Day 1097: Alexander Hamilton

Cover for Alexander HamiltonBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to read a book as it did Alexander Hamilton, despite it being a fascinating biography. Although it did not seem as if it went into too much detail, as some biographies do, it is certainly long.

Thanks to the Broadway show, which is based on this book, people have become a little more conscious of the accomplishments of Hamilton. Unfortunately, he was such a controversial figure that his enemies managed to blacken his legacy for many, many years.

A man of astounding intelligence, Alexander Hamilton sprang from a difficult heritage as an illegitimate son of a man who was a failure at business and deserted his common-law wife and their children. From this beginning, Hamilton expended his own formidable efforts, eventually to become one of the most powerful men in the new United States.

Hamilton was apparently not at all tactful and earned himself many enemies through speaking truth to power. He and Washington had a close and affectionate relationship that began when he was Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, but he counted among his enemies James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, the New York Clinton family, Aaron Burr, and to a lesser extent, James Madison. John Adams hated him. None of these men emerge from this book looking well, although Hamilton certainly had his faults.

I think almost anyone interested in history will find this book fascinating, even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in the Revolutionary period. Alexander Hamilton was an amazing man who has been largely robbed of his proper legacy.

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Day 1049: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Cover for Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesIt was interesting to contrast Lafayette in the Somewhat United States with the other book about the American revolution I read recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. While Valiant Ambition concentrated on what made Benedict Arnold a traitor, this book focuses on the French contribution to the war, embodied particularly by the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis himself
The Marquis himself

In some ways, both books cover the same ground, particularly the woeful state of the Continental army. Several times, infusions of cash from the French saved it from utter ruin. But the writing style and the intent of these books are different. Vowell’s book is written in an informal, sprightly style with many references to current popular culture. Also, Lafayette’s impetuous, affectionate character comes through strongly.

This book is a slightly quirky homage to Lafayette’s contribution to our country, featuring side-trips to various battlefields and landmarks as well as a cogent, irreverent discussion of the events. It is a fun read.

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Day 936: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

Cover for Valiant AmbitionAlthough he has written on other subjects, Nathaniel Philbrick has made a specialty of writing about events and industries that affected New England, including the Revolutionary War. His latest book concentrates on the forces and personality flaws that resulted in Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of his country.

I haven’t read much about Benedict Arnold, only one novel, Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts. That novel painted him in surprisingly sympathetic colors, blaming his treachery largely on the rapacious demands for money of his wife Peggy. Philbrick’s view is more nuanced.

Certainly, at the beginning of the war you can sympathize with Washington and with Arnold. For his part, Washington was hamstrung by the ineffectiveness and bickering of the Continental Congress. He had very little power over such decisions as which of his officers would receive promotion, which lead to the initial difficulties with Arnold.

A key to the British strategy of cutting off New England from the rest of the country was the chain of lakes leading down from Canada to the Hudson. So, Fort Ticonderoga was an important target. Benedict Arnold and a rag-tag collection of boats prevented the British from approaching the fort in the fall of 1776, before the lakes could freeze up to keep the British out.

As the hero of this engagement and the senior Brigadier General in the Continental Army, Arnold expected a promotion. But the Congress devised an idiotic scheme that awarded the promotions not on merit but according to what state the person was from. Since Connecticut already had two Major Generals, Congress awarded the promotions to other Brigadier Generals who were junior to Arnold, some of whom were only mediocre in ability. Washington protested this decision, to no avail. Even after he got his promotion, Arnold was forced to defer to these men who were promoted before him.

link to NetgalleyIt was this kind of bickering about states’ rights and even local rights versus the rights of a national government that hampered the Congress. In addition, there were plenty of people out for what they could get. I was shocked to read that while no one was interested in supporting the Continental Army, to the point where they were starving and dressed in rags, the rest of the country was doing very well financially. Arnold joined into this self-enrichment when he was made military governor of Philadelphia after it was captured back from the British. He was actively engaged in all kinds of corruption.

Philbrick’s book is really interesting and sometimes quite exciting as it revisits key scenes from the war and leads up to Arnold’s big betrayal. His conclusions about the results of the betrayal are startling.

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