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Books We Like

Published 7/10/2015 by Don Dwiggins

Books We Like

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. 722 pages.

It is only recently that Alexander Hamilton’s name has been awakened from the annals of American history. If you have caught a glimpse of the news in recent weeks you are probably aware of the movement afoot to replace Hamilton’s image on the ten dollar bill. What’s more interesting is delving into the life and times of a man whose contributions can credibly be argued as the most critical to the structure and foundation of the United States.

Ron Chernow is exhaustive in chronicling Alexander Hamilton’s life, balancing the human side of Hamilton alongside his many accomplishments, helping a new country gain its footing in the world. Accomplishments that included being the architect of the federal government, the drive behind the two-party system and the man who was the foundation behind Wall Street.

Hamilton’s brilliance often lapsed into an arrogance that quite understandably rubbed many contemporaries the wrong way. Public feuds with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were every bit as vitriolic and unseemly as those we see in today’s political world. Hamilton was a man on a mission who had very clear intentions and plans to shape the new country and he was willing to fight by any means necessary to achieve his goals. Often this included vicious attacks against political enemies (i.e. anyone holding an an opposing view of his own) through scathing newspaper opinions he and others penned pseudonymously.

To his credit, and as history would later prove to the country’s benefit, his ideas were a critical framework behind the country’s steady rise on the world economic stage. As the nation’s first Treasury Secretary he built the country’s first taxation and budget system introducing the concept of public credit, that is the ability of governments to borrow money.

Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest accomplishment was his majority contribution to the Federalist Papers. Written along with James Madison and John Jay, the 85 essays written between October 1787 and August 1788 brilliantly laid out the case for the proposed ratification for the U.S. Constitution which would be ratified in 1788.

Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton, whose birth was illegitimate, was abandoned by his father and lost his mother at an early age. He and an older brother became apprentices thanks to a local merchant who became a surrogate father and as rumor had it was Hamilton's biological father. While Hamilton’s older brother James became an apprentice carpenter, Hamilton landed as an apprentice in the offices of a successful St. Kitts merchant and quickly displayed his quick mind and strong talent for business.

Hamilton soon found himself on his way to New York where he attended King’s College. It was during this time that political unrest in the American Colonies began boiling over to the point where armed revolt was all but inevitable. As rebellion turned into war Hamilton’s organizational genius became known to Continental Army commanding General George Washington who made Hamilton his aide-de--camp.

Hamilton’s frustration at being turned down numerous times for direct military engagement finally resulted in his resignation from the Washington’s staff. Later he served with distinction and courage at Yorktown, the defining battle of the Revolution.

Hamilton’s route from the the Caribbean Island of Nevis to his becoming the country’s first Treasury Secretary is one of brilliance, good fortune and Providence. His genius was equally matched with a driving passion for putting his ideas into action. And nothing drew more passion from Hamilton than the prospect of playing a leading role in the founding of the United States of America. If America was indeed the grand experiment, it was Hamilton who was the lab master, portioning out a diverse mix of ingredients whose end result was economic, political and social success never before seen on the world stage.

For all of his recognized genius, Hamilton was all too human. Embroiled in a sex scandal that he was lured into by political adversaries, he spent spent months in an eventual successful quest to clear his name and restore his reputation. Hamilton was quick to challenge others to a duel if he felt his honor had been besmirched, a fault that eventually would cost him his life.

While Chernow’s work a little too heavy on the academic side at times, the vignettes he paints deliver powerful glimpses into life during the American Revolution. In one episode that stands out prominently the Declaration of Independence having just been ratified, fast riders were dispatched to deliver copies throughout the colonies, including one to Washington and his troops in the field. As the author tells it, upon receiving his copy of the declaration Washington gathered his troops around him around 6 pm on the evening of July 6th, 1776. As Washington read the manifesto aloud Chernow captures the scene with spine-tingling emotion. “As the rapt soldiers listened, they learned that the United Colonies of America had been declared “Free and Independent States.” One can virtually imagine what it must have been like to have heard Washington speak words that would change the world.

After the war Hamilton came into his own. Playing a critical role in helping shape the direction of the new country as the primary author, along with James Madison and John Jay of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton often times turned out three or four original pieces in a weeks time while supporting his family by working full time as an lawyer. His work writing the Federalist Papers would provide the framework of what would become the U.S Constitution in 1787. Hamilton, while steadfast in his beliefs, was not intransigent to compromise. One of the most famous compromises in American history was his willingness to locate the capitol in the south, on the banks of the Potomac River in exchange for the votes of Jefferson, Madison and Washington to adopt the new Constitution. A compromise that did not sit well with representatives from Hamilton’s home state of New York who wanted New York City to be the new capito.

Chernow’s book is filled with story after story of political life during and after the war in the new country. Including an in-depth look at the vitriolic barbs regularly spewed back and forth between opposing political entities through the cover of newspaper commentaries.

Inventing the concept of a President’s Cabinet, Washington created three departments early on. Treasury, State and War. Hamilton was the first Secretary of Treasury while Jefferson was confirmed as Secretary of State and Henry Knox became the first Secretary of War.

On Hamilton’s first day on the job he had a small groups of offices and less than 10 employees. It's also noteworthy that throughout the history of the presidency, no cabinet secretary and chief executive have ever enjoyed a closer working relationship than did Hamilton and Washington.

