I majored in history. At my university, all history majors were required to take a class in historiography, and the sources you studied were based on the professor assigned to teach. Whatever he specialized in was what you were going to be neck-deep in for a semester. I got a professor who specialized in early American history which, at the time, I absolutely despised. I spent the entire semester stubbornly refusing to retain any information about anything at all, convinced that this was one of the most dull historical settings in the history of the world.
Enter Hamilton the Musical. Like many, many people, the musical ignited for me an interest in the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, topics of which I previously knew little, and cared to know even less. But with the beloved musical in mind, these events took on a new sheen. Suddenly I was absolutely fascinated with the American Revolution! With the Founding Fathers, especially Hamilton and Burr! It was an exciting time! A revolutionary time!
And so here I am, a nerd with a list of books and articles to read about Alexander Hamilton. Though I am unlikely to get to these this November, I still wanted to share them out for Nonfiction November in honor of Hamilton being released for streaming (may all musicals follow suit!).
Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson’s life, character, and beliefs. Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence–especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. This updated edition of the book also includes an afterword in which the author comments on the DNA study that provided further evidence of a Jefferson and Hemings liaison.
It’s common knowledge now that Jefferson had a relationship with his much younger slave Sally Hemings, but I don’t actually know much about the details of the relationship, nor the evidence surrounding it, nor the attempts of Jefferson apologists to deny it. Considering how large Jefferson looms, I think it’s really important to be aware of this particular incident, as it casts a light on everything else he has done.
Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery
Duel with the Devil is acclaimed historian Paul Collins’ remarkable true account of a stunning turn-of-the-19th century murder and the trial that ensued – a showdown in which iconic political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr joined forces to make sure justice was done. Still our nation’s longest running “cold case,” the mystery of Elma Sands finally comes to a close with this book, which delivers the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years. At once an absorbing legal thriller and an expertly crafted portrait of the United States in the time of the Founding Fathers, Duel with the Devil is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.
This trial is, of course, mentioned in the musical, in the incredible song Non-Stop. They even namedrop the dude Burr and Hamilton defend, when Burr declares, “Our client, Levi Weeks, is innocent.” America’s first murder trial! Bitter enemies team up to make sure justice is served! One of my favorite things about the musical is the depiction of Burr and Hamilton’s friends-to-enemies relationship, so I’m very eager to read anything about them working together.
Ellis focuses on six discrete moments that exemplify the most crucial issues facing the fragile new nation: Burr and Hamilton’s deadly duel, and what may have really happened; Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison’s secret dinner, during which the seat of the permanent capital was determined in exchange for passage of Hamilton’s financial plan; Franklin’s petition to end the “peculiar institution” of slavery–his last public act–and Madison’s efforts to quash it; Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address, announcing his retirement from public office and offering his country some final advice; Adams’s difficult term as Washington’s successor and his alleged scheme to pass the presidency on to his son; and finally, Adams and Jefferson’s renewed correspondence at the end of their lives, in which they compared their different views of the Revolution and its legacy. In a lively and engaging narrative, Ellis recounts the sometimes collaborative, sometimes archly antagonistic interactions between these men, and shows us the private characters behind the public personas.
I really like that this book chooses to focus on six particular aspects of this historical time period, most of which are brought up in the musical (like the infamous secret dinner that so irritates Burr and prompts him to deliver the show-stopping number The Room Where It Happens). This provides a lot of context to things that in some cases were only glossed over in the show.
Young George Washington was raised by a struggling single mother, demanded military promotions, caused an international incident, and never backed down–even when his dysentery got so bad he had to ride with a cushion on his saddle. But after he married Martha, everything changed. Washington became the kind of man who named his dog Sweetlips and hated to leave home. He took up arms against the British only when there was no other way, though he lost more battles than he won. With irresistible style and warm humor, You Never Forget Your First combines rigorous research and lively storytelling that will have readers–including those who thought presidential biographies were just for dads–inhaling every page.
Hamilton aside, this biography has gotten a lot of attention! I’m not a huge fan of straight-up biographies, but I’ve heard that this is super duper engaging, and well, I should read something about George Washington, just so that I’m better informed, and I guess if I have to read a Washington biography, it may as well be this one, which is supposed to be very accessible.
