Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tom's Two Cents: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

If you haven't heard of "Hamilton" by now, I would have to ask, "What world are you living in?"  The most successful Broadway musical in years, conceived and adapted by Lin Manuel Miranda, winner of multiple Tonys, "Hamilton" is now about to take to the road and will doubtless garner millions, if it hasn't already.  But the "Hamilton" I'm telling you about is the book it was based on, the 732 page biography of Alexander Hamilton by the eminent historian, Ron Chernow, published in 2005. 

When I say I've been reading this book on and off for at least ten years, I'm not exaggerating: it's gotten lost, mislaid, set aside deliberately for a shorter, quicker read, but I keep coming back to it, and now, only some 200 pages from the end, I'm certain I will finish it.  My meanderings have never been due to lack of interest, but I will say that this work is so full, so rich with detail, that it can hardly be digested in one continuous reading.  Like a multiple course dinner, it's better savored than gulped, and probably a rest between courses is even in order.

Alexander Hamilton has been given rather short shrift in American history, for a number of reasons.  First of all, he was born in Nevis in the Caribbean, under somewhat questionable circumstances, and only emigrated to the American Colonies as a young man.  During the Revolution he acquitted himself admirably, serving under General Washington himself, and becoming in effect one of Washington's most trusted advisors.  In the formation of the new government, he became Washington's first Secretary of the Treasury, and one of the most influential cabinet members in American history.  As such, he was subject to much criticism as a "Federalist" and a British sympathizer.  His conflicts with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson became so monumental that in Washington's second term Jefferson left office and returned to the public scene only after he bested John Adams in his run for a second term.  Further, his sympathies with the notion of a strong, central government made him extremely unpopular with his Republican colleagues.  The genesis of our nation's conflict between two powerful political parties is clearly brought to life here.

That Hamilton came to a tragic end in a duel with Aaron Burr is generally known, but the events leading up to it are not.  Chernow is masterful in depicting these events and all others in Hamilton's life, making this work not only a significant slice of American history, but a thoroughly engrossing tale of the rise and fall of a great man.

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