by Ron Chernow
The Penguin Press
Published: April 2004
Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” was published in 2004 and remains one of the most popular biographies of all time. It was a New York Times best-seller and served as the inspiration behind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical “Hamilton.” Chernow is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Washington: A Life.” His most recent biography “Grant” was published in 2017.
Few books come with higher expectations than this biography of America’s most brash, self-assured and hyperkinetic Founding Father. But not only does Chernow’s narrative of this intriguing Revolutionary-era figure surpass lofty expectations, it may well set the standard for the nearly perfect biography.
Meticulously researched and brilliantly composed, this biography contains 731 pages of text and covers Hamilton’s entire life: from his tantalizingly chaotic early years to his untimely death at the age of forty-nine. The final two chapters focus on reaction to Hamilton’s death, the travails of his nemesis Aaron Burr and the life of his widow (who would outlive him by a half-century).
Chernow exhibits an extraordinary level of literary fluency and his narrative possesses a consistently erudite flair which is wonderfully colorful, surprisingly fluid and appropriately detailed and descriptive (while assiduously avoiding pointless minutiae). His ability to set a scene and describe events is almost unmatched, and nearly every sentence – particularly in early chapters – seems a carefully constructed literary masterpiece.
It would be difficult to imagine a better biographical subject than Alexander Hamilton, and it is quickly clear that Chernow is the perfect biographer to explore the multifaceted nature of Hamilton’s spirited personality. The book begins with one of the more compelling introductions to a biography I’ve encountered and the first four chapters (which carry Hamilton to the early stages of the American Revolution) may be the best – if not quite effortless – early pages of a biography I’ve ever read.
Throughout the book Chernow demonstrates an uncommon gift for introducing new characters in a way that they become instantly unforgettable. George Washington, Elizabeth Schuyler (his future wife), James Madison, Aaron Burr, George Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Monroe each receive noteworthy inaugural attention.
In addition, Chernow’s review of the Founding Fathers’ perspectives on slavery is particularly interesting, and his dissection and analysis of Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers is extraordinary if somewhat dense. Chernow also does an admirable job describing Hamilton’s concept of a central bank and, toward the end of the book, provides a fascinating review of Hamilton’s final days.
For all its positive attributes, however, this biography does not provide all readers with an effortless or carefree reading experience. Chernow’s writing style is exquisitely articulate but also uncommonly sophisticated, so this biography requires a reasonably measured pace (and, perhaps, a dictionary on stand-by) to be fully appreciated.
In addition, the author tends to portray his subject as the “prime mover” in his world, underplaying the push and pull exerted by other strong personalities of the time. And certain characters – Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe most notably – come across rather badly. They are generally portrayed as two-dimensional caricatures rather than nuanced and complex personalities. Finally, while the book is almost uniformly engaging, brief sections near its mid-point feel comparatively lethargic.
Overall, however, Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” is outstanding in nearly every respect. It is one of the most captivating, fascinating, perceptive, well-researched and elegantly written biographies I’ve ever read. And if this is not the quintessential – and almost perfect – biography, then surely none exists.
Overall rating: 5 stars
I’ve never seen such an enthusiastic review from you. I have to read this. I tried digging into the Federalist Papers a few years back and got sidetracked. This is a good way return.
I hope I wasn’t enthusiastic simply because I finally had the opportunity to read about a non-president(!) In all seriousness, I really did enjoy this biography and I’m reminded why I enjoyed Cherrnow’s biography of Washington so much. But as good a biographical subject as Washington proves to be, Hamilton provides even more raw material and Chernow made the most of it.
Teacher in Tejas said:
It is amazing how good a writer Chernow is. I swear there were times in Washington that he had me on the edge of my seat going on for three pages about George’s sixth grade report card. (“C’mon George I know you can do better in Greek.”) 🙂
Teacher in Tejas said:
Scott, a group of scholars a few years ago went into the Federalist Papers and “translated” them for the modern reader (i.e. simplified the windy 18th century prose and the redundancy that at times makes you lose the point). The book is called “The Original Argument.” (Fair warning it was introduced by Glenn Beck, who also does commentary in the book, but it was actual scholars who did the research. I enjoyed this book a lot)
Adam Perschbacher said:
Totally agreed! Loved this one too!
There just aren’t enough books (or biographical subjects) like this!
So, did you like it? 😃😃😃. This is one book I have had on my list for some time. Time to get down to business and read.
Now that I’ve pressured you into reading this, let me know whether you agree with my assessment! I’d hate lead you astray, but I think I’m safe on this one…
This companion site is fancy! It looks much better on my phone than the presidential site.
Fantastic! (I wonder what in the world I did to make that happen?)
I second your comments on the first 4 chapters. They were quite captivating and – for me – the best part of the biography.
