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Alexander Hamilton Paperback – Illustrated, March 29, 2005
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". . . [A] biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life.... This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve." —Publishers Weekly
"A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father. Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." —Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
"A brilliant historian has done it again! The thoroughness and integrity of Ron Chernow’s research shines forth on every page of his Alexander Hamilton. He has created a vivid and compelling portrait of a remarkable man—and at the same time he has made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the beginnings of the American Republic.” —Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson
"Alexander Hamilton was one of the most brilliant men of his brilliant time, and one of the most fascinating figures in all of American history. His rocketing life-story is utterly amazing. His importance to the founding of the new nation, and thus to the whole course of American history, can hardly be overstated. And so Ron Chernow's new Hamilton could not be more welcome. This is grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written. It clears away more than a few shop-worn misconceptions about Hamilton, gives credit where credit is due, and is both clear-eyed and understanding about its very human subject. Its numerous portraits of the complex, often conflicting cast of characters are deft and telling. The whole life and times are here in a genuinely great book." —David McCullough, author of John Adams
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books (March 29, 2005)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 818 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143034758
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143034759
- Lexile measure : 1280L
- Item Weight : 2.25 pounds
- Dimensions : 9.1 x 5.9 x 1.8 inches
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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I read an awful lot of biographies. My tendency is to favor Americans in the years around the time The United States came into existence. With rare exceptions, I would have to say that I thoroughly enjoy all of them. So why should this one be any different? Is it really that different than all of the other biographies out there? I even recently read a biography about George Washington (who was close to Alexander Hamilton) by the same author (Ron Chernow), and even that one wasn’t particularly sensational. For whatever reason, though, this one is truly exceptional.
Like all well researched biographies that are about 800 pages in length, this one is very thorough. It doesn’t exclusively focus on one aspect of his career, nor heavily focus on any particular area of his life. Everything is included. From being orphaned in the Caribbean at a young age to being killed by the Vice-President of the United States in a duel. Everything is here.
Although there’s a lot of material to cover, Chernow works magic when transcribing the man’s life. I rarely ever got bored. The book seemed exciting, as though someone were telling me a fascinating story as opposed to simply recounting a famous person’s life. Quite often when writing such a detailed exposition, ennui often creeps in from time to time. An everyday life of a politician doesn’t necessarily relate to captivating reading. Fortunately in this case, instances of boredom are rare. There was one time when I mentally dozed off for a few pages while the author explained in a tad too much detail how Hamilton’s central bank worked, but these instances were quite infrequent. I felt like I intimately knew so many of the many people who interacted, good and bad, with Alexander Hamilton. I truly wished that I could have traveled back in time to meet all of these fascinating people.
There are a lot of people that didn’t like this man, nor did he care for them. Particularly interesting is how the author treats Thomas Jefferson. Had this been the only book you had ever read, you would come away with the notion that Jefferson was Satan incarnate. Equally unfavorable treatment goes to John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe (all early U.S. Presidents, coincidentally). I would recommend further reading on these individuals for a more balanced perspective. In fact, had it not been for George Washington, you could argue that there wasn’t anyone around at the time of any importance that thought highly of Hamilton. Of course, having George Washington on your side counteracts a lot of adversaries.
The author is quite biased in favor of his subject matter. Oh sure, he points out many mistakes and deficiencies of Hamilton, but you end up firmly in the man’s corner, despite the squabbling with so many of the other founding fathers. The biggest source of discontent is Hamilton’s Federalism as opposed to Jefferson’s Republicanism. The birth of our two-political party system. Both ideologies have highlights. To truly understand the significance, one must truly imagine life directly after America’s independence is won. Now that we’ve won, what do we do? We still need a centralized government to rule. Right? At the time, many didn’t think so. Such questions are easy to answer in hindsight. Hindsight does tell us, that Hamilton was right about a lot of things during our country’s infancy.
