Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow with a bonus Alexander Hamilton review!

We have a tendency in this country to deify our Founding Fathers.  During this latest never-ending election cycle, we’re going to hear a lot of politicians blathering on about what our Founders would think about immigration, or gun control or healthcare. They do this because they’ve all bought into the same narrative-the idea that these dudes were infallible geniuses, capable of foreseeing every problem their infant nation would ever face. But the fact of the matter is, they were just men. Extraordinary men, genius men, but flesh and bone like the rest of us. They were orphaned sons, petty rivals, made out of a combination of braggadocio and contradictions. No books I’ve read about that time in history do as good a job humanizing these men as Ron Chernow does in his biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

It’s hard to get a good sense of Washington. He was famously inscrutable. His letters rarely revealed any anger or passion. Even letters to his wife were polite and formal. His diary wasn’t much better, and anyone reading it to get a sense of what it was like to fight in the Revolutionary War would be pretty disappointed. It’s as if he knew, even then, that he was writing to us.

Washington has made it through history pretty whitewashed. The father of a free nation, he owned hundreds of slaves. In fact, his dentures were not comprised of wood, but slave’s teeth. He seemed to realize it was an immoral to trade in human flesh, but hey, he had to make money on his farm somehow. As general during the Revolutionary War, he swore he retire back to Mount Vernon when it was all over. Obviously, that didn’t happen either.

Chernow does a good book humanizing a legend, but at 928 pages, this book is tough to get through. It’s not just the length; it’s that we have to rely a lot on guesswork to try to figure out the reticent figure. Even after finishing the book, I still didn’t have a grasp on who the man was. And because we all already know a certain amount about Washington, a lot in the book is filling in details to a story we’ve heard before, rather than something new.

Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is about as long, but way more interesting. In fact, it was that biography that caused me to pick up Washington. I don’t know if the writing or research were better in this book, but the subject was certainly more interesting. Most people only know Alexander Hamilton as a guy who was really bad at duels. But before that day, Hamilton achieved an unbelievable amount. Born in poverty in St. Criox before being orphaned by age 12, Hamilton managed to write himself out of his circumstances to become the country’s first Treasury Secretary. I’d make an argument that he was one of the most influential Founders and truly shaped the way our country works today.

Before I go any further about Hamilton, y’all need to know that there is a musical about him. And it’s amazing. And if you haven’t heard the music you need to. Now.  I’ll wait…

Like official genius Lin Manuel Miranda said (the MacArthur foundation gave him a “genius” grant, so it’s legit) “the ten dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder.” Once I read this book, I couldn’t believe it took this long for Hamilton’s story to make it into pop culture. It’s the familiar tale of the hardworking immigrant who claws his way to the top. It’s the story of ego and hubris being a man’s downfall. It’s also the story of the nation’s first sex scandal. Ooh la la.

What kept going through my head while reading both of these books is something I already mentioned earlier. They were just men. And what they achieved was unbelievable. Winning the Revolutionary war was the easy part; then they had to start a new country from scratch, making compromises all the way. Putting them on a pedestal, making statues of their likeness and treating them as otherworldly beings diminishes the real lesson we can learn from these Founders, especially in today’s brutal political climate. If they could do it, so could we.

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