I’m obsessed with Alexander Hamilton. It started out last year when my daughter played for me the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton while we were on a long car ride. A lot of it is hip hop, which I don’t normally listen to, so I feel kind of cool (although it is hip hop for the Broadway musical crowd.) The lyrics are so smart, once you decipher them, and the ballads are beautiful. The soundtrack is basically the entire story, so if you can’t afford a ticket to the show, you can experience it just by listening to it. Like many others, I think Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, is a genius.
But my obsession was just beginning. I decided to read the biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow, upon which the musical is based. It’s about 800 pages long, although the last 70 are bibliography, notes and index. Nevertheless, it’s a long book. But it’s not a slog. Maybe it’s because I love the musical, but I found myself reading late into the night, unable to stop until I finished a chapter on the Federalist Papers, or the Report on Public Credit. If you think politics is partisan today, you should read this book. Remember, that was back when it was common practice to settle disputes by dueling. Most of the time, challenges to duel were settled before a date was ever set, but as you know, they were sometimes fatal encounters.
It was also common practice for newspapers to publish anonymous critiques and criticisms of political figures. Often the pen names were thinly veiled disguises. Alexander Hamilton used the pseudonym Publius, but most people knew it was him. Newspapers themselves were mouthpieces for the different parties, the Federalists and the Republicans. James T. Callender, a hard-drinking editor of a Federalist newspaper, printed the story about Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings, which outraged the Republicans. Months later, Callender’s body was found in the James River, and to this day it is unclear if he drowned or was murdered. On another occasion, William Coleman, newspaper editor of the New York Evening Post, killed a man in a duel and then went back to his office and got the paper out, “although half an hour late.”
When Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, he was still vice-president of the United States. He fled New York, as he had been indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, so he went to the new capital on the Potomac where he continued to preside over the Senate, including the impeachment of Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Can you imagine?!
Alexander Hamilton was a Revolutionary War hero, creator of the Coast Guard, author of the Federalist Papers, the first Secretary of the Treasury, one of the main people responsible for our system of checks and balances, not to mention our financial institutions, and he was basically making it all up from scratch. America back then was a “grand experiment.”
This was in the days before word processing, and Hamilton left behind tens of thousands of pages of papers and letters. It’s assumed that he composed most of what he wrote in his head, and either wrote it down with little to no revision, or dictated it. It’s not like he could copy, cut and paste. As a writer, I’m in awe for that reason alone. But the real appeal of Alexander Hamilton is his human nature. He was proud and verbose, but also sentimental and tender. He cheated on his wife, picked fights, and never knew when to stop talking. Like all great heroes, he was fatally flawed, died too soon, and leaves behind a lot of “what ifs.”
So if you think things on the political scene are weird now, I suggest you read about the Founding Fathers, and start with Hamilton.