Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Who Tells Your Story?

Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a lot of people I’ve been listening to the Hamilton musical album non-stop and read this because it was the source of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration to create the brilliant Broadway show. The idea that a dense biography of an American Founding Father who was probably best known to the general public as the guy on the the ten dollar bill and the subject of a pretty funny Got Milk? commercial would someday lead to the creation of an incredibly popular musical that blends show tunes with hip-hop is only a little less likely than the life of Alexander Hamilton himself.*

(And if you’re interested in reading a great account of the impact the show has on people I highly recommend this article that sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote about taking his daughter to see it.)

The circumstances of Hamilton’s birth on a Caribbean island as the illegitimate son of a divorced woman and a fortune seeking Scotsman were the first strike against him, and things only got worse when his father abandoned him and his mother died. As an orphan with no money and an embarrassing social status for the time young Alexander probably should have lived a short, hard life and been forgotten by history. However, he also had a brilliant mind, a talent for writing, and an enormous appetite for work that was fueled by relentless ambition. After a hurricane devastated his island Hamilton wrote an account of the tragedy so moving that a collection was taken up to send him to America to attend college.

Hamilton arrived in New York just as the American Revolution was about to start, and his talents landed him a pivotal position on George Washington’s staff as well leading troops in the field and playing a key role during the Battle of Yorktown that essentially won the war. Hamilton’s role in the writing of The Federalist with James Madison and John Jay along with his political maneuvering was critical in getting the Constitution ratified. HIs biggest contributions to the United States probably came from his bold actions as the first secretary of the treasury when he not only got the young nation on sound economic footing but also used money as a tool to link the fates of the frequently bickering states together as a way of achieving unity and promoting a strong federal government. As Washington’s most trusted advisor Hamilton was critical in shaping the future of the country he did so much to help create.

All of this should have meant that Hamilton would be remembered as one of the most important figures in American history but he also made powerful enemies including Thomas Jefferson. The struggle between those who believed power should reside in the federal government or with the states became a bitter fight in which Hamilton was the victim of relentless political attacks that slandered his reputation and made him a perpetual lightning rod of controversy. The conflict would lead to the creation of the two party political system as well as a constant tug of war between factions about how much authority the American government should have that continues today.

Hamilton frequently didn’t do himself any favors with his outspoken nature, and his insecurities about his illegitimacy caused him to be hypersensitive to insults. His basic cynicism and mistrust of people made him wary of popular trends and leaving the fate of America in the hands of the general public who he felt could be too easily swayed by a mob mentality and demagogues. (Geez, where could he have gotten that idea?) This left him vulnerable to attacks by his enemies who smeared him as an elitist at best or a schemer plotting to return America to English control or set up an American monarchy at worst. He badly hurt his own political party by feuding with President John Adams who became another enemy who would smear Hamilton long after his death. Hamilton also had the distinction of being one of the first American politicians to be caught up in a sex scandal, and his reaction to it by publishing a tell-all memoir called The Reynolds Pamphlet was a miscalculation that severely damaged his reputation.

Propaganda from his enemies and his own combative nature and thin skin hurt his standing during his life and limited his political prospects. When his long and complex relationship with Aaron Burr ultimately led to Hamilton’s death after their infamous duel his enemies would continue to slander his reputation while his widow Eliza would spend the rest of her life defending it and try to make sure his accomplishments weren’t forgotten.

What Chernow has done with this sympathetic portrait of a brilliant but flawed man is illustrate how America owes so much to Hamilton’s genius. By detailing Hamilton’s collaborations and battles with the other Founding Fathers it shows that they weren’t saints with some glorious vision of what America should be. They engaged in compromises and accepted contradictions in the interests of getting things done, and they were consumed by the fears of all the ways the country could fail. They were also just as capable of acting in short-sighted, mean spirited, and despicable ways as any politician today, Thomas Jefferson in particular comes across as a hypocritical sneaky jerkface that I would never vote for.

After reading this it’s easy to understand how Hamilton the remarkable person inspired Hamilton the remarkable musical.

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