Ron Chernow's stunning biography of America's first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit broadway musical Hamilton. The story goes is that Lin-Manuel picked up Chernow's biography while on vacation, and started reading it, and immediately came to the conclusion that Alexander Hamilton "embodies hip-hop." Chernow writes,
Hamilton's crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton's life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.
I am currently in Nevis on my vacation with my family, a fitting backdrop to tackle the life of the tiny island's most famous inhabitant. Alexander Hamilton wrote his way out of poverty with a poem about a hurricane, entered King's College at age 17, became an outspoken voice in the American revolution, a chief aide of General George Washington, and the creator of America's financial systems. As
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
Ron Chernow tackles this in an impressive 731 pages. I was impressed by the adept mix of Hamilton's papers and anecdotes surrounding Hamilton; Chernow expertly weaved everything about Hamilton's public and private life to create an intensely compelling portrait of Hamilton. He leaves nothing out; everything from his sex scandal (his affair with Maria Reynolds) to his feuds with the other founding fathers (notably Thomas Jefferson) to the strength of his wife (Eliza Hamilton) gets its due in the book. As Chernow writes in the prologue,
Few figures in American history have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton... he has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders... In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did. Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive...
Chernow does Hamilton's life justice.... and will deepen your already existing obsession with the Hamilton musical or inspire it. Want to know more? Some good reads & videos: this GQ interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, this profile on the show in Vogue, the 60 minutes segment on Hamilton, and this interview with Ron Chernow, and of course, listen to the soundtrack. (Thanks, mom, for taking me to the show and getting me the biography for the holidays). Rating: ★★★★★