In Fallen Founder, Nancy Isenberg portrays the founders as they all really were and proves that Burr was no less a patriot and no less a principled thinker than those who debased him. He was an inspired politician who promoted decency at a moment when factionalism and ugly party politics were coalescing. He was a genuine hero of the Revolution, as much an Enlightenment figure as Jefferson, and a feminist generations ahead of his time. A brilliant orator and lawyer, he was New York’s attorney general, a senator, and vice president. Denounced as a man of extreme tastes, he in fact pursued a moderate course, and his political assassination was accomplished by rivals who feared his power and who promoted the notion of his sexual perversions. Fallen Founder is an antidote to the worshipful biographies far too prevalent in the histories of the revolutionary era. Burr’s story returns us to reality: to the cunning politicians our nation’s founders really were and to a world of political maneuvering, cutthroat politicking, and media slander that is stunningly modern.
I know I just said I hate straight-up biographies, which is true, but I’ll make an exception for Aaron Burr, who is my favorite character in the musical. He’s just such a fascinating and tragic figure. Of course, he is depicted as the villain in the musical (though he is also our narrator, a brilliant subversion!), but only because Hamilton is meant to be the hero. Leslie Odom Jr gives such a brilliant, complex performance that he is permanently Aaron Burr in my mind, with all his wiliness, so I’d like to read a biography that breaks down that particular fandom-generated image.
Both men were visionaries, but their visions of what the United States should be were diametrically opposed. Jefferson, a true revolutionary, believed passionately in individual liberty and a more egalitarian society, with a weak central government and greater powers for the states. Hamilton, a brilliant organizer and tactician, feared chaos and social disorder. He sought to build a powerful national government that could ensure the young nation’s security and drive it toward economic greatness. Jefferson and Hamilton is the story of the fierce struggle-both public and, ultimately, bitterly personal-between these two titans. It ended only with the death of Hamilton in a pistol duel, felled by Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president. Their competing legacies, like the twin strands of DNA, continue to shape our country to this day. Their personalities, their passions, and their bold dreams for America leap from the page in this epic new work from one of our finest historians.
The Jefferson and Hamilton rivalry is a central part of the musical, giving us the two awesome Cabinet Battles (rap battles!), and while they go into some detail regarding the two Founder’s differences, I’d like to learn a bit more about it all in context!
In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, National Book Award winner Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.” Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time.
Ah, the door-stopper that famously inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to craft this musical! I have no idea if this is something I will actually read, as it’s a straight-up biography that is nearly a thousand pages long, but I gotta include it on a Hamilton reading list.
America has gone Hamilton crazy. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical has spawned sold-out performances, a triple platinum cast album, and a score so catchy that it is being used to teach U.S. history in classrooms across the country. But just how historically accurate is Hamilton? And how is the show itself making history? Historians on Hamilton brings together a collection of top scholars to explain the Hamilton phenomenon and explore what it might mean for our understanding of America’s history. The contributors examine what the musical got right, what it got wrong, and why it matters. Does Hamilton’s hip-hop take on the Founding Fathers misrepresent our nation’s past, or does it offer a bold positive vision for our nation’s future? Can a musical so unabashedly contemporary and deliberately anachronistic still communicate historical truths about American culture and politics? And is Hamilton as revolutionary as its creators and many commentators claim?
This is most likely the book I will get to first, as it’s an edited collection of essays all about the musical, its reception, and its relationship to American history. It’s exactly the kind of media scholarship/analysis/criticism I eat up, and I like that the essays explore historical accuracy without being strictly biographies or historical monographs, which I’m hoping will make for more accessible reading (though this is published by a university press, so who knows).
A bevy of scholarly and popular work has been published about Hamilton, so I’ve tried to curate a small but diverse list that is also relevant to my interests. Many of these articles discuss Hamilton’s reactionary and conservative views and are critical of him being upheld as a hero. Others discuss the public impact of Hamilton. And one delves into Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of the musical (and Hamilton’s life) for me.
Where the full text freely exists (which it does for most of these!), I’ve linked to it; otherwise, I’ve linked to a vendor that allows you to view a short preview of the article.
- Owen, Kenneth. “Can Great Art Also Be Great History?” The Independent Review 21, no. 4 (2017): 509-17.
- Kajikawa, Loren. “Young, Scrappy, and Hungry”: Hamilton, Hip Hop, and Race.” American Music 36, no. 4 (2018): 467-86.
- Magness, Phillip W. “Alexander Hamilton as Immigrant: Musical Mythology Meets Federalist Reality.” The Independent Review 21, no. 4 (2017): 497-508.
- Cogan, Jacob Katz. “The Reynolds Affair and the Politics of Character.” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 3 (1996): 389-417.
- Hamilton, Caroline V. “The Erotic Charisma of Alexander Hamilton.” Journal of American Studies 45, no. 1 (2011): 1-19.
- Smith, Billy G. “Alexander Hamilton: The Wrong Hero for Our Age.” The Independent Review, vol. 21, no. 4, Spring 2017, pp. 519–22.