I found a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton at a bookstore in Columbus; it had a red circle on the cover that said “The Inspiration for the Hit Broadway Musical Hamilton.” So, like many other fans of the musical, I had to read it, even though biography is not one of my usual genres.
Fans of the musical will recognize several moments and turns of phrase, in addition to brushing up on their Revolutionary War history. I had largely forgotten, for instance, that “the British were unhinged by the colonists’ unorthodox fighting style and shocking failure to abide by gentlemanly rules of engagement” –that we won independence largely because of guerilla warfare. This, despite the lyrics of songs like “Stay Alive,” with Washington’s lines “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless ‘til their troops take flight” and “Yorktown,” where Hamilton sings “take the bullets out your gun…. we move undercover and we move as one.”
The biography is anything but dull, commenting in one section about Hamilton’s notes on his reading–which during his early days as an artillery captain was comprised of “a considerable amount of philosophy, including Bacon, Hobbes, Montaigne, and Cicero…. histories of Greece, Prussia, and France…. Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce…. the First Philippic of Demosthenes…. a six-volume set of Plutarch’s Lives”–to say that “it would come as no surprise that he would someday emerge as a first-rate constitutional scholar, an unsurpassed treasury secretary, and the protagonist of the first great sex scandal in American political history.”
I was amazed to find that Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, while part of the racy circle that included the Prince Regent of England and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright, compared the company of these “chill, gloomy Englishmen” unfavorably to the society of Washington and Hamilton. Reading the biography, it’s easy to understand Angelica’s adoration of her brother-in-law: “Hamilton’s appetite for information was bottomless.” Even his habitual antagonist Thomas Jefferson “never underestimated Hamilton’s superlative talents.” As Angelica sings in the musical, “so this is what it feels like to match wits with someone at your level!” Chernow convincingly shows that both Eliza and Alexander loved Angelica and missed her when she was in England with her husband, John Church.
The biography shows that Hamilton started out as a cautious rebel with a fear of anarchy. At the height of his powers, it shows him as a genius who created a financial system that no one else could possibly have imagined in such detail. Even Jefferson’s treasury secretary said that Hamilton “had done such an outstanding job as the first treasury secretary that he had turned the post into a sinecure for all future occupants.” It also shows how Hamilton acted as an abolitionist at every opportunity throughout his life and how publicity, during Hamilton’s lifetime and right after, affected his legacy:
“Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.”
Chernow shows how Jefferson’s antagonism and better grasp of the power of publicity tarnished Hamilton’s fame and led him to responses that damaged his own reputation even farther: “Now something compulsive and uncontrollable appeared in his public behavior. A captive of his emotions, he revealed an irrepressible need to respond to attacks. Whenever he tried to suppress these emotions, they burst out and overwhelmed him.” This makes him seem very modern, I think, because he does not have the patience to be politic and play the careful game one often has to play in order to get ahead.
In addition, Chernow shows that “after Alexander Hamilton left the Treasury Department, he lost the strong, restraining hand of George Washington and the invaluable sense of tact and proportion that went with it. First as aide-de-camp and then as treasury secretary, Hamilton had been forced, as Washington’s representative, to take on some of his decorum. Now that he was no longer subordinate to Washington, Hamilton was even quicker to perceive threats, issue challenges, and take a high-handed tone in controversies. Some vital layer of inhibition disappeared.”
Stories of Aaron Burr’s friendship with Hamilton and his defense of him when James Monroe was threatening to challenge him to a duel, when only Burr “had the grace and decency to plead for fairness toward Hamilton” oddly foreshadow their ultimate confrontation. Fans of the musical who are also fans of the novel Tristram Shandy will be doubly chagrined to find that “while reading the scene in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in which the tenderhearted Uncle Toby picks up a fly and delicately places it outside a window instead of killing it, Burr is said to have remarked, ‘Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.’”
It was an enjoyable biography, especially read at night in bed during the holiday season, accompanied by the sounds of adult children coming and going. I had impetus to finish, because I promised that Eleanor could read it next and so I had to get through all of it before our revels were ended.