Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Thandi and I meander to the shed as Ma Mnguni beckons. The ominous sound of flapping wings and squawking welcomes. Ma Mnguni deftly grabs an unsuspecting beast. It makes a laudable attempt to dislodge itself from Ma Mnguni’s expert clutch to no avail. We continue following to the “butcher’s block”, a small stone at the base of a tree. Ma Mnguni gingerly lays one foot over the wings and clamps down with a brutal crunch. The beast is now immobile, or at least that is the intent. It is a rather wily chicken and quickly finds the tiniest opening for freedom. I’m certain it has studied a lesson or two in fighting oppression from the forefathers of liberty.

With little fanfare and a chop, or precisely several long seconds of sawing at the beast’s neck (lessons from Charles-Henri Sanson may be in order), the head rolls to the side. As the wings shivered and the decapitated body gave its last silent wiggles of life, we thought the show was over. Luckily we were spared no sight. Ma Mnguni dumps a bucket of steaming hot water over the carcass, peeling the feathers off with little resistance. She dices up the carcass and pulls out the internal organs, squeezing out yesterday’s leftovers from the intestines into a small bowl. In no mood to appear squeamish, I grab a chicken leg and attempt to peel off the skins. Failing miserably, I lodge a friendly reminder to avoid eating chicken feet.

You might be wandering how my experience watching a chicken slaughtering relates to Alexander Hamilton. A perfectly valid thought and I’ll leave you to work out the messy allegory. Reading through Hamilton’s life, I kept visualizing the scene of Ma Mnguni chasing down a chicken for slaughter. Whether Ma Mnguni or the chicken, wise sanctimonious self-righteous Hamilton seems perpetually engaged in a futile tragic comedy, attempting to do right by the world and himself through grim over-the-top success. Reading Ron Chernow’s masterpiece Alexander Hamilton, I found myself alternating between the desire to give Hamilton a hug and smack him on the head with a frying pan.

In Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow crafts an engaging, thought provoking, and contemporarily relevant biography of Hamilton, which is a must read both for fans of history and anyone seeking historical context to the present debates garnering news headlines. The life of Alexander Hamilton presents a brilliant and unresolved study in contradiction. Hamilton embodies the essence of the contemporary United States: the ultimate American Dream rags to riches story with an odd mix of pragmatism and intransigent idealism.

Neither hero nor villain, Chernow artfully illustrates why the historical favor of Hamilton sways from generation to generation with the fickle public approval of the powerful institutions he almost single handily wrought into existence. Looking around the contemporary United States it’s challenging to avoid Hamilton’s prodigious legacy from his broad and elastic interpretation of the United States Constitution; the creation and funding of the national debt and a national bank; laying the groundwork for American manufacturing; implementing the first consumption and sin taxes; and the joy of constitutional scholars (and bane of political science students), that weighty tomb known as the Federalist Papers.

I easily romanticize the founding generation: bucolic farmers and gentleman scholars nobly sacrificing their lives and property for the cause of liberty. Alexander Hamilton reveals a far more ignoble and prosaic reality. The sardonic wit and spin of late 18th and early 19th century politicians makes modern mud slingers appear positively pure and virtuous and this humanizing of both Hamilton and his peers is what I find most enticing about Chernow’s work. Knocking the founding generation off of their high horses, Chernow adds a depth of vice and virtue to the classic panoply of early American hero’s which makes them immediately accessible to the reader and their achievements all the more impressive. Nevertheless, Chernow is far from unbiased, liberally casting Hamilton’s foes in the dimmest of lights while apologizing for Hamilton’s faults and I encourage a very critical reading of this work.

Reflecting back to the slaughtered chicken, unfortunately Thandi and I did not enjoy the fruits of Ma Mnguni’s labor. Slaughtering a beast is a tradition to welcome important guest and this was a mere show for our viewing pleasure. The main meal was to be served shortly, too soon for the chicken to make an appearance. Alas, poor Hamilton failed to fully enjoy the fruits and full redemption of his labor; however, for better or worse we find ourselves living in the world he imagined. With such a distinguished resume the real Hamilton remains elusive; however, Chernow paints the outlines of an unquestionably talented and competent man, deeply flawed with hubris and ambition.

Total number of pages: 832, FoA pages: 11,203  (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)

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