Written by Ron Chernow
Audiobook read by Scott Brick
Published by Penguin on 2004
Genres: Biography & Autobiography
In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, National Book Award winner Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.”
Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow's biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today's America is the result of Hamilton's countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. “To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton's turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington's aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.
Historians have long told the story of America's birth as the triumph of Jefferson's democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we've encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton's famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.
Chernow's biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America's birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.
Who Tells Your Story
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write a historical musical. Chances are you’re pretty familiar with Miranda’s take by now. It’s a very good–and very catchy–introduction to the story of the man Chernow believes was the “most overlooked, underrated, and misunderstood Founder.”
Chernow and Miranda have pretty well remedied that.
Hamilton: An American Musical condenses Alexander Hamilton’s life story into two and a half hours. Chernow’s book is over 800 pages long, and Alexander Hamilton is a 36-hour listen in audiobook. Clearly, not everything from Chernow’s book could make it to the stage. In reading, I was particularly interested in differences from the cast album I’ve obsessed over for months.
On their own, true stories don’t always follow a narrative structure. They have to be shaped. That may require alterations in their timing, location, and participants. Miranda’s book for Hamilton is largely faithful to major events, but not necessarily to their chronology or players.
Compare and Contrast: Bullet Points!
- Thomas Jefferson is more of the villain of Alexander Hamilton’s history than Aaron Burr. The device of Burr as narrator works beautifully in Hamilton (and he gets the best songs!). But in fact, he didn’t play that big a role in Hamilton’s life until near the end. If not for that, he might well be a historical footnote as a one-term Vice President (and prototype political opportunist). On the other hand, the ideological and personal conflicts between Jefferson and Hamilton defined them both.
- There were more than three Schuyler sisters…and a few brothers, too. Angelica’s father did have sons–she didn’t have to “social-climb for one.” However, Miranda’s depiction of the relationships between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is pretty faithful to Chernow’s. Chernow also makes plenty of space for Eliza’s story.
- The confrontation over the Maria Reynolds affair really occurred. Neither Jefferson, Burr, nor James Madison was in the room when it happened. Chernow spends much more time on this than Miranda does. Even so, Hamilton’s utterly poor judgment in the whole thing is tough to explain.
- Hamilton really did leave “thousands of pages of writings.” Chernow quotes a lot of primary sources in Alexander Hamilton–essays, correspondence, pamphlets–and analyzes some of them in depth. It’s important to the biography but doesn’t always make for good drama. Miranda wisely ignores the “show, don’t tell” principle with much of this. The Federalist Papers (probably) works better as a reference in “Non-Stop” than as a production number. Fortunately, Hamilton’s life had plenty of other material to provide the drama.
The Greatest Founder of Them All?
- New York was not yet “the greatest city in the world” during most of Hamilton’s lifetime. But neither New York nor America would be what they are today without Alexander Hamilton. To be fair, Miranda and Hamilton really don’t leave that in doubt. However, Chernow provides a far more detailed portrait of this self-taught political and economic visionary. From an Author Q&A on the publisher’s website, highlights!
How is Hamilton relevant to today’s America?
In the book, I refer to Hamilton as the messenger from America’s future. Where Jefferson and his followers foresaw a rural nation of small towns and yeomen farmers, Hamilton, in a visionary leap, envisioned something very much like America today: a large, bustling country with big cities, a strong federal government, and an economy dominated by trade, industry, banks, and stock exchanges. If Jefferson came alive today, he would wince with horror while Hamilton would probably smile with recognition.
What is Hamilton’s most important legacy?
For starters, he created the basic building blocks of the U.S. government—the tax system, the budget system, a funded debt, the customs service, the coast guard, and the first central bank. He was the principal architect of the new government, translating the Constitution into a practical reality. Hamilton thought the president and the executive branch should be the principal engine of government whereas his critics thought the House of Representatives should lead the country. Clearly, Hamilton had the last laugh.
Listening Without Music
While I was working on this post I came across a Salon piece about audiobook narrators which featured Alexander Hamilton reader Scott Brick. In the article, Brick described his approach to narration:
“I have a responsibility to the author, and my job is to make that construct — my performance — as small as possible. The most important thing to me is the author’s words.”
Brick succeeds in a “small performance” with Alexander Hamilton. His reading enhances Chernow’s engaging, approachable writing. This was my first audiobook with this very popular narrator, but I doubt it will be my last.
In print, Alexander Hamilton is a doorstop chunkster, but not an intimidating one if you like big books. The audiobook was ideal for my two-hour-plus round-trip daily commute, keeping me engrossed for several weeks. If you love Hamilton already, make some time to learn the rest of his story.
Armed with this cache, volunteer militia companies sprang up overnight. However much the British might deride these ragtag citizen-soldiers, they conducted their business seriously. Inflamed by the astonishing news from Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton, then a student at King’s College (later Columbia University), was that singular intellectual who picked up a musket as fast as a pen. Nicholas Fish recalled that “immediately after the Battle of Lexington, [Hamilton] attached himself to one of the uniform companies of militia then forming for the defence of the country by the patriotic young men of this city under the command of Captain Fleming.” Fish and Robert Troup, both classmates of Hamilton, were among the earnest cadre of King’s College volunteers who drilled before classes each morning in the churchyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. The fledgling volunteer company was named the Hearts of Oak. The young recruits marched briskly past tombstones with the motto of “Liberty or Death” stitched across their round leather caps. On short, snug green jackets they also sported, for good measure, red tin hearts that announced “God and our Right.”
Hamilton approached this daily routine with the same perfectionist ardor that he exhibited in his studies. Troup stressed the “military spirit” infused into Hamilton and noted that he was “constant in his attendance and very ambitious of improvement.” Never one to fumble an opportunity, Hamilton embarked on a comprehensive military education. With his absorbent mind, he mastered infantry drills, pored over volumes on military tactics and learned the rudiments of gunnery and pyrotechnics from a veteran bombardier. There was a particular doggedness about this young man, as if he were already in training for something far beyond lowly infantry duty.