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Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
3 words: detailed, absorbing, lush
It’s no secret that I’m hooked on Hamilton. But there’s much I’ve left unsaid on this topic. So, today: an exposé!
Welcome to… True Confessions and Contradictions
The 1st confession
It took me 14 months to read this book, even though I loved it.
Granted, it’s 818 pages long, but sometimes a person races through a long book. This biography is packed to the gills with details, and each sentence is worth reading with a fair amount of care.
Which is not to say that this is a tough read — it’s the opposite. In the Acknowledgments, Chernow says he read aloud every word of the book to his wife. When I saw that, I thought, “Ahhhh! So that’s why the thing is so darn readable.”
Take this section: “Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax. His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with a few revisions. At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought. He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.” (p. 250)
So the book is long, the writing is lovely, and the subject matter is almost too weird to be true. Alexander Hamilton led a wildly unlikely life.
This leads us to…
The 2nd confession
I admire Hamilton’s genius and his work ethic and his professional ethics, but I despise his decision to betray his wife.
The heights this man reached, particularly considering the early obstacles he faced, are nothing short of astonishing. And then Chernow uses the perfect words to sum it up: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” (p. 481)
I don’t know about you, but sentences like that stop me in my tracks and sometimes set me to weeping.
And then there are things like this: Jefferson gave Gallatin the task of uncovering fraud committed by Hamilton, and Gallatin came back with, “‘I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders and committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.’” (p. 647)
Again: stunned and awed.
And then I remember Hamilton’s torrid affair with Maria Reynolds, and I think: Dude, there’s never any call for that, and I think harsh thoughts about his character.
Which brings us to…
The 3rd confession
I find Hamilton a completely fascinating character, but I’m pretty sure that if I knew him personally, I wouldn’t like him.
There’s his decision to disregard his marriage vows and humiliate his wife, there’s his abrasive personality, there’s his ego. I don’t like any of i
t. And I know: without being abrasive and egotistical, he might not have accomplished all he did. But I still get to think I don’t like that personality.
And yet! There are other moments in his life that fill me with joy: the collaboration and writing of The Federalist (this part of the book made me so happy) and his partnership with Washington. I remember a reference question about political speechwriters from my early days as a librarian, when I learned that Hamilton and Washington had co-written Washington’s farewell address. And reading about it here caused me some mild ecstasy.
So, like the very best of books, I’m left pondering and weighing ideas and rethinking. It’s one of those satisfying reading experiences that carries on even after the final page. I’m leaving my page of reader’s notes inside the book when I shelve it, so I can easily refer back to the parts I loved best. (I’ve never done that before.)
Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, American history, historical scandal, complex historical figures, in-depth biographies, Hamilton the musical
Anyone else out there a Hamilton fanatic?