the others involved in our nation's infancy:  particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John & Abigail Adams.  I think that right there is the sign of a well-executed nonfiction book:  I feel satisfied in the knowledge gained on the immediate subject, and have developed an interest in related topics.

Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow
Penguin, 2004.
731 pages text, 818 pages total.
Source:  Library



Alyssa Archambo said...

I've been looking at this one for a while -- my fiance has been playing the Hamilton soundtrack nonstop, so we're of course both talking about how we should learn more about Hamilton and the history behind the play. I'm glad you enjoyed it -- thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

Jillian said...

If you haven't read it, I STRONGLY recommend David McCullough's biography on John Adams. TOTALLY humanizes him. :-)

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