By Ron Chernow
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much – if anything – about Alexander Hamilton before I picked up this weighty tome of a biography. Sure, I was aware that his story, and this book specifically, had inspired the Broadway smash hit hip-hop musical, but of his daring deeds and abundant feats my page was blank. No more. This is biography at its very best: richly detailed and with a fast-flowing narrative, Hamilton’s extraordinary story comes alive under Chernow’s talented pen.
Unlike many other Founding Fathers, Hamilton was not born into privilege. Instead, his was an upbringing fraught with poverty as an illegitimate orphan on a Caribbean island. But from these inauspicious and difficult beginnings, his dizzying ascent included stints as George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, founding the Bank of New York, serving as the first Treasury Secretary, and finding time to be a principal author of the Federalist Papers. And that’s just a selection of his accomplishments – there are many more to choose from.
Chernow, whose previous works include multi-prize winning books on George Washington and the JP Morgan financial empire, uses Hamilton’s life adventures to paint a vivid picture of the United States at its birth. This was a country in need of stability but one where passions often ran high.
Indeed, it was Hamilton’s fervent belief in the importance of a strong central government and a capitalist economy that led him into fiery conflict with other leading lights, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. While they accused him of being pro-British and a “closet monarchist”, Hamilton argued that the new republic needed a substantial government to survive. And so, while serving as Treasury Secretary, he introduced financial and tax systems which quickly took firm root in the nation’s capital, so much so that many remain in place today.
Hamilton, though, was far more than a public administrator par excellence. He was also a prolific author, one who laced his commentary on virtually every issue of the day with wise insights that continue to stand as a testament to his strategic and financial nous.
Hamilton’s early death – he was shot in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr (and we thought partisanship in Washington today was bad) – meant that his opponents had free rein to trample on his legacy and reputation. They did so with relish. But with this monumental piece of work, Chernow, together with the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, have corrected the record.
A book for anyone interested in the story of America, and a book that reminds us that while we should always look to the future, we must not forget to look back and heed the lessons of history.