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Hamilton and Jefferson Were Both Awesome


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Two Toms From Virginia

As a Tom who grew up in Virginia, I have always held Thomas Jefferson in very high regard. His interest in both science and art, and his authoring of both The Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, were just a few of his accomplishments fueling my admiration.

Somehow this admiration for Jefferson led to an unconscious dislike for Alexander Hamilton. This prejudice was certainly more of a presumption than a conscious decision on my part.

Today, I'm quite sure this negative opinion of Hamilton was due to the corn-pone effect of growing up in Richmond, Virginia.

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

While shopping for books online one day, I saw some ads for Alexander Hamilton T-shirts, and wondered why he was suddenly so popular. Why were there no ads for Thomas Jefferson and George Washington T-shirts as well?

Of course it's because of the musical about his life. Digging deeper, I learned the basis for the musical is the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

Intrigued, I bought the book, and reading it changed my life!

A Prologue With a Challenge

In the prologue to Alexander Hamilton's biography, Ron Chernow muses about the poor impression many have of Hamilton. He attributes this to the fact that other Founding Fathers — such as Jefferson and John Adams — lived considerably longer lives.

For many years after the duel, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other political enemies had taken full advantage of their eloquence and longevity to spread defamatory anectdotes about Hamilton, who had been condemned to everlasting silence.
 — From the Prologue to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, 2004, page 2.

What a great way to start a book!

One thing I know for sure is that having a pre-formed, negative bias toward someone can lead to ignorance — and this gives me major fomo.[1] There's always another side, another perspective, and any life-long learner worth their salt needs to be open to whatever information is available.

The Book Is a Big One

Ron Chernow is a thorough researcher and an entertaining writer. Alexander Hamilton's biography is 731 pages long, so reading it takes some time. Thankfully, Chernow's organizational ability and writing style are superb.

Most of the 43 chapters run 10-15 pages, with a few of them running into the 20s. By breaking the volume down into easily-read nuggets, Chernow keeps things interesting, making it difficult to put the book down.

My Favorite FF Biography!

I enjoyed Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton so much, I bought and read the biographies of these other Founding Fathers:

Thomas Jefferson is missing from this list[4] because I feel I already know enough about him, at least for now, from my days in Ole Virginny. If you'd like to learn about Jefferson, the film Thomas Jefferson by Ken Burns is a great place to start. If you already know a lot about Jefferson and want to take a deeper dive, I recommend Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American by Bernard Mayo.

After some consideration, I believe Chernow's biography of Hamilton to be the best of all of these.

Why It's the Best

George Washington's biography, also by Ron Chernow, is similarly well-written. But Washington's life — when compared to Hamilton's — is quite frankly rather boring.

The other biographies are great as well, but in my mind they all pale — albeit slightly — when compared to Hamilton's biography. This is because Hamilton, who was the youngest of the Founding Fathers and the only one not born in the colonies, simply had a more interesting life.

Naturally, the fact that Alexander Hamilton by Chernow completely changed my perspective of Hamilton — and enabled me to overcome my fear of thick books in the process — adds to my reasons for loving this book.

Hamilton and Jefferson

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were very different, both superficially and beneath the surface.

Hamilton was extremely decisive, and his world was New York City, commerce, the army, and law. In contrast, Jefferson was extremely idealistic, and his world was rural Virginia, architecture, science, art, and philosophy.

They had vastly different views for the design of the government of the new nation, leading many to assume they fought all the time.

Thinking in terms of Hamilton or Jefferson blinds people to seeing how America is, to a large extent, the result of Hamilton and Jefferson.

Although Hamilton and Jefferson had their differences, the net result of them both working to create a new nation is they kept each other in check — rather like Dana Scully and Fox Mulder on The X-Files.

Scully and Mulder?

Alexander Hamilton was like the X-Files' Dana Scully in that he was very realistic and interested mainly in facts, rules, and honoring conventions. He respected authority and considered himself worthy of being in charge.

