How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore – and a Scotsman – dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Such is the question which ignites Hamilton: An American Musical, the trail-blazing blitz of a show about the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father, with such energy and force that it changed lives, changed the past and changed the world. But it’s also the question charging through the original source material (the manga, if you will), a 732-page work of academic biography by American historian Ron Chernow, illustrating the life of none other than Alexander Hamilton.
Chernow’s tome is a book I have been desperate to read for over two years, and it is curious that the work is completed now. I began reading in the middle of March, when I was still living in Cambridge, waiting out the interstitial period between the end of Lent Term and global lockdown; I’d no idea that I would finish soon after Disney+ drop the cinematic incarnation online for all to see, at a point when America is reckoning with its history of slavery and racism more than at any time in recent memory, a conversation which Hamilton cannot help but be drawn into.
That it’s taken me four months should provide some indication of just how expansive and imposing the book is. 732 pages is a tall order for any literature, and the simply tiny text imprinted on huge pages make it all the lengthier. But it is so, so worth it. Alexander Hamilton is the best biography I have ever read. The sheer attention to detail, the absolute scale of dramatic reconstruction which Chernow composes of a life most unlike any other in America’s political pantheon is so well-done that one has gotta stop and take stock – “wait, this ALL really happened?”
I am – perhaps unfortunately for some – one of those Hamilton super-fans. I booked tickets for the London production the day they went on sale in January 2017 for my nineteenth birthday eighteen months later, and I haven’t stopped listening to its soundtrack since. I am literally listening to it right now (well, The Hamilton Mixtape, which is a whole OTHER album to get obsessed with!) I’ve got no clue how many hours I’ve racked up reverberating the lyricism of Lin-Manuel Miranda; somewhere in the thousands, probably. I played My Shot Non-Stop in December 2018 on the day of my Cambridge interview, which probably paints a sickeningly (accurate) impression of me.
This was not a case of loving a soundtrack from the beginning and leaping at the chance to see it realised: I went in cold. I knew it was a cultural phenomenon which managed to make the politics of forming a government into an exuberant musical, performed entirely by actors of colour, just the most incredible idea. But, sans listening to Weird Al Yankovic’s The Hamilton Polka (yeah yeah whatever), I had zero idea of how the songs went, or the plot, and only the faintest recollection of how Miranda sought to convey Alexander Hamilton. It paid off in spades. I fell in unrequited love with this show; the only way I could describe it was that it makes the English language sound as if Miranda composed it purely for Hamilton, his interlocking literary lyricism being just that mind-blowing.
Alexander Hamilton was a bastard orphan immigrant born into poverty who made his own future, rising up through grit and graft to become the father of the American government, a conclusion hinted at in Hamilton and made explicit by Chernow. It is hard not to feel a degree of inspiration from the Hamiltonian legacy, particularly with Miranda’s rambunctious and powerful depiction. As a fellow bastard born into poverty, it’s a musical almost tailor-made for me; my father died when I was young, like the mother of Hamilton, and though I cannot claim to know the immigrant experience and that of people of colour in America, the emotional pressure points of Miranda’s musical are particularly applicable to the experience of growing up in poverty – and, indeed, writing your way out.
Much of the critical discourse surrounding Hamilton focuses on its historical accuracy and responsibility, questions which attach themselves to works of historical fiction comprised of white casts intriguingly infrequently. To what extent is Miranda’s Hamilton anything like the man himself? Is it accurate at all, or essentially completely fictitious? Should art made from history have a responsibility to adhere to its real-life veracity? Indeed, how much of that emotional connection to a Puerto-Rican Alexander Hamilton who sings and dances is engineered from the musical and how much can be traced back to the real man?
So, I was deeply excited to learn more about the actual Hamilton in the book which inspired a revolution. Turns out – at least in my mind – that the art and reality are remarkably similar. Alexander Hamilton was unquestionably a self-made man, who was both much kinder and much harsher than the show even gets at. Chernow writes of a young man charged with providential purpose, working and working to avoid the fate of pestilence and poverty that seemed to befall all those around him. In his introduction, Chernow – no doubt enamoured with the incredible strengths and weaknesses of his subject – describes him as “the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.” Hamilton was an “exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace” who “must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years,” an “irresistible psychological study” for the biographer. For the first few hundred pages, I did think Chernow was perhaps too enamoured, but by the end of the book, it’s clear he is willing to cast judgement on Hamilton for some of his more questionable decisions.
