So, having listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton about a zillion times, I decided that I really should read the book that inspired it, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, if for no other reason than just to know which parts of the musical were true and which were dramatic license.

But Chernow’s biography turns out to be a lot more than just a sourcebook for the musical, of course. It’s a portrait not just of Hamilton, but of his era, because it turns out that if you’re trying to explain the life of this guy who did so much to shape the nascent United States, you really need to explain the politics and controversies and wars and personalities of the time as well.

One of the things that surprised me was how narrative, almost novelistic, the book is. Because when I’ve read biographies of historical figures in the past, for college classes, they were always medieval or early modern figures, people whose lives have a lot of blank spots and whose personalities require a lot of guesswork based on relatively little evidence. But Hamilton lived much more recently, and there’s so much from and about him—letters that he wrote to his friends and to his wife, letters from his illicit mistress, the letters that he wrote to his political allies, letters that his enemies wrote about him, plus newspaper essays and wartime correspondence and trial records and and and. So there’s a lot of emotion and personality in it, in a way that I hadn’t expected. It’s easy to see why Miranda was inspired to make Hamilton the subject of a musical, because he’s almost bursting out of the pages the whole time.

But I don’t want to give the opinion that this is just a fun diversion. For all that Chernow writes accessibly, and that Hamilton’s life lends itself to narrative, this is a well-sourced biography with tons of primary sources and apparently original research; and Chernow does an excellent job evoking the colonial and post-colonial worlds.

If the subject holds any interest at all to you, strongly recommended.


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