Sunday, May 13, 2018

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

It's been over two months since the last time I wrote. You would be forgiven for thinking that I had taken a longer leave from reading or had given up all together. It's true that it has been a while since I last read something that really got to me. For the last year, I've sometimes felt that I'm running out of steam. Reading hasn't given me as much joy as before. Those are not the reasons for such a long break, however. I've been inching through two tomes of epic length simultaneously: Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton and Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 (more on that in the next post). Combined, they make up over 2000 pages. When traveling, you can only take one with you, as the combined weight from the two would surely push your luggage over the weight limit or break the seams of your backpack.

Alexander Hamilton is, naturally, the biography of the United States' first Secretary of the Treasury. Born out of wedlock in the West Indies, Hamilton rose to key roles in the American Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence and the cabinet of George Washington. After years of hard-fought political battles, Hamilton died in a duel with the Vice President Aaron Burr. More than any of his fellow founding fathers, Hamilton's life was a roller coaster of great heights and astounding lows. Even as he left his indelible mark on the country - writing the Federalist Papers, creating the Post Office, the Coast Guard, the Bank of New York, The National Bank and establishing New York as the center of finance and commerce that it still is today - his legacy has often been shrouded by attempts by his detractors to discredit him.

Alexander Hamilton bears some striking similarity to today's world. The first thing you notice is the utter likeness of the 18th century political world to the current one. Political slander in the 18th century was as vicious as it is today with the confounding factor that key members of the president's circle used pseudonyms to trash talk each other in the press. For example, Thomas Jefferson eagerly spread false rumors that Hamilton vied to create a US monarchy and that he was embezzling money as Secretary of the Treasury. The same conflicts that haunt today's America are there as well: the divide between the rural populace and the cities, the feud between the north and the south and the fear of giving too much power to a central government.

Chernow's book is a wonderful work; an enlightening and engrossing read that isn't afraid to ransack archives to prove a point or unearth some new piece of evidence. His prose is pristine and his personal passion for the topic shines through constantly. Quotes from the time slow down the pace a little, but are a critical component in understanding the era which, despite seeming eerily similar to our own at times, is often bewildering in its beliefs, customs and systems.

The last piece of this puzzle is the extraordinary musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda. It may be mostly unknown outside of the United States, but it has been a source of endless inspiration for me. I would never have read Chernow's biography, if I hadn't listened to the musical on repeat for the last two years. I am unable to say, which of the two should be considered the main oeuvre and which is more a supporting work. Even as the musical is based on the book, it transcends it in every way. The biography hints at the connection to today's America; the musical blows it wide open. I notice that even in this somewhat lengthy review, I have only said a fraction of the things that I want to say about Alexander Hamilton. His life story is a rabbit hole that ultimately explains the modern world as much as it reveals our history.

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