Book Review: Hamilton

I have read a lot about the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States, and but for a powerful description of the Incident at Weehawken in the first section of Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers, Hamilton has always seemed to play a role somewhere in the wings – the egotistical near-monarchist who nobody liked. This book certainly changes that, and considering the reverence with which Chernow approaches his subject, I can see how this story became the foundation for a hit musical.
And you can’t help wondering along with the author in his forward why Hamilton is so overlooked. Indeed, as I read how well Hamilton served Washington and how devoted Washington was to Hamilton, I was rather surprised at how little mention Hamilton gets in Ellis’s biography, “His Excellency…” I’ll have to go back and see what I missed.
As for this book, its research, depth and breadth of covering Hamilton are akin to, perhaps even exceeding, David McCullough’s treatment of John Adams or Jon Meacham’s 9f Andrew Jackson. Chernow’s awe of Hamilton’s gifts, energy and devotion is unmistakable and unhidden, yet Chernow still does not shrink from showing his subject’s out-sized ambition, overwhelming ego and undeniable flaws and frailties. His detail is acute. His scope is thorough. His style is direct and clear.
This is a wonderful biography, in short, and I rather wish I’d read it before I’d read so much about the other founding fathers – though I will say I’m glad that I came to my less-than-fawning assessment of Thomas Jefferson on my own before reading this book. After reading it, one could never have a fully idealistic opinion of the duplicitous, scheming, jealous and hypocritical author of the Declaration of Independence.
Finally, one of the great pleasures of this book is the view of Hamilton one gets through the eyes of his wife. There is something in Chernow’s description of the pride and devotion Eliza held toward her husband all her life that adds a layer of credibility over the entire Hamilton portrait.