Book Reviews

AudioBook Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – The Founding Fathers Were as Divided as We Are Now

I find history fascinating. I likely should have become a historian or a fact-checker and researcher for someone like Ken Burns. When I hear something that intrigues me, I want to know all I can about the subject. Alexander Hamilton was one of those subjects that had been on my radar to some degree for the last few years. In all of the classes on American History that I took throughout my years in high school, I can’t remember learning much about him. The history of the Revolutionary War era and our founding as a nation was pretty much taken up by Wahington, Jefferson, Franklin, and the like. I don’t recall Alexander Hamilton ever being mentioned all that much, and I was educated in New York.

After having read My Dear Hamilton, I wanted to know more about all that he did during his relatively short life. Other than losing his life in a duel with Aaron Burr, I couldn’t remember much else about him. Fortunately, in that book, the authors cited this biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow as one of its sources, and I immediately embarked on listening to it.

These types of long, fact-filled books are ones that I enjoy but are harder and harder for me to sit and read as of late, so I prefer the audiobook versions. This one came in at over 50 hours, and while I was doing other things in my day I would put it on and listen to it. The narration was good. The reader was clear and read the book without too much inflection, allowing the listener to decide for themselves what was important.

Chernow tackles it all, from Alexander Hamilton’s beginnings in the West Indies until that terrible duel. Along the way, he attempts to paint a complete portrait of a man who should be receiving a lot more credit for the fact that this country rose to became a world leader. I would say that his face deserves to be on Mount Rushmore for all that he did.

The research is based on letters and testimonies from that time period. Munch of the base work was done for Chernow as Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler spent a good many years collecting his papers and trying to get a complete biography penned about him; a task which one of their sons completed. Chernow has also quoted letters from the archives of others in that era who wrote about Hamilton or directly to him.

Chernow also doesn’t present situations one way; he often shows something from the perspective Hamilton wrote about it first, then adds in perspectives he found doing research. If they conflict, he lets the reader know which one he gives more weight to and why. I found this to be very intriguing and it kept me thinking about how things were during the early days of the United States.

One thing that was made clear was that the Founding Fathers did not get along – not at all. Rather than the rosy portrait I felt was painted by the educational system in this country, they were deeply conflicted about a good many things. Hamilton was a Federalist who believed in a strong central government. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were not. They came from the slave-holding state of Virginia. This biography shows how the conflict over slavery threatened to tear the country apart from the very beginning. It also shows the conflict between these Founding Fathers and the likes of Hamilton, George Washington, and John Adams. It sounds almost as if we’re as divided today as they were back then.

That was one of the main things I took away from this book: we have always been partisan in this country and we have somehow managed to survive it. All of these Founding Fathers, with the exception of George Washington, traded barbs in anonymous newspaper articles and pamphlets. The way it’s described reminds me a lot of what we are going through now with the likes of Fox News and the meanness that seems to be a hallmark of politics. Lies were spread about Hamilton’s character, and Hamilton often fought back. If he had lived to die a natural death, would our knowledge of him and our history be told differently?

Chernow talks about all of the rumors about Hamilton. It’s widely known that he had an affair with Maria Reynolds and that likely cost him any ability to win any more elections after that. Jefferson and his followers were always trying to prove that Hamilton had somehow defrauded the government and enriched himself, and when the insinuations about that would not stick (because they were not true) they resorted to outing his indiscretions. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s response was to “clear the air” with a pamphlet confessing his sins that likely inflamed the situation all the more, rather than clearing him. Hamilton was perhaps the smartest of the Founding Fathers, especially considering his background, but at times his judgment was questionable.

I highly recommend this book for learning what was really happening during the early years of the United States. The rosy picture that was painted by my high school education was shattered, and in the end I feel like I have a better idea of what was really happening back then. I appreciate what they went through all the more because of it.

3 replies »

  1. “This biography shows how the conflict over slavery threatened to tear the country apart from the very beginning. “. I agree it is amazing that this country succeeded in holding together. It was so divided from the start as well as a very large and diverse country. That was one of the things I was talking about with my fellow Swedish exchange students when we arrived in Cleveland 1987. Europe is diverse too, but divided into 50+ countries. However, I think a common language has a lot to do with it. Anyway, I also think history books are often very interesting. Thank you for a great review.

    • Reading this history is so different than what I learned in school, and I was educated in New York, so I wouldn’t have expected that. I never knew how divided the country was from the start over slavery and over a strong central government. It really helped, though, to give me the perspective that we can survive the current mess since we survived all of this when it was expected to fail. We have Alexander Hamilton to thank for a lot of that. He had a lot to do with straightening out the financing and giving the US good credit with other nations.

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