Fans of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton (which you’ll see from this series of reviews has been a bit of an obsession of mine for the past few months) know Ron Chernow’s biography as the book that started it all — the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda read that gave him the germ of an idea which eventually turned into a hip-hop musical about the guy on the ten-dollar bill, one of the US’s Founding Fathers. Hamilton is probably best known today for dying in a duel at the hands of his political enemy, Aaron Burr. Though his life ended tragically in his late forties, Hamilton had already accomplished a lifetime’s worth of work in helping to establish the fledgling United States as a cohesive nation. Though, unlike his compatriots (some friends, some enemies) Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, he never became President, his personal story is fascinating and it’s not hard to see how it inspired a work as creative as the musical.
Hamilton was distinguished from most of the other Founding Fathers by his humble beginnings — he was born outside what were then the 13 colonies, to an impoverished Scotsman and a Frenchwoman of dubious reputation, who were not legally married to each other. In that extremely class-conscious era a man less talented, brilliant and hardworking than Alexander Hamilton would have been doomed to a life of poverty and obscurity, but Hamilton’s life was marked by his dogged determination to outrun his origins.
Hamilton accomplished a lot and was in many ways an engaging character, but he certainly had his flaws and made some crucial mistakes, and Chernow doesn’t spare his subject in revealing these. Though the biography is biased in the sense that Chernow clearly admires Hamilton, it does attempt to give that rounded picture, showing all sides of the man and meticulously examining the primary sources for his life, that a more creative portrait like the musical, or a novel, can’t capture. If you are interested in American history and like weighty, well-researched biographies, check this one out — even if you’re not a fan of the musical. (Though, why would you not be?)