If you’re like me, you likely know a little about Alexander Hamilton. You are probably aware that he was a founding father and maybe you even know he was the first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. But you might not know much more than that. I know I didn’t. Other than the fact that he’s the namesake of Hamilton Middle School in my hometown of Parkersburg, I had a lot to learn. And learn I did from his highly comprehensive biography, penned by celebrated author Ron Chernow, who has told the stories of, among others, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and the Warburgs.
I’m not going to lie. In all humility, I’m a pretty smart person with what I thought was a relatively comprehensive vocabulary. I mean, I’m an Advanced Placement English teacher with a master’s degree and I’ve written four books. Words are pretty much what I do. But there were times when this tome made me feel like a complete moron. I spent a lot of time beside my laptop so I could say, “Hey Cortana, what does (fill in the multisyllabic word of your choice) mean?” And I’m not exaggerating when I say I often had to call on my artificially intelligent friend multiple times per page.
But as long as you don’t mind wading through the high level verbiage, you are truly in for a treat. I almost feel like I grew up with Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies and spent a lot of his formative years with little to no family and even fewer prospects for a bright future. He was, however, a shockingly intelligent and resourceful young man. A voracious learner, he made it, with the help of some well off friends, to New York, where he went to school at Columbia to study law. Despite the fact that he actually started later than many of his classmates, he flew through his classes and graduated early. But just as importantly, he became involved almost immediately in the political world that would be his realm of greatest influence throughout his too short life, which was ended prematurely at the tender age of 49 due to squabble with Vice President Aaron Burr that led to a duel, which only the dastardly Burr chose to actually try to win.
But before he died, his was a life of spectacular triumph mixed with occasional ignominious defeat. Both were almost completely his own doing. He spent the Revolutionary War at the side of George Washington and, in many ways, was the brains behind the Continental Army’s triumph. After that, he was integral in the forming of the young United States. His two greatest contributions were the writing and compiling of The Federalist Papers (basically the blueprint for our Constitution) and creating the monetary system that is the one that our country still uses to this day. At the same time, he was also the architect of one of the biggest scandals in the early life of our country when he carried on a long-standing affair with a young woman who turned out to have seduced him for the express purpose of blackmailing him.
To put it mildly, Hamilton was a man of great contradictions, but he was also, at his core, a man of great passion as well as great morality and drive to be of service to his adopted country. By no means perfect, he was quite likely closer than any other of the founding fathers, with the possible exception of George Washington.
If Chernow had only written about Hamilton, his work would have been remarkable enough. But along the way, he also illuminates the lives of fellow founding fathers Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Adams. As I said, other than Washington, the men around him paled in comparison to our hero. The author is unflinching in pointing out Hamilton’s flaws, but even as he does, it becomes abundantly clear that there was no mind sharper and no heart bigger than that of the man born in destitution on a tiny island in the West Indies.
This is a book that will take time and perseverance to get through. But your time will be rewarded. Be warned, though—you may be shocked by how petty and ugly the political world was even back in our country’s salad days. As hard as it is to imagine, it was at least as obnoxious and divisive as our political life is today. Whether that’s daunting or comforting is a matter of opinion. But what is not a matter of opinion is that Ron Chernow has written a book worthy of the remarkable life of a singular man who was misunderstood and unappreciated by his peers. I’m glad I read his story.