As soon as I “met” Alexander Hamilton as a statue while Celebrating Independence in Philadelphia, I began reading Alexander Hamilton, the 2005 biography by Ron Chernow that inspired the Broadway hip-hop musical, Hamilton. It’s a long book, but a riveting one. I can see why Hamilton‘s writer/composer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda said that Chernow’s book “just leapt off the page.” In fact, the musical condenses and clarifies huge swaths of the book.
As a former Virginian and mother of two University of Virginia graduates, I have long admired Thomas Jefferson and have read many books about him. The party Jefferson led was called the Democratic-Republican party. Chernow’s book presents the contrasting views of Hamilton’s Federalists, the opposing party that insisted on a strong federal government rather than the loose confederation of states Jefferson preferred.
It has always bothered me that Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all Virginia slave owners. Now I see that their party’s distrust of a strong central government was due to their reluctance to give up not only the economic benefits of slavery, but also the South’s political advantage of counting three-fifths of the enslaved population in determining how many Representatives they could have in Congress, even though slaves had no vote. Hamilton was an ardent abolitionist; the Democratic-Republicans considered him dangerous to their way of life.
Until reading this book, I had never fully appreciated Hamilton’s genius in getting the Constitution ratified and in establishing the machinery of government as the first Secretary of the Treasury. His vision and energy were simply astounding. Among the many lasting institutions he set up were the currency, the Mint, the Bank of the United States, the Coast Guard, and West Point. Chernow exalts the breadth of his achievements and plumbs the depths of political partisanship in the late 18th century. It was a critical time for our country, just as it is now. Chernow’s book provides a welcome perspective on the current Presidential election.