By Judy Garrison
Our LitWits Book Group (not a club or a closed group, but we do have avid regulars) chose to read Alexander Hamilton for February’s session. Nonfiction picks are unusual, though not unprecedented, for us, but we were united in our choice despite its length and the density of events. To maximize the probability of finishing, our librarian ordered the books from 4-County two months ahead along with the lighter reading for January.
I didn’t get started until a month ahead, but treated it like a commitment, dutifully logging in an average of 20+ pages a day in this 730 page book. But rather than a slog it was a joy! I fell in love with Hamilton, following him from Nevis and St. Croix to New York City, in the perfect place and at the perfect time to fulfill his gifts and his resolution to help forge a transition from Revolution to enduring institutions. And, boy, could that boy write, beautifully and tirelessly in the cause. He ended up penning 59 of the 85 Federalist papers, thoughtful analyses, every one, of the designs for our government that went into the Constitution. He wrote himself into exhaustion, and did it all in his belief that it was now or never to create institutions and procedures that would last. We all know him as the founder of our Central Bank, but it is remarkable to learn how he designed many other organizations, such as the Coast Guard, for which no detail was too small for him to specify. He was more of a right hand assistant to George Washington than I ever knew, writing many of his speeches and correspondence, a strategist and, when he finally had a chance, a brave and resourceful soldier. In addition to his outsize brilliance, integrity and massive productivity, his personal traits were no less admirable: He was charming, handsome and well turned out, a magnet to the ladies, but also a loving and devoted husband and father. Almost too many sterling traits for one man, it might seem. But, of course, he had his Achilles heel, and when we follow in detail a certain summer in Philadelphia when his family is upstate and he comes into the grips of a seductive Maria Reynolds and her grifter husband we can hardly believe that he was lured into and then persists in this involvement. Later, under threat of exposure, he compulsively engages in telling his own version in lurid detail. The man can’t stop himself!
His conflicts with Jefferson over whether government should be more or less centralized, and the accusations that ensued (Jefferson accusing him repeatedly of trying to restore a monarchy and of profiting from the banking system—never the case) had this reader incensed at the mischaracterizations of Hamilton’s motives. But, alas, Alexander cannot seem to stop the flow of words in his own defense, even leaning way overboard on the offense. We can certainly see parallels with today’s political polarization and out-of-control rhetoric.
A member of our discussion group posed a question: Did he marry Eliza from the prestigious and well established Schuyler family out of opportunism? There arose a chorus recounting how our various mothers had advised us that “it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as with a poor man.” We concluded, that this penniless young orphan from the West Indies had heard such an inner call, and was as attracted to Eliza and her entire family as they were to him. It wasn’t opportunism so much as good sense that sent him into Eliza’s arms.
Who wouldn’t agree that it was not good sense that sent him to the duel in Weehawken with Aaron Burr? Yet, as incredulous as we may be that Hamilton couldn’t or wouldn’t avoid getting killed at the age of 49, and leaving his loving family who had been living happily on their farm in uptown Manhattan, Chernow masterfully leads us through the details that seem to proceed inevitably toward this bizarre event.
The Litwits listened to a couple of the rousing songs from Miranda’s musical Hamilton ( King George III singing his break-up song with America is one of my favorites) and you realize why this raucous music careening with dense lyrics and bursting with energy feels right for telling this outsize tale.~