Alan Nathan said:
If I’m not mistaken, your only 5-star books were both written by Ron Chernow, both Washington and Hamilton. You should make sure his Grant is high on your list. I loved all three.
Your recollection is correct – and his biography of Grant is on my list of biographies to be read *this* year!
Adam Perschbacher said:
I promise you’ll love that one too. I’m going in the opposite direction right now, and need to make Washington a higher priority!
Terry H said:
I consider Chernow’s Washington to be the best one-volume (if not the best overall) biography of Washington of all time. Having said that, Hamilton was even better. What he achieved while serving President Washington was amazing!! Its so interesting to look back on this book. When it was first announced and in the run-up to it, critics and historians felt that Chernow might be over his head. Sure, he’d written excellent histories of the Morgans (J.P.) and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Titan–which you should absolutely get to some time), but that his financial knowledge of the late 19th and early 20th century wouldn’t translate as easily to the Revolutionary era. in addition, they felt he wouldn’t have a handle on the Founders.
How wrong they were!! This book inspired the Washington Prize, which along with the Lincoln Prize is the biggest monetary award in America ($50,000.00). Hamilton was the first winner. I can’t recommend it highly enough and its a great start to your new website.
Thanks for your efforts and conttributions. Looking forward to more.
Since Chernow’s bio of Washington was my first (and, until Hamilton, my only) full 5-star review, I’m curious what I would think if I re-read it today. And no worries – I DO have all of Chernow’s other biographies in my long-term reading plan! Having worked in the financial services sector for a couple decades I’m quite keen to see how he tackles Rockefeller, the Morgan family and the Warburgs.
Steve – you need to read Titan ASAP if you were in business. It’s my favorite Chernow book, and Rockefeller was a very interesting figure.
My next book is Chernow’s “Grant” and then…drum roll…I’m reading “Titan!” I’m not sure how it could possibly be better than his biographies of Washington or Hamilton, but you’ve just elevated my expectations 🙂
MAX PLACKE said:
I agree completely with your review. I read “Hamilton” about 10 years ago and loved it then. I’ve read 3 Grant bios, and Chernow’s was my favorite of him as well. I was hoping he would write bios of Cleveland and Coolidge, but that’s probably not going to happen.
Anyway, thanks for the reviews, and keep up the good work!
Thanks! I secretly wish Chernow would tackle Martin van Buren… But on a more serious note, I can’t even begin to imagine what he could do with Andrew Jackson or Teddy Roosevelt.
David Steele said:
Hello Steve and may I first congratulate you a little belatedly on completing your journey through the presidents. I only discovered your site around six months ago but find it fascinating. My own favourite president is Harry Truman. He was my special subject when I took part in a tv quiz here in the UK many years ago. I did not win but it was no fault of Harry! I bought the Hamilton bio some years ago but like too many of my books I have never got round to reading it. I will do so one day but in the meantime have just bought Chernow’s book on Washington as it was your only 5 star review till today. That book may therefore take priority.
Finally, I do remember many years ago reading T Harry Williams book on Huey Long and it has stayed in my mind as perhaps the best political biography I have ever read. Long may or may not have been a great man but he certainly inspired a great book. Good luck with the rest of your reading plan which I will follow with interest.
Thanks for your note and good luck on your reading (if not your game show experience, for which I’m clearly too late!) You are the 2nd person in the past six or so months to mention the Williams biography of Huey Long. Having looked into it, I think I’ve already added it to one of my various lists but you’ve prodded me to double-check that. It certainly seems like an “off-the-beaten-path” choice for someone so far from the swamp of Louisiana politics!
Christopher Saunders said:
Excellent review of an excellent book. I first read this one back in college and was absolutely blown away at how textured and nuanced it is for a biography. Revisiting it more recently I feel even more strongly. Whereas I felt his Washington bio occasionally veered towards hagiography, he’s much better with Hamilton, a brilliant and innovative man limited and destroyed by flaws, both personal and ideological. I would criticize it a bit as a broader view of the Revolutionary period, especially because Chernow has a less firm grasp on other figures (particularly Jefferson and Burr), but it’s still a wonderful experience overall.
While reading Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, I also thought I could detect the early traces of the author’s fascination with Washington as a similarly larger-than-life figure. So in hindsight I’m not surprised Chernow decided to tackle the first POTUS a few years later. And, as you point out, the context he provided on the Revolutionary era was uneven and Thomas Jefferson (deserving as he may be of criticism) merely served as a punching bag… But what a fun read!
Mike Beaumont said:
So glad you loved it as much as I did. This was the book that really started my journey into American history many years ago when it was first published. I’m proud to say I was a Hamilton fanboy “before he was cool!” But then, Chernow made him cool even before Lin in my mind. 🙂
Josh M. Lease said:
I very much enjoyed Cherow’s Hamilton bio. I will say that reading it in close proximity to McCullough’s Adams bio may have shifted some of my thinking about it. It was absolutely fascinating to see the significance of Adams in the Hamilton bio, whereas in the Adams bio he’s so much more of a minor character. The shift in perspective between the two authors is rather remarkable.