Like with all ‘great men’ of history, his position could not have been reached without a little help from his friends; had the businessmen of his birthplace not generously set up a subscription fund to send him to the mainland, had General George Washington not taken him on as his right-hand-man, had Eliza Schuyler not cared for their ever-expanding family while her husband worked (including eight children and a revolving door of local orphans the couple committed to fostering – an incredible omission from the musical), then Alexander Hamilton would have squandered in poverty and squalor. Thomas Jefferson tells his opponent that he’s “nothing without Washington behind you,” a judgement left somewhat unresolved by Chernow. Looking at the length of Hamilton’s life, there is a noticeable temporal correlation between the resignation and, later, death of President Washington and the terminal decline of his political fortunes.
But to credit others with the rise of Alexander Hamilton – and with his fall – is to strip him of agency, for good and for ill, a depressingly common tendency when it comes to shilling for or hating historical figures (and I think is somewhat problematic when it comes to Hamilton, for reasons I’ll explain later). Like the musical, Hamilton is written as a self-fuelling propulsive engine, disinclined from living in the past and burning power at breakneck speed in the direction of the future. The sheer volume of work was voluminous, and Chernow frequently expresses astonishment at just how much Hamilton was able to do, and how accurate his political foresight was to prove; he predicted a civil war between North and South more than once, saw the necessity of capitalist trade at the time, and its part in a strong central government. Not only was he instrumental in winning the Revolutionary War, but he also secured the ratification of the Constitution through New York, organising and writing the vast majority of The Federalist Papers incredibly quickly; almost singlehandedly set up the national bank; fought relentlessly to centralise federal authority through taxation; saw off the Whiskey Rebellion, America’s first tax protest; assembled and established the framework for the first United States military; helped to avert war with Britain; made arguably the first major call for a nation of manufacturers; set the long-standing precedent for the functioning of libel law, and a slew of more minor victories I am no doubt forgetting – the one weakness of such an expansive book is that it is like a universe unto itself, impossible to recall every detail penned. How Chernow masterminded such a project eludes me.
Most pertinently, Chernow is unequivocal in Hamilton’s anti-slavery sensibilities. The musical is too, but a lot of criticism runs along the implication of exaggeration of his abolitionism. Chernow doesn’t go quite as far as Miranda in implying that, had Hamilton lived, he could have ended slavery in America (by the time he was murdered by Aaron Burr, his political career had effectively reached its end), but Miranda doesn’t mention Hamilton’s role in the New York Manumission Society as its influential legal advisor. The group, founded by John Jay, set up the African Free School to educate the children of slaves and freed people of colour, and Hamilton “helped defend free blacks when slave masters from out of state brandished bills of sale and tried to snatch them off the New York Streets” after his tenure as Treasury Secretary ended – a far cry from the public denouncements offered by Washington, Jefferson and Madison, who all owned slaves in private. Indeed, Hamilton would often waive legal fees for many of his cases altogether, or not collect them for years later, which no doubt compounded the personal financial insecurity he and his family regularly found themselves in, a far cry from the fiction of the corrupt speculator so often espoused by Jefferson and Madison (Hamilton himself ordered a House investigation into his conduct, which exonerated him completely – not that this abetted the Republican press).
Equally, this perhaps emboldens the legend of the ‘good white man’ which is so prominent – and dangerous – when discussing the history of slavery in America. It is a sentiment I felt Chernow guilty of falling foul of more than once. That Hamilton didn’t direct his energies towards emancipation on a governmental level underscores his complicity in a system that systematically harvested the bodies of black men and women for socio-economic gain. It’s impossible to get inside the head of Alexander Hamilton, even for Ron Chernow; I’m white, and it’s not my place to give the answer as to whether Hamilton was sufficiently abolitionist for his time. For me, at least, a much more disappointing position which Hamilton took was to cynically use slavery and Thomas Jefferson’s previous musings on emancipation as a reason to elect John Adams to the presidency instead of him.
It falls into a pattern of increasingly erratic and frustrating decisions made by Hamilton in his later years; the Reynolds Pamphlet is the most obvious aggression, but the Adams Pamphlet, touched on by the musical (lyricised in full in An Open Letter on the Mixtape), can be taken as such as well, performing a character assassination so polemical as to embarrass its writer, as can his goading of Aaron Burr after working so hard to halt his election, resulting in his death. Most bizarrely, Hamilton took on an anti-immigration stance in his final years, a nonsensical and bigoted position for anyone to take but most particularly so for America’s most famous immigrant.
