Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

America's founding fathers are usually viewed as austere, wealthy and stuffy old white men. While not a historical record of all of our founding fathers, Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton will shatter that myth as he chronicles the life of our greatest founding father to not become president. If you have a $10 bill, look at it. That is Alexander Hamilton. Why is he on the $10 bill instead of the many presidents we have had since his death in 1804? Read this book and you will understand.

While many Revolutionary War era figures are stuffy blue bloods (John Adams) or really out of touch as slaveholding, aristocratic landlords (Jefferson/Madison/Monroe), Hamilton has a very modern rise and existence. Hamilton was born as the illegitimate son, whom even then it is questioned if his father in name is his biological father. He has amazing aptitude, and uses his amazing talents to leap to the continent, to the precursor of Columbia University, to the aide de camp to General Washington, to the Constitutional Convention, to the Tresury Dept all before age 40. It is truly amazing how much he learned through study all the while organizing & administering the army for Gen. Washington. His hands touched a variety of things from the creation of the Bank of NY, the Federalist Papers, the entire structure of our Federal Government's monetary system, to the very legal definition of libel that is used today.

Hamilton is a bit of a hot head who does not know when to stop. His constant brushes with duels are fun to read amongst the serious tangles in politics. In one stretch, Hamilton gets into two duels in a matter of one afternoon, claiming to the 2nd fellow that he will deal with him after dispatching with the 1st challenger. Hamilton feels modern, flawed, driven, and most importantly for the founding fathers, human. Hamilton is a man of amazing talents who still has his flaws. The author does not shy away from pointing out Hamilton's flaws, and I enjoyed this even handed handling of Hamilton's feuds. Hamilton made some bad decisions. The author points them out as well as how easy it would have been for Hamilton to avoid negative outcomes.
Chernow weaves a story that is focused on the man, Alexander Hamilton, but heavily incorporates the many famous figures that shaped his and the early American republic's life. George Washington's mentorship and then close friendship with Hamilton is truly touching as it develops between the General who had no children and the Colonel who had no strong father figure growing up. It is the best male relationship in the book. This is not too hard as Hamilton's relationships with other memorable luminaries of the day were antagonistic (Jefferson, Burr, Adams). Chernow starts and ends the book with the figure of Eliza Hamilton. Their marriage is a nice constant in the book. It endures a rocky period as Hamilton did cause the first sex scandal in US politics, but their devotion to one another is beautiful to read. Not just in Chernow's words, but in the letters left behind by Hamilton. It is difficult to read Hamilton's goodbye letter to Eliza the morning before his death in the famous duel with Burr and not get choked up. This is not a stuffy biography, but a lively and vivid tale of one of our nation's greatest public servants.

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