Show of hands? Yeah, what I thought. Here’s my Goodreads review of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.
It’s easy to see how this book, or rather the character of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write Hamilton, although the constraints of a musical means some of the best stories get left behind.
Like the one about Benedict Arnold, who has already turned his coat when Washington and Hamilton and Lafayette show up on a routine inspection of Arnold’s command. Arnold, rightly terrified that his treason will be discovered, literally slips out the back door while his wife, Peggy, who has recently given birth to his son, puts on a show of hysterics lasting just long enough for Arnold to flee to a British man-o-war. Hamilton et al are so, so sympathetic to poor Peggy and her son that they don’t suspect for a moment she might be colluding in her husband’s treasonous behavior, and turn her loose. Whereupon she takes refuge with one Theodosia Prevost, a British officer’s wife who is having an affair with…Aaron Burr. That’s better than any headline you’ve ever seen in the National Inquirer.
No question of Hamilton’s genius, here demonstrated over and over again, and of all the founding fathers he may have been most essential in creating what our nation is today, good and bad, but as Chernow writes, all the signs were there from the beginning of who this man was, also good and bad.
Hamilton was especially attentive to the amorous stories and strange sexual customs reported by Plutarch…For anyone studying Hamilton’s pay book, it would come as no surprise that he would someday emerge as a first-rate constitutional scholar, an unsurpassed treasury secretary, and the protagonist of the first great sex scandal in American political history.
But my takeaway from this book is just how pissed off at him his wife Eliza must have been when he died. First he sleeps around on her, then to prove no, no, he was only an adulterer, not for sale, he writes about the affair in detail, and then? He publishes it for her and everyone else to read. Which, not coincidentally, destroys any chance he has of holding public office ever again, including that of the presidency (‘Never gonna be president now/Ain’t never gonna be president now’). That image of Eliza sending the kids out to round up all the copies will never leave me.
Then his intemperate behavior and language causes his son to die in a duel defending his father’s good name, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.
Then he picks a fight with Aaron Burr and Burr kills him in a duel, and what I find most amazing is that Hamilton, the architect of the richest nation in the history of the world, dies deeply in debt, leaving Eliza to beg for money from family, friends and Congress so she can feed, clothe and house herself and their six surviving children for another fifty years. Miranda’s line in the musical ‘We’ll get a little place in Harlem/And we’ll figure it out’ is (I want to believe deliberately) a perfect encapsulation of all the thought Hamilton ever gave to providing for his family.
I mean pissed. OFF.
When in her eighties Eliza leaves New York and moves in with her daughter in D.C., Monroe drops by to apologize for his behavior during the Reynolds affair. She doesn’t invite him to sit, hears him out, and doesn’t forgive him.
…no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.
I was glad that she allowed herself even that much loss of temper, but otherwise Eliza spent all of her post-Hamilton life whitewashing her husband’s character. (‘I’m erasing myself from the narrative/Let future historians wonder how Eliza/Reacted When you broke her heart’)
In later years, when harvesting anecdotes about her husband Eliza Hamilton gave correspondents a list of his qualities that she wanted to illustrate, and it sums up her view of his multiple talents: “Elasticity of his mind. Variety of his knowledge. Playfulness of his wit. Excellence of his heart. His immense forbearance [and] virtues.”
At least Miranda allows Eliza to voice her own heartbreak in “Burn.”
You forfeit the place in our bed
You’ll sleep in your office instead
With only the memories of when you were mine
I hope that you burn
It is always dangerous to foist present-day motives onto women of days gone by, but there were those six children for whom she had to provide, all by herself because he hadn’t. It would have been a lot easier to borrow money in the name of a hero than of an asshole.
But Eliza had to have had some late night conversations with Alexander’s ghost that would not bear repeating in polite company.
And she never did.
And my Goodreads review of Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter can be found here. Spoiler: A brilliant accompaniment to watching the musical, especially if you have 68-year old ears that persist in eliding the verses of the rap battles.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.