September 21, 2018
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“Alexander Hamilton,” by Ron Chernow, Penguin, 2004. 818 pages.

By: Berniece Owen
June 29, 2018
Book Review

Readers who are unaware of the link from this book to the highly successful Broadway musical production called “Hamilton” are missing an opportunity to combine a great reading experience with a very modern listening and visual experience—also great. The book was published in 2004, winning high praise from historians and the public alike. It is a big book. It took me over a year to read it. I had it on my Kindle, and I reserved my reading of it to moments in doctors’ waiting rooms and similar pauses in my daily routines. Despite this start/stop approach to his life story, I never lost interest.-

Chernow is a historian with a parallel background in journalism. He infuses “Alexander Hamilton” with a story-telling skill that brings this important, but lesser known Founding Father to life. I found it interesting that he begins and ends with a description of the life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander’s wife, who lived for 50 years after his death. With fierce determination she saw to it that the incredible volume of papers that he left behind were cataloged and made available for use by biographers.

Hamilton spent his early years in the British West Indies and on St. Croix Island in the Caribbean. He was poor, but his energy then and throughout his life fostered ideas and problem-solving skills that lifted him out of an environment that would have defeated many others. He worked for a merchant and learned about inventories and shipping calendars. He read classical literature and developed a working philosophy for himself that led to a mature political philosophy that he expounded in the years before and after the Revolutionary War.

As a member of George Washington’s group of bright young officers during the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s energy continued to serve him well. He was a student and a soldier. At the time he was writing essays foretelling his vision for the government of a new country. He was part of the powerful group that talked independence from Britain. Following the war, he represented New York as the now free colony-states wrestled with forming a new government. He almost single-handedly wrote the “Federalist Papers,” which explained and promoted the new Constitution as it was presented to the states for ratification.

Drawing on his experience with merchants and with problems during the war, Hamilton was passionate about the need for a strong central banking system. He successfully saw the principle included in the United States’ new Constitution and became the first Secretary of the Treasury.

Lest readers see Hamilton as a Founding Father without flaws, however, Chernow also shows that Hamilton had an affair with a friend of his wife. The scandal lost Hamilton some public credibility, but his wife stuck with him.  Chernow also explains in detail the events and personalities that led up to the fatal duel with Aaron Burr that took Hamilton’s life.

As I mentioned above, it took me over a year to read this book on my Kindle, but I finally had to buy a “regular” book as well because I wanted to see the pictures. (Newer Kindles include pictures.) Anyway. Chernow is an excellent biographer and this is a great book.  

Bernice Owen is a retired librarian and resides in Rohnert Park.