Book Reviews

Book Review: Hamilton’s Choice by Jack Casey – History Comes Alive

This was suggested to me after having listened to Ron Cherow’s audiobook biography of Alexander Hamilton. I wasn’t sure how good it would be, since it was included on Kindle Unlimited and historical fiction. I have to say I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it.

Hamilton’s Choice tries to give an idea of what was behind Alexander Hamilton’s decision to agree to duel Aaron Burr; a duel that led to Hamilton’s premature death. It attempts to answer the question of why Hamilton would agree to the duel, after having lost his eldest son to one. It also tries to show why he “threw away his shot” as the saying goes, believing that was the right way to go.

The book begins with Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, hearing a speech by George Eacker in which his father’s reputation is denigrated and trashed. Philip reacts with anger, but Hamilton waves away his concerns. Hamilton believes Philip’s future will put him in line to be President of the United States and doesn’t care about these distractions. However, Philip has a young man’s temperament and soon ends up agreeing to a duel. He first turns to his Uncle, John Church, for help. Church keeps his confidence but has misgivings that eventually lead him to bring in Alexander. Alexander advises Philip but does not step in to stop the duel, believing it to be a step towards adulthood his son must make.

History tells us that Philip Hamilton died in that duel. With all of those hopes and dreams shattered by Philip Hamilton’s death, the once-close family is shattered. His wife, Eliza, is angry, believing that Hamilton knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it, although he denies this initially. His eldest daughter, Angelica, who is already so fragile, loses her mind over her brother’s loss and will never be the same.

Hamilton has been trying to live the life of gentleman citizen and provide for his family with a thriving law practice in lower New York. The family lives in a newly built home, The Grange, which is laden with debt. However, Hamilton keeps being drawn back into the political fray with his concerns about the country he loves and helped to form. In particular, the 1804 New York State governor’s race has him very concerned. Aaron Burr is one of the candidates, and Hamilton knows he is backed by a group of New Englanders who wish to secede from the slave states, believing that slavery is so wrong it has no place in this country. Hamilton despises slavery, but values the country being united above all else.

The background here into Burr is pretty fascinating. I, for one, never knew there was a secession movement at this time from New England. I researched it more after reading about it here in relation to Burr’s political motivations. Yes, these men were against slavery, but they weren’t altruistic enough to believe that “all men are created equal” applied to slaves. Their desire was to keep the United States a white country and were also troubled by miscegenation. Burr is painted here as more of an opportunist. He was Jefferson’s vice president but knew he wasn’t going to be on the 1804 reelection ticket. In order to keep any political office and to keep his creditors at bay, he embraced the movement as a way to get into office. Is this true of Burr’s motivations? I’m not sure. It will be interesting to read a few books about him to possibly gain some understanding. If it is true, it’s quite possible that Hamilton’s death kept the states united by disenfranchising Burr.

The characters are written really well. Of course, we really have no idea what was going on in Hamilton’s mind at the time, except for what was written in his letters. I don’t believe he was suicidal, despite all of the despair. He loved his family dearly, and I don’t think he intended to leave them with the heavy debt he carried. However, he was treated very uncharitably by the press of the day, especially over the Maria Reynolds affair. Having grown up in New York, I would have thought this Founding Father would have been taught much more in our history classes, but I barely remember glossing over him. Casey captures the spirit of what it was like to live during this time; when the victory over the British was still fresh and many of these men who had survived the Revolutionary War felt invincible. I think that Hamilton just believed he wouldn’t die and didn’t see the danger in his actions.

Stories like Hamilton’s Choice are good because they motivate the reader to learn more about the history that took place, and often motivate the reader to look up some detail they never knew, such as I did with the New England secessionist movement. It’s a good way to get people who normally won’t read books about history interested in it. I recommend this book very much as there doesn’t seem to be any changing of history to suit the story, but rather the author is trying to create a story that gives more depth to Hamilton’s life.