I implore you to read this if you’re a fan of history. If you’re not a fan of history, I implore you to read it as well – just make sure you consult other sources so you come away with a strong, balanced perspective.
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....
Top reviews from other countries
A phenomenal man and yet so human and fragile, and in some ways so deeply flawed.
This is an amazing book about a truly amazing man.
I was fortunate to be given a free ticket to see Hamilton and although I had already bought a ticket, I happily accepted the free one and I saw the musical. I am a Hamilfan and proud of it and like so many people I have the mixtape, the original broadcast, the Hamildrops etc etc and I hang on to Lin Manuel Miranda's every word.
I also have the Hamiltome and Chernow. I decided to read Chernow because I thought it would help me understand Hamilton and enhance my enjoyment of the musical second time round.
And it will because of course Lin Manuel Miranda is an amazing man and the musical brings Alexander Hamilton to life.
But the book etches the man upon your soul.
In some ways his death was just such an utter loss, but in other ways it was a dramatic end to a incredibly dramatic life. I finished reading this and just felt rather shell shocked. I also felt that Hamilton had a very cavalier attitude about the impact of his death on his wife and seven children.
But I also feel incredibly educated, for want of a better word. I am not an American and there are things about US politics that confuse me e.g. the two party system, the political ideologies etc. I now know what it is all about! At least a little.
And this means that I can go forth and bore my colleagues, friends and family to death.
This also mean that when I watch the musical for the second time I will be able to pick up all the nuances and references and just have a richer experience.
Ron Chernow is a brilliant author. He has written a huge tome of US history in a way that is accessible and enjoyable and I can well see why Lin Manuel Miranda was so captivated. It is the kind of book and life story that deserve a musical. Reading this has left me feeling exhilarated and hungry for more. I now want to know more about Jefferson, Burr and the other founding fathers, but I also want to know more about American slavery and so I will be reading Grant next.
The unsung hero here is Eliza Hamilton who sounds like the most amazing woman. 'Bests of wives, best of women.' And I think she would have had to be with a man like Hamilton. I wish someone would tell her story.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and I am glad I started it at the beginning of the year. I now have whole year to bask in the life of Hamilton, the writing of Chernow and the music of Lin Manuel Miranda.
We are waiting in the wings for you
You could never back down
You never learned to take your time
Oh, Alexander Hamilton
When America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote your game?
The world will never be the same, oh
The ship is in the harbor now
See if you can spot him
Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom
His enemies destroyed his rep America forgot him
We fought with him
Me, I died for him
Me, I trusted him
Me, I loved him
And me, I’m the damn fool that shot him
There’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait
What’s your name, man?
Songwriters: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Alexander Hamilton lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
My interest, like many others I'm sure, was sparked by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical "Hamilton" and I have enjoyed reflecting as I progress through the book on the similarities and differences between the reality, and what Miranda showed us in his performance. Chernow does a great job of bringing the reader into the mind of many of the people of the time and gives ample credit where it is due. I would be interested now to read biographies on Jefferson, Madison and Burr to see how the "Villains" of Hamilton's life are viewed differently in another context.
If you've read this far chances are you are the kind of person who will enjoy this book and I can't recommend it enough to you.
First let’s appreciate the skills of the biographer. His subject was a great man with eloquence and many talents. His breath of knowledge and knowhow few could match, covering first and foremost law, then finance and economics, military administration and tactics, and science of government. He was “a thinker and doer”, “unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses” (p.627). He was a visionary, well ahead of his time, and a fierce pioneer, who was effective in meticulously forging a way to turn his vision into reality. He laid down the constitutional framework and built the federal financial system – institutional infrastructure needed for the flourishing of this modern market economy when America was still a largely rural economy. He was a powerful steam engine spearheading towards a future that only few could see. When he was so far ahead of time, he found himself a lone voice in the wilderness. He was given the opportunity and he did not squander it but made something out it – he could because he was full of ideas. Proposals after proposals, he never lost sight of his vision. He tried to explain but out of self-interest or out of their wildest imagination, he invited critics and suspicions all his life. He put his head down as the doer, but calumnies plagued his whole career. For a man of honour, he fought many battles to clear his reputation. Sadly he “was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth” (p. 629) which was quite the opposite to who he was – a self-made man, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy.
