Welcome folks! TO THE HAMILTON READ-A-LONG.
Hosted by Alice, this is where we all permit our love of what must be the most incredible piece of American art of the 21st century so far lead us into reading an absolute doorstopper of a book.
Unfortunately for me, in this first week we've pretty much covered the part of this story I was most curious about. Having special professional interest in the British empire, I was hoping for a juicy exploration of Hamilton's childhood in the Caribbean. Chernow's done good work with not much to go on -- the acknowledgments (at the end, but as every historian knows, worth skimming at the beginning) are an adventure in their own right, with a fleet of research assistants and helpful archivists on the various islands and at Kew (and in Denmark!), and hooray for that. Listening to the musical, I could hear exciting echoes of the live-fast-die-young planter mentality, and I was gratified to find the biography describing this environment as a key influence.
I did frown a bit at: "Appropriately enough, this boy destined to be America's foremost Anglophile entered the world as a British subject, born on a British isle, in the reign of George II" (17). Uh?? Is this not true of all the founding fathers?? I mean, I know the American colonies are Special and Touched by Destiny and all?? Granted that I could have dwelt on this part of Hamilton's life for twice as many pages; but nevertheless I thought the weakest aspect of this part was the lack of consideration given to the question of British Atlantic identity. This is an open question among scholars, as far as I know; that is, the extent to which any given white colonist from Virginia or New York might have regarded a white colonist from Jamaica or Barbados as a foreigner; but while those differences were clearly acknowledged, I would hesitate to assume that they were a big deal to any particular person at the time. It's evident even from these chapters the degree to which people were circulating. I guess I would have liked to see a little more engagement with the issue of imperial identities here although one always hesitates to make such criticisms of EIGHT HUNDRED PAGE BOOKS.
One point of characterization I struggled with a bit was Chernow's description of Hamilton as fearing anarchy; "he would always be an uneasy and reluctant revolutionary," says Chernow (46). Indeed, "Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs" (65). Really? This sat a little awkwardly with the all-out, slash-and-burn rhetoric for me. This guy did not seem worried about disturbing the peace, and he certainly jumps into the war with gusto. However, I was struck by the account Hamilton wrote of the attack on Rivington's print shop for the St Croix newspaper, particularly this: that the mob "put an entire stop to his business, and reduced him at upwards of 50 years of age to the sad necessity of starting the world again" (qtd 69). Chernow describes this as "horror at such mob disorder" and that it is, but I might put a little finer point on it and say that this was a man intimately familiar with how precarious life could be, and what it meant to lose your livelihood. When you're swept up with anger, it's easy to cheer when someone who "deserves it" loses their job or has their business shut down. I wonder if Hamilton was the person who couldn't help but be aware of the long-term suffering that would follow. Would he have preferred a talking revolution? I find that hard to believe, but it seems like an entirely likely outcome of his background in the West Indies that he would be preternaturally conscious of what could be lost, and the need to preserve one's income (or the nation's income). Most people in the 18th century lived fairly precarious lives -- thus the importance of observing conventions and maintaining social networks -- but the West Indies always had a reputation for being particularly brutal for life's losers. Gentlemen with large estates could trust that land would always have value, and rest on a hazy confidence in their own self-sufficiency. Anyone from the West Indies would know that utter ruin and destitution was a real thing and it could happen to you.
So that's the first hundred pages down, and mainly what I've learned is that the musical is delightfully true to Chernow's research. So 700 more pages OR just listen to the musical another fifty times.
Oh fine, I'll keep reading.