Thomas Jefferson was like the X-Files' Fox Mulder in that he was very idealistic and interested mainly in principles, patterns, and new ideas. He respected only the authority of the individual over himself and sought to minimize the purview of government.

The fictional characters from the X-Files show how two people who have little in common can put their differences aside and work toward a common goal.

Monarchy or Anarchy?

Alexander Hamilton feared anarchy — a fear fueled by the violence of the French Revolution. He wanted to create a new nation powerful enough to hold its own with — and against, if need be — the powerful European countries of the day.

Thomas Jefferson feared a monarchy — a fear fueled by the new nation's recent conflict with Britain. He wanted to create a new nation that put the rights of the individual first and foremost — constrained only by the equal rights of others.

Their conflicting fears, and their differences of opinion with regards to who is in charge, led to vastly different visions of the structure of the new nation's government.

Hamilton and Jefferson: The Team

Just because two people are as different as night and day doesn't mean they hate each other. The friction between Hamilton and Jefferson ultimately found resolution in compromises made in the creation of America's government.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — like Mulder and Scully — wound up forming a team that was much greater than the sum of its parts.

The end result is a system of government highly resistant to both Hamilton's fear of mob violence and Jefferson's fear of future tyrants.

Book and Video Recommendations


I highly recommend all of the books and videos on this page.


Hamilton and Jefferson

Out of all of these, Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton is my pick — but it's impossible for me to be objective about this.

If you decide to get Hamilton's biography, I recommend also getting the film about Thomas Jefferson by Ken Burns — for contrast and as a type of counterweight.

Hamilton–Book Jefferson–Film

Ron Chernow and Ken Burns both deserve kudos for keeping craftmanship alive in today's fast-paced, throw-it-away culture.


Ben Franklin

Born in 1706, Ben Franklin was the oldest of America's Founding Fathers — about 50 years older than Alexander Hamilton, the youngest of the group.

So if you decide to get multiple books and videos, you should consider starting with this one, because it sets the stage at the beginning, when Britain and the colonies still had a fairly positive, productive relationship.

Ben Franklin–Book

While the other Founding Fathers somehow seem too busy and aloof for the commonfolk, Ben feels like he was a regular guy — someone you could sit down and hang out with while chatting about whatever topics might come up — despite the fact he was America's very first celebrity.


John Adams

In 2008 HBO did a mini-series based on David McCullough's biography of John Adams. Like everything carrying the HBO brand, the video embraces high production values and really brings those times to life. It's one thing to read that Adams was irascible, and it's quite another to have these professionals make that irascibility come alive in your living room.

The limits imposed by the video narrative format unfortunately forces the series to gloss over some of the more complicated aspects, such as the Alien and Sedition Act and the Quasi-War, of Adams' presidency. So if you're looking for more detail and depth, McCullough's book — which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 — is definitely the way to go.

Adams–Video Adams–Book

Like Franklin's biography, the HBO Mini-series is another excellent starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the American Revolution, because it gives you some excellent mental imagery to go with the text in any and all of the books.


George Washington and Patrick Henry

Ron Chernow followed his 2004 biography of Hamilton with a similarly well-done biography of George Washington in 2010 — which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

George was good friends with Patrick Henry, who was the first governor of Virginia and achieved fame with his Liberty or Death  speech in Richmond. As America's first president in the 1790s, Washington tried more than once to get Henry to play a bigger role in the new government.

Washington–Book Henry–Book

Washington first offered Henry a position as ambassador to Spain, then in 1795 a post in his cabinet as secretary of state and as the chief justice on the Supreme Court. In both cases Henry declined his offers.


Thanks for reading — and for your support!

Notes

  • 1  Fomo is an initialism for fear of missing out.

  • 2  In 2002, David McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Biography or Auto-biography for his book about John Adams.

  • 3  In 2011 Ron Chernow won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Biography or Auto-biography for his book about George Washington.

  • 4  Interestingly, Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton has a lot about Jefferson. The index contains over an entire column — half a page — of entries for Jefferson. Not all of what Chernow says about him is positive, but I can easily understand someone having a bit of bias in this area.