Happy Fourth of July! As we celebrate American independence today, I thought I’d share my review of Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton.
The hardcover version of Chernow’s book is about 818 pages long. And those are about 818 reasons why I opted for the audiobook version–which clocks in at a whopping 36 hours and 2 minutes long. Even listening at an increased speed, it took me almost a month to get through it. While a lot of the historical detail washed right over my head, I did learn some very important lessons from this lesser-known founding father. So allow me to share these themes in blog post form. You can decide after reading if you’re intrigued enough to read the whole thing!
Alexander Hamilton’s Influence is Enormous
Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, and he moved to New York when he was a young man. His story is truly an amazing story of the American Dream. Through hard work, ambition, and intelligence, Hamilton rose to fame rapidly. As if that’s not enough, he was responsible for a crazy amount of ideas and programs that we still use or recognize the value of today. Here are just a few of them:
- He was George Washington’s right-hand-man throughout the Revolutionary War
- He was a member of the Continental Congress
- He authored 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers
- He was the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
- He helped found the first national bank and the U.S. Mint
- He helped establish the U.S. Coast Guard
- He founded the New York Post
Thanks to Hamilton and other federalists, the United States ratified the Constitution and moved away from the Articles of Confederation. Despite what you may think about a strong central government today, Chernow’s book proves that without Hamilton’s efforts to consolidate the states, America might not have survived those troubling first few years.
Political Drama is Nothing New
There is truly nothing new under the sun, as Chernow’s book (and our nation’s history) proves in chapter after chapter.
I was most intrigued to hear about the birth of political parties in the US. This is all stuff I learned in my U.S. History class, but it didn’t quite stick. We are sometimes shocked by the hateful speech our political candidates direct at each other, but even in the 1790s, political parties were fighting over issues that deeply divided the nation. The main difference? Today’s candidates fight in 140 characters or less. In the 1790s they wrote 10,000 word essays condemning their opponents. These essays were published in newspapers and pamphlets, but they wrote back and forth attacking each other so quickly that it was basically 18th century Twitter.
As Chernow mentions, it’s amazing that at one point in our nation’s history there were so many brilliant minds working to create a brand new form of government. Even with all that intelligence, the founding fathers couldn’t get a grip on their animosity for each other. Ultimately this led to Hamilton’s death in his infamous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.
Another interesting similarity between Hamilton’s time and ours is the thought that changes in government also mean changes in religious liberty. As early as 1800, people were worried that if Thomas Jefferson became president, Americans would have to hide their Bibles. Certainly we, as Christians, should defend our rights to religious liberty for everyone, but I loved this little reminder that throughout history God has protected His people and He will continue to protect them, even if our religious liberty is taken away.
The Hardest Battle is the Fight for Integrity
It seemed like Alexander Hamilton couldn’t catch a break–from his rough childhood in the Caribbean to his non-stop political battles, he was always fighting. He always fought to preserve his personal integrity, but he became involved in an extra-marital affair that was exposed to the American public and became our nation’s first sex scandal. I think the overarching battle for Hamilton wasn’t just one of acting out of the country’s best interests, but fighting for integrity in his private life.
He lost that battle in one major way, but by the end of his life he returned to his Christian faith. No one can say for sure whether his return to his faith was sincere or whether or not he was saved by faith in Jesus, but listening and reading about his struggles reminded me that we are all fighting on multiple fronts–not just against our political or personal enemies, but also against our sinful desires.
Hamilton the Musical
My main motivation for reading this book was the massively successful broadway musical Hamilton, which basically swept the Tony Awards and has taken the theatre world by storm. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the play, based his work off of Chernow’s biography; his musical translates Hamilton’s life and times into hip-hop. From hilarious songs from the point of view of King George III to a musical rendition of the Battle of Yorktown, the musical makes history come to life.
Reading the book truly enhanced my enjoyment of the songs, and Miranda does a great job of portraying these complex historical characters in song. I love how talented writers can take themes and weave them through all of the songs of a musical, and that’s what the Hamilton soundtrack does. I had a minor epiphany last night when I read the last few pages of Chernow’s book and saw repeated references to Hamilton “throwing away his shot,” meaning that he would not fire his pistol at Burr during the duel. Why the epiphany? Throughout the musical, Hamilton sings about how he’s not throwing away his “shot” to fight for American independence or for his own beliefs. Of all the shots Hamilton did take throughout his life, it says a lot that he didn’t take the last one–the shot that could have ended Burr’s life and saved his own.
That is just one example how the musical does a really great job expanding on the themes in Chernow’s book. Hamilton wrote furiously, almost as if he was “running out of time,” as the lyrics of one song suggest. The musical also gives a powerful voice to Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who has been forgotten or kept out of other biographies of Hamilton’s life. The themes of legacy, historical narrative, and the uniqueness of America are all present in the musical, which I think is pretty cool.
My one warning: these songs contain a little bit more explicit language and suggestive material than you might expect in a PG-13 movie, so keep that in mind as you listen! Apart from that, it’s interesting to see how artists can take an inspiring story that has been forgotten and turn it into something relevant and applicable for young people today.
What’s your opinion of Alexander Hamilton? Have you heard the music or seen the play? Have you read Chernow’s massive biography? I’d love to hear about it!
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