Election blues (or reds) got you down? Fear not, citizen: there is always a historical precedent for these things.
I have always been an avid student of history in general, specializing in certain pockets and periods of the subject. I consider myself reasonably learned on the era of America’s founding, having labored through the gauntlet of a US history AP exam in high school (as it happened, during the same year as another bitterly contested presidential election). My AP US history teacher started off that year by assigning Patriots to my small class. Everyone was assigned the identity of an important Founding Father. I was John Jay, a fitting choice for an aspiring lawyer, but I wished I had been assigned the role of who I thought, even then, was the coolest Founding Father of them all: Alexander Hamilton.
Yes, that charming, young fellow on the $10 bill (whose place there was unbelievably threatened by the US Mint for a short period of time not too long ago) had always piqued my interest, but I was never quite sure why. Apparently, I was not the only person who felt that way about Hamilton, because the smash hit musical of the same name took us all by surprise last year. Imagine my shock when I found out that the latest Broadway blockbuster was a musical about, of all things, that one Founding Father that most people forgot about because he was the only one that was never President. People cared about this enough that the musical is sold out for the next two centuries? Apparently anything sells if you set it to good music. Educators around the world, take note.
Hamilton, the musical, is based on the extensive biography of the man by Ron Chernow. In turn, both Chernow’s work and the musical inspired today’s subject, the book Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life. Written by Jeff Wilser, Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life is a witty, short, enjoyable read dedicated “to everyone really into Hamilton…and to those not yet really into Hamilton.”
The book is not meant to be the ponderous tome that Chernow’s biography is, nor does it pretend to be. Wilser wisely goes for a different angle, condensing Alexander Hamilton’s life broadly into a scope of vignettes from which he distills critical life lessons. These vignettes largely follow a chronological order but Wilser occasionally skips around to fit themes. Wilser breaks down Hamilton’s life into ten themes, the most amusing of which is the theme of leisure. Some life lessons are quite literal and others are more figurative. Luckily, Wilser writes with a smooth, peppy style that never fails to engage the reader. He peppers his writing with wit and pop culture references (“There have also been theories that Hamilton was part Jewish, or part black, or part Targaryen. The debate continues.”) but never becomes a slave to trying to stay trendy, mixing it up with frequent quotations from Chernow and other historians. History would be much more engaging to some people if it more often alluded to tactics used in The Walking Dead.
Of course, some – nay, most – of this draws on the source material itself. Alexander Hamilton is The Man, and that shines through Wilser’s book. Like many of the greatest figures of history, Hamilton was a whirlwind of energy and invention, doing things that seem superhuman. Hamilton’s achievements are so numerous that attempting to count them all seems itself a herculean task, yet you get a sense from reading this book that Hamilton would not only have counted all of his achievements but then listed them in descending order of importance and left the list on your desk before lunchtime and then itemized his nose hairs for idle amusement. Not only could Hamilton do all of this, but he had a largely firm personal morality; again, just like many of the greatest figures of history. We could all take a lesson from Hamilton in this regard, and some of these life lessons are especially pertinent when you reflect upon the recent presidential election (Hamilton described Aaron Burr as having “no principle, public or private…and will listen to no monitor but his ambition,” being “bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country,” and “one of the worst sort – a friend to nothing but as it suits his interest and ambition.”) and Wilser plays it up (“In other words: #NeverBurr.”) to ensure a fresh, feisty relevance to Hamilton’s life in our day. By the time you are deep enough into the book, Wilser’s joke that Hamilton conceived of NASA does not come off as impossible to believe.
The upshot, if you will, of all of this is that we (almost) all know Hamilton’s fate: shot in a duel with Aaron Burr on the streets of Weehawken, New Jersey (not far from where yours truly was born). Every biography of a soaring, inspirational figure always comes to a sad end, and Hamilton’s seems especially tragic when you consider he was shot dead in his forties. Wilser references Thomas Fleming’s Duel, which presents the what-if scenario of what if Aaron Burr had missed and the diversion of history’s course that would have come of that. If you are the sort of nerd who gets excited about alternate-history universes like me, then you can imagine that there was a whole world of possibilities that would have potentially changed the course of American and world history forever. It is inevitably sad to read the end of any book about a great person, but you can always read it again and fly the same mesmerizing flight all over again. Wilser does not disappoint.
I heartily recommend Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life. It covers everything from how to play the long game in office politics to how to build your character. Alexander Hamilton was and still is a great man. We live in Hamilton’s America and Hamilton’s world. Do yourself a favor now and learn more about the man who made the world you live in today, the world where he can watch you from your ten dollar bill and tell you how to be a better person.
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