Review: Chernow’s Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow

Yes, it’s a cliché for a New York liberal to talk about Hamilton. But here we are. At least this is about the book and not the musical.*
If you’ve found your way here, you probably already know all about this book. The definitive biography of the founding father without a father, the one who didn’t get to grow old, the one who didn’t end up president, the one who was for a century underappreciated but is now extremely famous — Alexander Hamilton.
Exhaustively researched the book is a play by play not only of Hamilton’s fascinating life, but also of the battles and machinations that surrounded the founding of America. I thought I knew something about this period when I started (we all took history, right?) but there was much that was new to me, not only about Hamilton’s incredible life from destitute child in the Caribbean to founder of the United States, but also in the battles (both real and figurative) that surrounded the war against England, the drafting of the Constitution, the establishment of the national bank, and and more. It was, a hell of a time and Hamilton had an incredible role in much of it.
This is a serious book, detailed, often scholarly, but it moves. Chernow can write, and he succeeds, where many have failed, in writing a popular book that doesn’t skimp on the historical complexity.
Many have criticized the musical for glorifying Hamilton as a paragon of a sort of modern East Coast liberalism that he really wasn’t. I think much of that criticism is more about Miranda, and the viewer, then about Hamilton the play. But regardless, the same criticism can’t really be made about this book. Here Hamilton appears warts and all, an owner of slaves, a man obsessed with status, and a adulterer, but also a genius, a forward thinker, and a generous friend. It’s one of the top biographies I have ever read, and no matter what you think of hip hop musicals, it’s worth a read.
*Which, by the way, is also brilliant.

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