Wait—biographies? Yes, apparently I’m a person who now reads—um, listens to—biographies. Who knew?
Anywho, the first is one that has been on my TBR for a while, while the other two are more recent publications.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
This is an 800+ page beast of a biography of one of the more controversial Founding Fathers and subject of a tiny musical that is so obscure I’m sure that no one even knows the song quoted above.
If you can’t detect my sarcasm, then you’re clearly not a Hamilfan.
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter By being a self-starter
I cannot believe I listened to all 36 hours that quickly. This book is remarkable not only in scope but also in readability (in this case, listenability). Chernow’s writing style is not dense or dry but very approachable for the mass amount of information that he throws at the reader.
Because there is a lot of information. Hamilton was the Forrest Gump of his age—constantly underfoot, always in the room where it happened, and living life like it was a box of chocolates. Unlike Forrest, however, Hamilton was an active participant in his life, for better or for worse.
From his arrival to America to his years in the Army at Washington’s side—seriously, this was probably the most important part to his success, from both Hamilton’s skill with a pen to his presence by Washington (a good chief of staff is worth their weight in gold—and Hamilton was the best)—to his drive to be at Yorktown and rejoin the fight to his time practicing law and then to his years forming in integral part of the baby US government (from the literal creation of the Constitution to The Federalist Papers to becoming the Secretary of the Treasury and then Inspector General of the Army) Hamilton was literally everywhere.
People always mention about Hamilton’s brilliance and genius with a pen, but this book highlights his genius with logistics and gives the really solid argument that while Hamilton’s experience working with slave ships was a start to his experience with finances and logistics, his time at Washington’s side honed his ability to milk something out of literally nothing.
And when my time is up, have I done enough?
And because of his unrelenting drive and neverending push to do more, write more, be more, Hamilton pulled himself up from the dregs of humanity to be one of the most successful men in his time. And because of his short-life and um, volatile personality, he was also one of the most reviled, thanks to smear campaigns during his lifetime and after his death from his more suave enemies (*cough* fuck you to eternity Jefferson *cough cough*).
And of course, there are his many relationships—from his deep friendships (and perhaps more, Chernow addresses the rumors of Hamilton’s bisexuality head on with a cagey we’ll never know for certain *wink*) with men to his several father figures (dude collected father figures like they were Pokemon) to his relationships with women and of course, to his legendary rivalries. And of course, to his adult-lifelong frenemiship with Aaron Burr.
Anywho, Lin-Manuel Miranda really distilled the very essence of this book into his musical, and there were many themes and phrases and words from the book that made their way into the musical in a way that just sparkled with life and vigor, highlighting the highs and lows and the fucking drive of this man who just never knew when to stop.
To read this biography is to read the biography of the beginning of America—the highs, the lows, the great ideas and the really, really bad ones—and to see how the legacy of the Founding Fathers continues to today.
Hamiton wasn’t perfect, but he had a vision of the future and a cynicism of humanity that led him to try to create a government filled with checks and balances that would hopefully prevent America from falling back into itself in another civil war or revolution.
We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned. (Hamilton’s staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of this economic vision.) He has also emerged as the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government. At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.
She Came to Slay by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
A riveting biography of Harriet Tubman, former enslaved person, fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad, and mighty advocate for former enslaved peoples’ rights.
I’ll be honest, before listening to The History Chicks’ episode on Tubman, I paid very little attention to her beyond grumpy old lady who did a lot of things during the Civil War. I stupidly slid right on past her remarkable life and her courage.
Because an escaped slave returning—time after time after time—to slave states to rescue her family and friends from slavery? Through the danger of detection, the nail-biting fear that any person—whether those left behind, those you took or those you took shelter with—could reveal your presence to slave-catchers. And not just that, but maneuvering through deadly terrain in the dark, often with children? And doing it all with constant, debilitating headaches that could make you pass out at any time? Fuck no.
While I could do without the pop-sensationalism in the book that tried to be irreverent and didn’t quite succeed, I did like listening to the story of Tubman’s life, from her life as Minty, a young girl who was hired out from her horrible owner to really awful White people, to her later years married to a free Black man to her escape to her later work as a very successful conductor in the Underground Railroad (seriously, this part was so scary) to her time as a nurse/spy during the Civil War (her skills were critically underused until the end of the war) to her later years.
