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Alexander Hamilton Paperback – March 29, 2005
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Up to chapter 16, “Dr. Pangloss,” the story is superbly told. But, when Thomas Jefferson enters Hamilton’s life, much of the book becomes a contrast between Hamilton, who had his own well-documented personal failings, with Jefferson who, if the text is to be believed, had nothing but personal failings. Jefferson is variously described as hypocritical, duplicitous and conniving. Undoubtedly, Jefferson fit much of this description but so did Hamilton in their Federalist-Republican (anti-Federalist) feud in the 1790’s. What bothered me was the unrelenting negative portrayal of Jefferson, Madison (after 1790) and John Adams. Hamilton is portrayed accurately and fully as a brilliant and decent man with some major flaws. Jefferson and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Madison and Adams, are portrayed as deeply flawed individuals who happened to have a few good points. The language reinforces this. If one were to count the negatively loaded adjectives and verbs accorded to Hamilton’s three main opponents, they would vastly outnumber any positive linguistic connotations. In order to sharpen Hamilton’s character portrayal, the image that Chernow gives of Hamilton’s opponents is, given other biographies of these men, less than just.
The name-calling, smear campaigns and character assassinations in the 1790’s are appalling (but less so given the 2016 Presidential campaign). However, a dozen years after independence and only a few years after the Constitution was ratified, the fears of the anti-Federalists were real ones. Jefferson’s and Madison’s hypocrisy and the foibles of John Adam’s personality notwithstanding, the concerns expressed were often genuine ones at that time about what kind of country the United States would be and how the Constitution should be interpreted. The possibility that the Jeffersonians may have had a point gets lost in Chernow’s constant barrage of claims about duplicity, hypocrisy and malevolent intentions.
So I thought this was a brilliant portrayal of the man who founded our economic and, to a large extent, our political system. The portrayal of Aaron Burr is excellent and the factors leading up to the duel are gripping. But the mid-section of the book would have been even stronger if Chernow had presented Hamilton’s foes in a fuller, less negatively charged light.
In short his book is an amazing story - the players, the insights, the events....frankly it is all quite mesmerizing. There is a lot here that we know, there is a lot we think we know, and there is so much more that we (at least I) never dreamed: The treachery, the mobs, the scandals and the foibles of the great men who created our great Nation. And almost any line in the book (well except the parts about productivity) could be ripped from today's headlines.
The book is long however, and sometimes the writing is too detailed !?!?! (not a bad thing for an historian, but the reader is sometimes wearied) Thus the Opus gets 4 stars rather than 5 - but do read it - we learn not just about AH - we are also gifted with substance regarding Washington, Jefferson, Laurens, Madison, the French Revolution.......and much much more....
Never read it until I was looking for a book to read in my Kindle and noticed a new book. It was just "Alexander Hamilton" by Chernow, but it had the Broadway musical logo on the new icon. I thought why not and started in.
I don't hesitate to recommend the Washington bio but Hamilton is a better book. It reads as if Mr. Chernow really enjoyed the research and the writing, and wove certain threads of ambition, purpose and thwarted destiny throughout.
You will be enriched learning about our most Tory of Founding Fathers.