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