Stepping Off the Page: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Alexander Hamilton

I have been working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton over the course of the last few months. It is a truly excellent work of popular history. As a Canadian historian, I’d never really been exposed to much of the detailed history of the American revolutionary era and early decades of the United States, and the early financial and political history of the independent country is surprisingly fascinating. I think a lot of my newfound fascination is a testament to Chernow’s ability to both humanize historical figures but also parse out their politics in an engaging, clear, and detailed way. The country could have gone in so many other directions. Chernow does an amazing job of laying out just how fragile the early republic was. Too often the success of the revolution and the formation of the American state as we know it today is treated almost like political certainty, or some sort of destiny, but reading this book you get a real sense of how figures like Washington and Hamilton could have lost, not just the revolution but in other great projects of theirs that they’re known for. I now understand much better why there were amendments to the American constitution. I understand early banking a lot better, and how sketchy people thought it was then … and I can see parallels to today with people who are not financially literate having very firm ideas about the politics determining the finances of a nation. I have a better sense of just how vicious the early politics could be, with politicians publishing anonymous diatribes about each other either using proxy authors or thinly-veiled pseudonyms themselves. Some of it was incredibly petty, and a lot of it was character assassination and treating rumours as fact. (So… the more things change, the more things stay the same?) Nevertheless, the sheer amount of detail that Chernow draws together in this work boggles my mind.

I really like Chernow’s authorial voice. He sets the tone early, in his very first author’s note before the title page:

In order to make the text as fluent as possible and the founders less remote, I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes. I have also cured many contemporary newspaper editors of their addiction to italics and capitalized words. Occasionally, I have retained the original spelling to emphasize the distinctive voice, strong emotion, patent eccentricity, or curious education of the person quoted. I trust that these exceptional cases, and my reasons for wanting to reproduce them precisely, will be evident to the alert reader.

Chernow has an evocative way of gathering together content from what must be thousands of pages of primary research into an incredible cohesive narrative. It almost reads like a novel. The historical figures nearly step off of the page, and not just in their grander moments. Take, for instance, this bit about Hamilton’s immediately post-war job as an up-and-coming New York lawyer:

The departure of many Tory lawyers had cleared the path for capable, ambitious men in their late twenties and early thirties, including Burr, Brockholst Livingston, Robert Troup, John Laurance, and Morgan Lewis. They were constantly thrown together in and out of court. Much of the time they rode the circuit together, often accompanied by the judge, enduring long journeys in crude stagecoaches that jolted along jumpy upstate roads. They stayed in crowded, smoky inns and often had to share beds with one another, creating a camaraderie that survived many political battles. (pg. 188)

These are the kinds of details I find fascinating. (I am a social historian, not normally a political one.) How did these people know each other? What had they been through together? It’s often in little details like these that we get really good contextual information to the relationships of historical figures. It’s interesting how the everyday details of people’s lives influenced their politics.

I also loved the moment where Chernow describes the secular leanings of Hamilton at Constitutional Convention:

When [Benjamin] Franklin suggested on June 28 that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help, Hamilton countered that this might foster a public impression that ’embarrassments and dissensions within the convention had suggested this measure.’ According to legend, Hamilton also rebutted Franklin with the jest that the convention didn’t need ‘foreign aid.’ The Lord did not seem much in evidence at this point in the convention. One story, perhaps apocryphal, claims that when Hamilton was asked why the framers omitted the word God from the Constitution, he replied, ‘We forgot.’ One is tempted to reply that Alexander Hamilton never forgot anything important. (pg. 235)

I now have a much better understanding of how the story of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write his amazing musical, famously based on this book. The life of Alexander Hamilton is almost too dramatic to be true. I wanted to highlight the following story in particular, as it really stuck in my mind. I believe it would make an amazing television episode by itself. During the revolutionary war, Hamilton was acting as aide-de-camp to General George Washington…

Washington dispatched Hamilton, Captain Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), and eight cavalrymen to burn flour mills on the Schuylkill River before they fell into enemy hands. While Hamilton and others were destroying flour at Daviser’s … Ferry, their sentinels fired a warning shot indicating the approach of British dragoons. To guarantee an escape route, Hamilton had moored a flat-bottomed boat at the river’s edge. He and three comrades now leaped into the craft and pushed off from shore, while Lee and others took off on horseback. Lee recalled the British raking Hamilton’s boat with repeated volleys from their carbines, killing one of Hamilton’s men and wounding another. All the while, the intrepid Hamilton was ‘struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains.’ Hamilton and his men finally drove from the boat into the swirling waters and swam to safety. Scarcely stopping for breath, Hamilton dashed off a message to John Hancock that urged the immediately evacuation of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia. Just before Hamilton returned to headquarters, Washington received a letter from Captain Lee announcing Hamilton’s death in the Schuylkill. There were tears of jubilation, as well as considerable laughter, when the sodden corpse himself sauntered through the door. (pg. 98-99)

This is what public history is supposed to do. It is a good story, and an evocative and accessible one. This one scene, in and among all of the others that Chernow writes about, highlights elements of Hamilton’s character, the part he played in the revolution, and the relationships he has with other historical figures such as Washington. Drawing these types of vignettes together to tell the story of a person’s life: that’s a historian’s job.

The role of a historian is in part to gather together evidence of past historical events, critically analyze them, and assemble them into coherent narratives. As Chernow himself has said: “History is long, messy, and complicated.” However, Chernow does an excellent job at portraying that messiness in a way that doesn’t put people on a pedestal, and makes sense of the many factions of that period in American history. The men and women that Chernow writes about don’t feel as remote to me anymore. I particularly like how Chernow sometimes highlights their handwriting. The materiality of a document can tell a historian a lot about the person writing it and the circumstances under which they wrote it. For instance, lot of the surviving dispatches in Washington’s name from the revolutionary war are in Hamilton’s handwriting (being an aide-de-camp involved effectively being a secretary among other duties), testifying to just how involved Hamilton was with Washington’s inner circle at critical moments during the war. There’s also this charming aside about Hamilton and his wife Eliza:

On April 30, 1781, Hamilton sent a marathon letter to Morris – it runs to thirty-one printed pages – that set forth a fully-fledged system for shoring up American credit and creating a national bank. Portions of this interminable letter exist in Eliza’s handwriting (complete with her faulty spelling), as if Hamilton’s hand ached and he had to pass the pen to his bride at intervals. (pg. 156)

I’m not only picturing them as static paintings and statues, as formal words spoken in florid or stoic language, but as real human beings with all their foibles and physical weaknesses and petty words, with their passions and dedication to duty.  The figures in Chernow’s biography get tired, they get sick, and they get frustrated with one another. They defend their ideals against all comers. They have great passions and they have tender moments with their loved ones. They’re people. Fascinating ones.

And oh man I’m only about 400 pages into an 800 page tome, and I’m so excited to read more.

Resources

  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. (Of course.)
  • Ron Chernow Interview: Hamilton on Broadway: Chernow talks about how he came to be involved in Lin Manuel Miranda’s project, and the process of adapting an 800 page book into a two hour musical. Adaptation necessitates a straightforward narrative, so how does a historical consultant grapple with ideas of “historical accuracy” in a new medium?
  • Speaking of writing: if you’re interested in learning more about the clever writing of Lin Manuel Miranda in his musical based off of this book, I highly recommend this video: “Hamilton and Motifs: Creating Emotional Paradoxes.” (Bonus, it has clips of the musical that I can’t find elsewhere!)
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