Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Did you know Washington, DC was almost named Washingtonople?
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FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME, WHO ARE DEDICATED BUT DECIDEDLY AMATEUR READERS OF AMERICAN HISTORY, there are a lot of good options to choose from. If your tastes lean more toward ideas and cultural context than the personal stuff, you can look to authors like Gordon Wood, who bind together stories about the founders under themes like “character,” or explain how their Christianity or atheism, or that fact that the FF’s were gardeners or closeted homosexuals, or both, helped shape the course of human events.
If you’re really into ideas, you can turn to surly geniuses like Gary Wills, who can take a particular event or document — the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address, for example — and make riveting work out of tracing its intellectual roots in the Scottish enlightenment or thanatoptic poetry, respectively.
Howard Zinn has taken on the noble effort of showing how the actions of the Great Men who get the attention affected everyone else who was around at the time. “A People’s History of the United States of America” is something close to excellent, but should be read with the understanding that not every person who did anything of historical significance did it by way of a dark capitalist conspiracy. The right kind of reading in these books can provide an important awareness about how messy our path has been and likely will be, and get you primed for the nuances and complications of book like Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.”
For the more narrative, orchestra-swelling angle, try Joseph Ellis or David McCullough. For the more narrative, stomach-churning stuff, you can check out those Drunk History videos online.
Then there are guys like Ron Chernow and biographies like “Alexander Hamilton” and “Washington: A Life.” The best description of Chernow’s approach might be ‘the granular,’ in that he documents each man’s life down to very smallest of details. It’s not so much narrative or thematic as it is simply observant. We learn about the backgrounds of Hamilton’s benefactors on the island of St. Croix where he was born, and are told that on his voyage to college in New York, the ship caught fire and “crew members scrambled down ropes to the sea and scooped up seawater in buckets, extinguishing the blaze with some difficulty.” Of Washington, Chernow spends time on his near-constant worry over the finances of Mt. Vernon, his chiding letters to his employees there and his deep concerns about the discretion of his dentist. But we also hear about Hamilton’s abolitionism and dedication to his family, and that Washington’s mother’s shrill disapproval may have set the mold for his commitment to duty above all, that over the years he took in various orphaned members of his family, and that his stoicism was critical to holding together a young country looking for just about any reason to tear itself apart.
One of the many reasons to read these books is the deep connection between the two men. As relationships between the founding fathers go, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams get most of the attention for their academic and adversarial exchanges about the genesis of the country, which they wrestled over as President and Vice President and in years of correspondence, before poetically dying within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of declaring independence. The professional and personal interactions between Washington and Hamilton lacked such made-for-TV dramatics, but were in the end far more influential on the workaday construction of an enduring republic and the shape of the nation we know today.
Washington’s importance is undeniable; what often goes unremarked, however, is that Hamilton was by Washington’s side for most of the Revolutionary War, the drafting and defending of the constitution, and the laying of foundations for America’s government and economy during Washington’s presidency. When a looming war with France threatened to pull Washington out of retirement, he insisted against the wishes of President Adams and the decorum of military succession on elevating Hamilton to his second in command. The two men were cornerstones of each other’s success, from the battlefield through the drafting of the Washington’s farewell address, and to praise one is to praise the other. An apt comparison might be between Kennedy and Ted Sorensen, although an odder but more illustrative parallel can be made to Jay-Z and Kanye West: the patriarch reaching the peak of his abilities, and shaping his entire career, through the volatile creative genius of his upstart protegé.
OF THE TWO, HAMILTON’S BIOGRAPHY IS THE MORE INTERESTING. Hamilton rose from less than obscurity, the illegitimate son of an insolvent debtor on St. Croix, and by his early 20s was one of Washington’s closest advisers. Continue reading