66 pages • 2 hours readRon Chernow
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Alexander Hamilton is a 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, written by Ron Chernow. Beginning with Hamilton’s birth in the Caribbean, the book traces Hamilton’s story from his childhood, to his early years in America, to his rise as one of the most admired—and reviled—politicians and statesmen that the country would ever see. The popular music Hamilton is based on the story told in Chernow’s book, and shows the development of both America, and one of its founders, in a medium that has reached millions.
Alexander Hamilton was born in 1757 on Nevis, a Caribbean island, but was raised primarily on St. Croix, another island in the same Caribbean chain. His early experiences on the islands inspired in him a loathing for slavery and an admiration for just rebellions. Hamilton’s mother died of a fever when he was 11, and he began living with a cousin.
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A hurricane destroyed much of St. Croix shortly after his mother’s death, and Hamilton wrote a letter illustrating the heartbreaking plight of the thousands who had lost family members and homes. The tone and intellectual sophistication of the letter impressed many influential people who read it, a fact that culminated in a fund that sent him to New York for his formal education in 1772.
Hamilton attended a prep school in Elizabeth town, then matriculated to King’s College, where he studied mathematics, Greek, Latin, and law. The American Revolution interrupted his studies. After joining an American militia, Hamilton distinguished himself both in military tactics and in combat. He was a natural leader, courageous and well-liked by his men.
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After the war ended, Hamilton set up a successful legal practice, but also continued work in politics. His influence and planning led to the Second Continental Congress, during which drafts of what would be the Constitution were outlined.
Hamilton feared that unless America operated as a union, with the federal government having the power to tax—and to unify—the states, rebellion and even civil war could be expected. His stance that a strong central government was necessary to the new country was known as Federalism. Hamilton collaborated on a lengthy series of essays in defense of Federalism that would come to be known as The Federalist Papers. Those opposed to his views—antifederalists—loathed Hamilton and tried to undermine his plans at every turn.
During George Washington’s presidency, Hamilton was his close confidante and one of his most trusted counselors. Washington appointed Hamilton secretary of the Treasury, where he was responsible for many innovations, such as the financial system, the first American bank, the customs office, an early version of the Coast Guard, and more. His enemies were unnerved by the influence they believed he exerted over Washington, and worried that Hamilton was running the country.
Despite his happy marriage and family life, Hamilton began an affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds. She and her husband James blackmailed him for money for over a year before he stopped the affair. After he resigned from the Treasury office in 1975, his adultery became public. Hamilton would spend the rest of his public life trying to maintain, or repair, his reputation, given that—with the exception of his moral failings in infidelity—his honor was the most important guiding principle.
Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson disliked each other immensely, but in the election of 1800, Hamilton helped Jefferson win. The alternative—a country run by Jefferson’s opponent, the unscrupulous Aaron Burr—was unthinkable for either of them. When Burr learned of Hamilton’s efforts to sabotage his later run for Governor of New York, he was enraged. The two men began insulting each other in newspapers and in public open letters, and eventually Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton died of the gunshot wound.
Alexander Hamilton received critical acclaim from historians, critics, and casual readers alike. The musical brought about a new wave of attention to both the book and its subject. Hamilton remains one of the most fascinating and frustrating figures produced by the American Revolution.
By Ron Chernow