Lucas Bertrand-Sittler said:
I really enjoyed the book overall, but I believe it undeserving of such unequivocal praise.
My biggest complaint is that Chernow was not able to maintain enough objectivity on Hamilton. Despite being far from a hagiography, the book contains a list of passages, too many to my liking, where I thought the author forced an hyperbolic narrative with little supporting evidence, cherry picked facts or omitted key events (see my examples below).
I find very few biographers are able to maintain complete their objectivity on a person given the self-selection bias (who would sacrifice thousands of hours of their time on a person they dislike?) and the almost-always sympathetic point of view for the protagonist.
Putting aside this criticism, I want to applaud Chernow for two singular parts that make the book worth reading. The first one is how Hamilton supported and analyzed the new constitution through his articles in The Federalist (what a prolific writer!) and how he single-handedly created the U.S. financial system as the first Secretary of Treasury (the de-facto Prime Minister). I really enjoyed how the author documented Hamilton’s sources of inspirations behind the structure of the Republic and of the financial system.
Appendix to support my claims:
1) His analysis of the cause of the War of Independence is uni-dimensional: Walter Isaacson’s book on Benjamin Franklin provides a more compelling narrative for the source of tension between Great Britain and the colonies (too long to explain here)
2) Hyperbolic language to praise Hamilton’s military genius during the War of Independence; he came across as courageous and brave in front of enemy fire but the author does not produce one piece of evidence that made me think of him as a “military genius” (unlike in the financial and legal matters where evidence of his genius piles up dizzily fast)
3) No mention of the strategically crucial naval battle of Chesapeake to ensure the victory at Yorktown (only reading this book would make you wonder why didn’t Cornwallis use the Royal Navy to escape by sea…)
4) The author kept using the word “prescient” to describe Hamilton; failing to note that it could be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy where Hamilton could shape events to his views given all the power he had at this key juncture of the Republic
5) The SEUM debacle where the author’s timid critique of Hamilton (“Hamilton had chosen the wrong sponsors at the wrong time”) contradicts how the author, just a couple of pages before, described Hamilton as micro-managing many aspects of the project .
6) The contrast in the author’s tone when portraying Jefferson vs. Hamilton as the author seems much more at ease at highlighting Jefferson’s flaws and contradictions than Hamilton’s
I will stop here given this comment is already lengthier than most others. Please let me know if you think I am cherry picking my supporting points and if you have counter-examples that refute my claims.
Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend reading this book.
Andy G. said:
Another great review! I too was blown away by this book. Chernow is obviously super talented, but in Hamilton’s case, I do have to think one can only screw up the telling of a life like that.
It was pretty obvious after reading the book just how much it made sense to transform it into the great musical. What a dramatic story!!! Rise from nowhere, death throughout childhood, immigrant in NYC, bravery in battle, political genius, adultery, even faster fall from the top, murdered by an arch-rival (and VPOTUS!).
I agree with other’s comments about Jefferson coming off looking really bad in the book. But I don’t think the blame lies with Chernow. I think he was fair (TJ did basically undermine Washington’s government WHILE serving as SOS) and presented Jefferson from the standpoint of how he affected Hamilton’s life. I have to imagine Jefferson and Hamilton were so opposite in their views and both so aware of how smart and power-hungry the other was that the role they took on in their stories was that of being overwhelmingly negative.
Now I just need to decide on a Jefferson bio to see if Hamilton gets a similar treatment.
Hamilton’s life really does seem to be a biographer’s dream and Chernow managed to capture it beautifully. Depending on which Jefferson (or Washington, or Adams or Madison) bio(s) you read Hamilton will come off quite differently…as you might imagine!
Eric Beasley said:
Try John Boles’ Jefferson-Architect of American Liberty published in 2017 for a more balanced assessment of Jefferson.
Ironically enough, I’m planning to read Boles’s bio of Jefferson sometime this coming Sept / Oct.
Franklin Robinson said:
I’m kicking in a little late here. I read Chernow’s bio on Hamilton sometime age and I enjoyed reading it, like I have his other bios on Washington, Morgan, and Rockefeller. Your review was spot on for me.
What strikes me about many biographers, is their tendency to ‘downgrade’ other historical figures to make the person they are writing about larger, so to speak. You pointed this out in your review where it concerns Jefferson and Monroe. Of course I’ve seen this done with some bios on Jefferson also. They often tend to downgrade Hamilton, Washington, and Adams.
I wish these biographers would try not fall into that trap.
Thanks, enjoy reading your reviews.