I saw the musical last week and it was delightful. Lin-Manuel Miranda is truly a genius and a master of his craft; I’m so impressed by the music and the lyrics and the narrative and how he turned the story of an otherwise somewhat forgotten founding father into our newest national treasure.
But I’m actually here to recommend the Chernow biography, the one that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the musical. I’m not normally a history buff and I can’t remember the last biography I read (if any genre is a particular culprit for my tsundoku, it’s biographies of historical figures), but I loved this book.
It tends to the hagiographic, but Alexander Hamilton was indeed an extraordinarily impressive man. If Washington can be said to be the founding father of America, Hamilton was the founding father of American government. Both his prescience and his prolificity are astounding: As one example, he was the driving force behind the Federalist Papers, which helped ensure the ratification of the Constitution and are still referenced in contemporary Supreme Court decisions. In what was originally meant to be an equal, three-way collaboration, he wrote 51 of the 85 papers in a span of 6 months, while full-time engaged in his law practice and serving as one of New York’s most influential and highest profile lawyers. He also created the national bank and national currency and rescued the war-torn American economy whilst binding the union together via the federal government’s assumption of state debt. Amongst so, so many other things. Chernow is a skillful biographer; I found the juiciest bits of the book to be the study of Hamilton’s character, the political conflicts and compromises, the design of American democratic experiment, and not at all the human interest story lines that made for some of the most emotional and evocative songs in the musical (e.g. Burn, It’s Quiet Uptown).
If you’re going to watch the musical, I highly recommend reading the biography first. (But maybe hold off on listening to the soundtrack ahead of time, since the music and lyricism is really dazzling and I think there’s something really special about experiencing it for the first time live!)