You have invented a new kind of stupid
A ‘damage you can never undo’ kind of stupid
An ‘open all the cages in the zoo’ kind of stupid
‘Truly, you didn’t think this through?’ kind of stupid
You took a rumor a few, maybe two, people knew and refuted it by sharing an affair of which no one has accused you
I begged you to take a break, you refused to
So scared of what your enemies will do to you
You’re the only enemy you ever seem to lose to
You know why Jefferson can do what he wants?
He doesn’t dignify school-yard taunts with a response!
Those are the opening lyrics to Congratulations on The Hamilton Mixtape – lyrics which, to be frank, should be in the musical itself because they comprise the most cogent criticism of Hamilton that Miranda has mustered. He was prideful and arrogant to a fault, indeed obsessed with his legacy; any time an unfounded critique emerged in the press – which happened innumerable times on a near-daily basis for almost twenty years, making America’s current journalistic conflicts look weak – Hamilton would put pen to parchment and fire off a letter, demanding refutation and ideally an apology. It worked very well. Until it didn’t.
I find this part of Alexander Hamilton – the man, and the musical – fascinating. He no doubt made egregious moral errors; cheating on a wife as loving as Eliza for such a long time was and remains incomprehensible, which Chernow concludes he knew as well. Burn is a show-stopper of Hamilton, but it is written for dramatic necessity out of a lack of historical record (much like The Room Where It Happens). What is clear from what survives, expertly compiled by Chernow, is that Alexander and Eliza were able to heal and grow closer than ever before. That is, perhaps, the great strength of Alexander Hamilton, one highlighted by Renée Elise Goldsberry in the movie’s documentary accompaniment on Disney+ – though its detail is meticulous, what makes it such a readable book is the sheer degree of emotional investment in the personalities and relationships between these people, with a choice of final page that breaks my heart.
So, did it do it? What do I think of Hamilton now?
I absolutely love cultural criticism and genuine engagement with art, especially something as big and bombastic as Hamilton, but I won’t deny that so much of the present discourse, including discordant calls to ‘cancel’ it (though they are few and far between) is in resolutely bad faith, in search of eye-grabbing headlines and the maximum number of retweets. Frankly, I think Miranda managed to articulate a feeling quite unique and difficult to explain, that of how it feels to rise up out of poverty.
Hamilton, then and now, was accused of vanity and arrogance and narcissism, but can you really blame him? The sheer volume of his achievements, outpacing and surpassing every single political critic, stands testament to his political and personal skills, a matter Chernow does not shy away from – he is withering of Thomas Jefferson, a cowardly, slave-owning rapist who occupies a far more outsized role in America’s national psyche for a lot less work and a lot of it worse.
We have to understand the fragility of legacy: without Eliza Hamilton, his wouldn’t exist – and before the book and play, it’d already been dismissed. The popular imagination of America’s founding is full of Washington and Adams, Madison and Jefferson – as Miranda’s lyrics tell us, Hamilton got forgotten. That this was still happening is a direct consequence of his criticised actions when he was alive; Chernow dives in with meticulous detail, but the scale of the press campaign against him was truly astonishing and continued to admonish him long after he was dead. And, though confirmed by their surviving correspondence, I imagine you can guess why he inspired such hatred. Bastard. Orphan. Immigrant. That he was enterprising and hard-working angered them to no end; politics then was between gentlemen and friends (intriguingly, many characteristics of modern-day elections can be traced back to the time, though not with Hamilton, but Burr). The catalogue of evidence Chernow has composed is so total, perhaps, because he was correcting the record. In doing so, the book reminds us of the fluidity of history. Our conceptions of hero and villain are in ever-constant flux as we unearth information and recast our judgements – a good thing.
It’s hard to choose a favourite moment of Hamilton, but one I’m always drawn back to is Hurricane. For a show which places Miranda at the absolute centre of so much, it’s a rare sequence where he is almost entirely alone on stage, rapping with riposte about writing his way out. He’s alone on stage because unlike the marvellous performances of My Shot and Non-Stop, there’s nobody for Hamilton to perform to – and nobody who knows how it feels – but himself. It’s a moment of introspection we don’t get again until his death, and his stage-set isolation stands testament to how he cut a lonely figure throughout his life. After the death of John Laurens, Hamilton found it hard to open up to anybody again. He sparred with Jefferson and Madison, Adams and Aaron Burr, but these partnerships were villainous – bar Eliza, he had nowhere to turn.
