It was hard telling the Founding Fathers apart when I was in Elementary School. Every fall another teacher would try to impress the achievements of the frock-coated/ American Revolutionaries into our malleable brains with similar results. In a group portrait of patriots, we could all pick out Franklin (rotund, bald and smiling) and probably Washington by his unsmiling mouth clamped around a set of dentures but the rest were identifiable only to those who had studied. To the rest of us, they were a group of middle-aged, white males with funny clothes and powdered hair. If you had asked me then who Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Benedict Arnold were, I’d probably have said: “One was a traitor, another was shot and the third one fired the pistol.” I doubt if I could have said more.
And that’s why we need writer-historians like Ron Chernow. His lauded volume Alexander Hamilton not only rescued the memory of a brilliant man from obscurity and (with the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda) brought new respect to this patriot’s memory; it illuminates the character of Hamilton so well that the man and his peers become people we can recognize and relate to.
Almost everyone went to school with someone like Hamilton; I know I did. Look back in your memory to the bunch of outsiders in your class whose clothes don’t match the current fashion and whose family weren’t considered pillars of the community. Despite knowing they aren’t part of the “in-crowd” most of them have some friendships and function as regular students not this kid. Outsider he may be, but that doesn’t seem to register with him. Instead he wears his intelligence and self-confidence like armor and attacks each subject like it’s a competition to be won. This is the classmate whose hand is always up, who argues with the teachers like he is their peer and who has scholarships, a major and 10-year plan lined up while the rest of us are still looking at colleges. The kid’s self-confidence often comes across as arrogance which means he/she isn’t well liked but everyone recognizes the student’s intellect and drive. Actually, “drive” doesn’t begin to describe this kid’s laser-like focus. This is an adolescent with the will, and brain of an adult. But what is making this Sammy run?
Chernow believes Hamilton’s insecurities as a child formed the needs that drove him as an adult. Abandoned by his father and functionally orphaned at 13, the illegitimate Alexander wanted the social and financial security he saw in other lives and missed in his own. Using his thirst for knowledge and a gift for writing, Alexander maximized ever chance fortune threw his way, first in the Carribean and then in the American Colonies where marriage and revolution gave him the opportunity to rise in a fledgling meritocracy. Unfortunately, his talents and aspirations also carried the seeds of his undoing.
Like many geniuses, Hamilton worked well on his own but lacked the insight and diplomatic give-and-take necessary to function well in a government of other accomplished, ambitious officials, all with their own agendas. (Among other things, Chernow’s Hamilton traces the beginnings of America’s two-party system and verifies that politics has long been a blood sport in this country.) A compulsive and prolific political writer, Alexander was so used to gaining support through published essays that he expected publicexoneration after writing of his involvement in a sex scandal. That action ruined his political future and his belief in the code duello as the way upper-class gentlemen settled disputes led to the deaths of himself and his first-born son. Hamilton’s tragedy is not a life of unrealized promise (much of his initial work is still apparent in this country’s financial structure) but that his underlying insecurities kept him from seeing his life’s work come to fruition.
By all means, catch a performance of the musical Hamilton if you are lucky enough to get tickets. By all accounts, it’s an amazing show. But while you are learning the lyrics and melodies of this revolutionary musical, read the biography they sprang from. As rich as the theatrical production is, this book is the mother-lode.