This is definitely well worth the read, as not only does it cover Harriet’s life, but highlights the hellish conditions in which Black people were forced to work, and the ways they were bound. They were kept in bondage not only through physical threats and actual bonds, but through familial ties. And it shows that surviving—no matter what—is success in its own, bleak way.
Anywho, it’s a quick listen that was nonetheless informative even if the bouncy tone of the section titles didn’t quite match the section’s grimmer contents? Not sure if that made sense, but that’s what it felt like to me.
You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe
The first biography of George Washington written by a female historian in…damn near forever, Alexis Coe seeks to accomplish three things:
1. Break down the myths and reverence surrounding and clouding our first president
2. Bring Washington’s life to life in a way that shows him as a dude like…um, some of us
3. Write a biography of the first president that can’t be successfully used as either a doorstop or a bludgeon
…and she mostly succeeds.
Things I Liked
I felt like the irreverent tone was mostly successful, and I liked that she highlights Washington’s relationship with his mother and wife in a healthy, normalizing way, and mentions Washington’s stepkids in a way that’s…also normal. And is like, “Get the fuck over his sterility. He had two kids, fuck off blood isn’t everything.”
I also liked that Coe dives right into the most controversial aspects of Washington’s life—primarily how the Foundingest Father of Life, Liberty and (Property) the Pursuit of Happiness was a slaveholder with few qualms about being a slaveholder. He wasn’t the worst, but he definitely wasn’t the best (spoiler: there are no good slaveholders), and he actively rotated the people he had enslaved in and out of free Philadelphia to ensure that they didn’t ever meet the six month freedom rules.
And all the ooooooooh but Washington ~freed~ his slaves upon his death from the people who give him a leg up? Welp, that was kinda a back-handed freeing that came with Terms and Conditions, because he freed his enslaved people upon *Martha’s* death, and only his own enslaved persons not those that came as part of her dowry (so gross) and not even taking into account the fact that the Custis and Washington enslaved persons had intermarried and that marriage was a way to bind people further into slavery and make them less likely to run away and that any children born to an enslaved woman would be born into slavery, which is just so fucking evil.
I also liked that Coe points out Washington’s failures along with his successes, and notes that much of his legend occurred while he was alive, but that much of it was regained after his death—particularly because of the cluster-fuckery that was his second presidency.
Yes, he established many of the etiquettes and expectations of the presidency through precedence, but he also failed to mitigate or rein in his cabinet members, which created the first political parties and threatened to dismantle the nascent country.
And I had no idea that he was um, so accident and illness prone. Let’s celebrate the dude solely because of the fact that he somehow survived pretty much everything that killed everyone.
Things I Was Less Fond Of
Honestly, I felt like I walked away less with a comprehensive knowledge of Washington’s life, although I knew a lot about his relationship with the people he kept enslaved (putting it this way sounds a lot ickier than just slaves, amiright? That’s why I did it—slavery was a blight upon our past and the systems of oppression that resulted from it a blight on our present) and I knew more about his failures.
But did I know the man himself?
I dunno. I felt like something was missed that I can’t just place my finger on.
The writing style was fun and fresh, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I kinda wanted an in-depth dive into Washington’s life and I felt that much of this book missed out on the context that peppers many Revolutionary-era biographies (although it does place many of the maligned portions of Washington’s life into much-needed context). It also felt like it jumped and skipped parts of his life, although I’m glad to learn of his many retirements to life as the owner of a slave-run farm.
Things That I Am Eternally Grateful For
Well, just one Thing: Coe’s apt mockery of previous (male) biographers who all tend to be obsessed with 1. Washington’s height (dude was tall. Tall is not a personality) and 2. Washington’s apparently thiccccc thighs and calves.
And thus, the term thigh-men was born, and I thank Coe forever for it, and the shade she gleefully throws out at Chernow and other biographers for their obsession with Washington’s legs and the way he could ~ride~ a horse.
Which, when you think of it, brings their ridiculous obsession with sterility into something more sensical?
Have you read any of these?