The story of Hamilton demands fascination because it incarnates the ideal of self-made transformation. It’s considered an ideal because it barely ever happens; for every one Hamilton, the numbers of dead hopes run to thousands. Instead, power and authority get ancestrally invested – manifest in every single person at the time whose name was not Alexander Hamilton. Like in the musical, his critics preferred throwing slurs of a bastard, orphan, immigrant at his name, obsessing unreservedly with the man doing – let’s face it – a lot more than them. To look at events with modern eyes is to reach a clear conclusion: these aristocratic planters thought a man born with nothing oughtta stay content with nothing because the notion of acting otherwise is nothing. It is barely the case that our world today is a meritocracy, but compared to 18th Century America ours is a paradise. Hamilton took the social order and burned it; his enemies got given their power – he earned it.
The listening paid off; I didn’t throw away my shot. I arrived at Cambridge in October and, after two years of turmoil and questioning my place, I, with grateful fortune, fell right away into place. I meet so many whose lives are on a path of predetermination, crafted from birth to go to Cambridge because how could it not? That it is full to the brim with snobby private school students is now, fortuitously, not true – it’s the well-to-do middle-class who think the place their due. The generation of people for whom Oxbridge was always possible; never something to doubt, or a sudden realisation. For many, they’re my friends, and I love them to bits. They can understand and empathise with what it’s like to be poor, and I don’t want to walk around with a chip on my shoulder. But, every once in a while, I stop and remember that they don’t know how it feels to go hungry or contend with want and squalor in this poor-hating country. What frustrates me is when my predicaments are assumed to be exaggerations, invariably from people who have never had to contend with joblessness or going without, compounding that sense of isolation which I think is inevitable for all of us who go from nothing to something, coloured in those hues of blues on stage in Hurricane.
You know why Jefferson can do what he wants?
He doesn’t dignify school-yard taunts with a response!
Hamilton’s intransigence can be hard to understand, but it’s easier to grasp if you know there was no plan. By that, I don’t mean no plan of his to make – I mean the plans that no one asks for but will very gladly take. Jefferson didn’t dignify school-yard taunts with a response because he never had to. He had power, wealth and land, and the same goes for all who have no need to make demands.
It factors into the critiques of Hamilton which suggest we shouldn’t celebrate him because he was an authoritarian capitalist, which I think is absurd on two counts (let me explain). At no point in the musical does Miranda suggest we just need to translate Hamiltonian philosophy into the present day and that would solve our problems – that the show is cast with actors of colour should be enough to refute that. It demonstrates a total lack of nuance about American politics at a time when the choice comprised of two options: strong central government and capitalist free trade with Alexander Hamilton, or slave-owning agrarianism with Thomas Jefferson. That choice no longer exists, as the Jeffersonian vision has – rightly – been forgotten. But think even slightly carefully about what Hamilton was actually proposing, and what is clear immediately is that the governments of today’s nation-states are fundamentally Hamiltonian, and all the better for it. Yes, he was a capitalist and wrote in defence of free trade, but his preference for strong and bureaucratic government should exemplify his broader similarities to the political default of today; yes, he was authoritarian, but only insofar as he believed a government should exist at all. Hamilton is a musical about many things, death and legacy chief among them. Miranda sensibly centralises the action in America, but I would go as far as arguing that legacy is global. That he advanced his plans around 150 years before they became the planetary default is nothing short of stunning.
We have the luxury of critiquing capitalism now because a genuine alternative rooted in human welfare – socialism, or social democracy – exists, first theorised long after Hamilton died. More troublingly, I see it as part of a line of thought that wants those who rise up out of poverty to adhere to stringent rules about their life, as well as those still entrapped within it, like when benefits claimants are criticised for daring to purchase a single item of luxury that distracts from the grinding banality of impoverished existence. Hamilton, then and now, is accused of being a pseudo-monarchist who curried favour with the rich and didn’t care about the poor. It’s ironic that those now-leftist critiques descend directly from the public image of Hamilton constructed by slave-owning Republicans.
Hamilton indulged in and carried himself through high society; was he not allowed, because he wasn’t born into it? There is a much longer, separate essay here about the malleability of class and socio-economic privilege, so I’ll digress, but a key takeaway from reading the book is that Hamilton understood the necessity of power to do something good. That meant playing dirty and made him many enemies because he dared to question contentment of staying in our lanes – and he could only do any of it through unwavering self-belief. I am keen to emphasise this because I think it’s important: when you’re born into poverty and you want to get out, you have got no choice but to back yourself. Hamilton’s sense of providential destiny makes him seem out of touch, but I would argue it’s anything but. Yes, everybody needs to back themselves, but there is a particular uniqueness to growing up in poverty and knowing that, if you fall, the world won’t pick you up. I’m not saying that’s good, or fair, or right – I’m saying it is, then and now.