Hamilton was a prolific writer; he incessantly published papers, official reports, pamphlets, essays, newspaper articles. In addition, there were private papers and letters. Because his life intertwined with so many prominent figures of the time, one can imagine the colossal volume of materials to sieve through and sort for the biography, which demonstrates the biographer’s excellent organisational skills. The end product flows smoothly as if without effort. Secondly, I am most impressed by the versatility of the biographer’s writing skill. A biographer is naturally a narrator. However, Hamilton is a challenging subject as the biographer is required to make lucid many varied technical details of his pioneer thinking in historical critical moments that shaped the world, such as the development and debate on the Constitution, Hamilton’s federal fiscal and financial system and its opposition, the development of political thoughts for a new country, in particular the inner conflict of Hamilton if a republican government could deliver a proper balance of liberty and order. I believe the biographer has done a marverllous job in introducing us to the controversies that Hamilton was embroiled in.
But my biggest enjoyment of this biography is probably not the intent of the biographer! It reads to me the redemptive story of Hamilton – his testimony of God! To me who shares his faith, it is an exhilarating read to see the providence of God working marvellously in his life. His life, plainly and faithfully told by the biographer, speaks for itself. Things that the biographer finds puzzling, like Hamilton’s injudicious behaviour in the whole Reynolds Affair at the height of his power and fame, his vision for the army during the Quasi-War with France in 1798-1800, the “execrable” idea of the Christian Constitutional Society, and his preoccupation with religion in his final years, make sense if one understands the challenges of Christian walk. For example, I see striking parallels in David sinning with Bathsheba and Hamilton sinning with Reynolds – the injudicious behaviour, the coverup and the subsequent compulsion to confess when exposed. His many inner struggles also makes perfect sense in the light of the Bible.
I find his dying scene particularly moving for its gospel light. When Eliza was called to his deathbed following the duel with Burr, Hamilton’s words of comfort to her were, “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.” Do we feel the weightiness of that name? He was entreating her to live like one worthy of that call. However powerful, influential and capable he was on earth, at his deathbed, he could promise nothing except to point Eliza to their Almighty God who is greater than he, loves her more perfectly and in whom their hope is found. He died a repentant sinner, having “a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He repeated to the Bishop present that “he was dying in a peaceful state, and that he was reconciled to his God and his fate.” On our measures, it was a tragic end to a great man’s life, but God single-handedly turned it into a good ending of eternal hope that we all share.
Burr, on the other hand, was a contrast to Hamilton. Both were orphaned from a young age. Who was more likely to be a principled and religious man with integrity from family background? I imagine it would have been Burr because he was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the renowned American theologian of all time, while Hamilton was illegitimate. But then Burr was “a dissipated, libidinous character” and “had been openly accused of every conceivable sin: deflowering virgins, breaking up marriages through adultery, forcing women into prostitution, accepting bribes, fornicating with slaves, looting the estates of legal clients. The grandson of theologian Jonathan Edwards had sampled many forbidden fruits (p. 682).” He lived to 77 while Hamilton died in his hand at the age of 49 in the infamous duel. What memory did he leave? “The death mask of Aaron Burr is haunting and unforgettable, with the nose twisted to the left, the mouth crooked, and the expression grotesque, as if all the suppressed pain of his life were engraved in his face by the end. John Quincy Adams left this epitaph of the man: “Burr’s life take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in profound oblivion.” (p.722)” What biblical doctrine does it shine out for us? Election of God’s people – i.e. they are chosen by God and not the other way round.
How does the biographer achieve telling all these without it being intentional? He seeks to tell the story faithfully and authentically and comprehensively, and the story will speak for itself.
The book is well written, detailed and thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.