Review: Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow

Rating: 5 out of 5

Hamilton, the arch-Federalist, is a typically maligned fellow in the history of these United States as it probably would have been called in his day. Mr Chernow has tried his best to bring him to life (and light) as well as to correct historical injustices, and in addition to the principal subject the reader is also treated to the story of his wife, Eliza, as well as the Federalist party though not in as many words. What we also see in these pages is the effort the author devoted to figuring out the motives of the various characters in the early republic as well as trying to objectively assess their contributions, and this makes for some very good reading.

To continue on that last topic, it is quite interesting to see an assessment based on all the available evidence and two centuries’ hindsight on whether a fear (either Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s) was based on reality and how exaggerated these could be. If nothing else, these numerous descriptions highlight human folly and our liking to think that we are correct over everyone else. As history evidences more often than not even in this book, such opinions are rarely correct and typically lead to failures of some kind (whether political or economical).

There are some technical descriptions included but not as many as one might want (though perhaps more than most would like). I would have enjoyed more technicalities on the banks as well as the lighthouses and the coast guard, but overall the author has tried to be balanced about the relevant importance of every subject as well as its place in Mr Hamilton’s life.

What I would like now is to read through Mr Jefferson’s story and to see whether he comes across as such a bigoted and foolhardy man in that one.

To conclude, I would note that the final pages here which concern themselves with Mr Burr’s conscience and Mrs Hamilton’s later years are quite possibly the very best in this volume. The writing becomes grandiose, passing many years in a few sentences but also devoting paragraphs to detail a scene or two in order to describe either the duellist pondering his fate or the widow devoting herself to the long-lost husband’s memory.

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