High speed, dubbin’ these rhymes in my dual cassette deck
Runnin’ out of time like I’m Jonathan Larson’s rent check
My mind is where the wild things are, Maurice Sendak
In withdrawal, I want it all, please give me that pen back
Y’all, I caught my first beatin’ from the other kids when I was caught readin’
“Oh, you think you smart? Blah! Start bleedin'”
My pops tried in vain to get me to fight back
Sister tapped my brains, said, pssh, you’ll get ’em right back
Oversensitive, defenseless, I made sense of it, I pencil in
The lengths to which I’d go to learn my strengths and knock ’em senseless
These sentences are endless, so what if they leave me friendless?
Damn, you got no chill, fuckin’ right I’m relentless
I know Abuela’s never really gonna win the lottery
So it’s up to me to draw blood with this pen, hit an artery
This Puerto Rican’s brains are leakin’ through the speakers
And if he can be the shinin’ beacon this side of the G.W.B and
Shine a light when it’s gray out
But anyway – the book! It’s very, very good, and I’d recommend it to all who want a deeper look into the man of the musical, particularly if your interest is more academic. I’m increasingly of the view that historical inquiries into the show are going down a dead-end; my old friend Siddhant Adlakha’s review hits the analytical nail on the head.
I’d also highly recommend an essay written by Aja Romano in Vox from 2016, which characterises Hamilton as a work of fan-fiction, not a historical text. It’s the best essay I’ve read on the show, highlighting how so many are just missing the point. I wrote of the fluidity of history; we – in the present – have the agency to redefine and reconfigure our pasts should we wish, and tell a better story of what could come tomorrow. That’s exactly what Hamilton seeks to do by reformatting the American Revolution; “the story of America then told by America now,” as the tagline goes. It doesn’t matter that Miranda moved some dates around and omitted more details, and it really doesn’t matter that the Founding Fathers weren’t black. Alexander Hamilton is an act of reclamation of a man written off; the genius of Miranda was to turn that into yet another reclamation – by the people, and for the people, whom America tries to kill.
To read Alexander Hamilton is to get the fullest sense of not just his own life, warts and all, but also the surrounding evolution of America’s revolution. You will grasp a much greater picture of America’s history, and, if you’re coming at it from a stance of Hamilton fandom, you get the chance to read reams and reams of bonus material (as well as what the musical directly lifts; I took nerdish pleasure in highlighting every instance of ‘your obedient servant,’ as well as Burr’s genuine reflection that “the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me”). I’ve already mentioned his instrumental role in establishing America’s first military, excised from the musical entirely, and there are so many more interesting developments and intriguing notes that didn’t make the cut – like what could’ve been America’s first public water company, designed by Hamilton, and stopped by Aaron Burr.
You will also get a sense of what Lin-Manuel Miranda saw as important, and that’s most clear in the Hamilton-Burr relationship which so fuels the musical. I was surprised to discover that Chernow treats Burr as somewhat peripheral until the later years of Hamilton’s life, which makes his ardent resolution to halt his election a little bit confusing. The feuds with Thomas Jefferson and President John Adams take centre stage, with Burr only appearing every now and then. Clearly, though, the choice to anchor the show as a lifelong contest between them was an excellent and wise one. I was also expecting Angelica’s love to be exaggerated and was surprised to find that, no, she probably did love him; in one letter, Angelica asks her sister to “be like the Romans” and let her go with him, a not-so-subtle request for an open relationship.
But it, of course, was not to be, and the love between Alexander and Eliza dominates those final chapters. The exhaustive expanse of the book comes into full view, as both reader and writer realise the journey we have been on. Chernow’s decision to open and close his work with Eliza is a wise one, reminding us that, without her, Hamilton’s life would have been forgotten. As the text moves towards its conclusion, the dam breaks, and an outpouring of emotion commences; Hamilton may have lived a fraught life, but in the immediate aftermath of death, the response was absolute and devastating – Chernow writes of an entire city in deep mourning, frustrating the Republicans to no end. But no one mourned more than Eliza, who did so much and suffered so uniquely, losing not only her husband but her eldest son, her father, her sister, and her daughter thereafter to madness in swift succession.
Alexander Hamilton was, first and foremost, a writer, and it is fitting that the concluding pages should draw his story to a close with the final letter he was to ever write on the final night of his life – to his wife.
This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy mortality.
If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.
The consolations of religion, my beloved, can alone support you and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted.
Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.