For anyone remotely curious about the early days of the American Republic Chernow’s book proves to be a expansive gateway into the intricacies, challenges and successes of the early days of our country, whose survival was anything but assured.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow 817 pages.

If ever a man were made for the time in which he lived George Washington was by all historical accounts that man. Author Ron Chernow's look at Washington paints a picture of a man whose impeccable character and strong moral fiber provided a continuous rallying point for Americans during the deepest, darkest days of the Revolution, and whose ultimate success was nothing short of what many historians regard as miraculous.

Shaped by a strong bond with his older brother Lawrence, Washington's childhood was influenced by many people who instilled in him the values of hard work, good character, high moral standing and rock-solid self-control. In many ways what Washington stood for--- and demonstrated through his actions--- was what the American Revolution itself hoped to accomplish. A country rooted in the values and character of its most important Founding Father.

Ironically Washington’s military career almost never came to being. He was set to become a midshipman in the Royal Navy but for his mother, Mary nixing the idea at the last minute. And as Chernow states, ”Thereby performing a major service in American History, saving her son for a future army career.”

For all the adoration and praise heaped upon Washington during the Revolutionary War, history records one loss after another upon the battlefield. For the unassailable person Washington was as a man of principle and character, he was somewhat less as a military strategist and tactician. This did not in any way detract from his ability to identify others in his ranks with inate military ability. His promotion of Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox to the rank of General was crucial to the successes the Continental Army experienced. Perhaps Washington’s greatest talent, the ability to rally the troops, was invaluable in its contribution to ultimate victory over the British.

A little known fact is that Washington was an accomplished dancer, often dancing into the wee hours of the morning at parties with women who would wait hours for the opportunity to dance with him . He was also an outstanding horseman whose abilities were known throughout Virginia. Chernow also digs into Washington personal life providing a detailed look at his relationship with his wife Martha as well as a somewhat convoluted infatuation with the beautiful and quite married Sally Fairfax. Also intriguing is Washington’s relationship with his slaves, and the uneven treatment they received as evidenced by instances when his actions ran contrary to the man of character, moral standing and lover of liberty many knew him by. On the one hand Washington's well documented benevolence toward his personal attendant Billy Lee ran in stark contrast to his often harsh treatment of field slaves.

Washington's service as the nation’s first president was successful if for nothing else by the fact that he held the country together during continued political infighting among his cabinet and direct challenges to the authority of the federal government by segments of the the citizenry.

When a group of white settlers in western Pennsylvania refused to pay a federal excise tax on distilled spirits Washington himself supervised the federalized militia drawn to suppress the rebellion, the only time in American history that a sitting president has done so.

For all his military accolades, Washington was also a very astute and uncanny political figure, gathering around him such minds as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Adams but he also uncannily played the role of maestro, orchestrating their actions to help shape the new federal government and define the separation of powers among the three branches of government.

Washington also resisted repeated requests, if not outright demands, from many, to serve a third term. Although nothing in the Constitution prevented him from doing so, he chose to set the example for future presidents believing chief executives should limit themselves to two terms. It was not until passage of the 22nd amendment in 1951, after Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms, that presidents were constitutionally limited to serving two elected terms.

The author’s look into the life and times of the country’s most recognizable and revered founding father provides a deep introspective into not only Washington’s life but also the lives of those who closely intersected with his own. Together, these men combined to define the most critical times in American history. For anyone interested in a comprehensive one-volume read of the nation’s first president this is a great book to read.

1776 by David McCullough (297 pages)

In a pivotal year for the American Revolution 1776 will best be remembered by followers of American History as the tipping point of the colonial struggles against their British fathers. Defined by events in the summer of that year culminating in the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July fourth, it is easy to forget the tremendous test that awaited the “American Experiment” in the second half of that year.

After a successful siege of the British garrison at Boston, it was easy for the Continental Army to lapse into a false sense of confidence in assessing their ability to take on the most formidable fighting force in the world. With both Boston and New York in Continental hands, patriots awaited the inevitable return of the British. And return they did. One patriot who was seated in an outdoor privy on a bluff overlooking New York harbor had a first-hand view as hundreds of ships from the Royal Navy came starkly into view. Upon seeing the great sight the patriot later recorded in his journal “If was if all of London was afloat.”

Any false confidence remaining from the patriots earlier victories over the British quickly evaporated as thousands of Redcoats poured ashore on Long Island and ships blockaded New York Harbor. McCullough expertly set the scene as the Continental Army miraculously avoided capture in Brooklyn with the Redcoats in front of them and the East River behind them. A rare fog event over the East River one night allowed Washington’s Army to slip across the river to Manhattan avoiding being overrun by the British the following day.

The escape from New York is one of many such instances documented in the book that has the reader marveling time and time again at how close the Continental Army came to being completely annihilated by the British and thus ending any hope of achieving independene. When combined with desertions, disease and the lack of training for his forces it is difficult not to believe that the hand of Providence was at work in the fall and winter of 1776 on behalf of the new nation.

McCullough's book does an outstanding job of capturing the incredible spirit and fortitude that percolated deep within every patriot. A spirit that often was all believers in the cause had to hold onto as things went from bad to worse. On the reverse side, American independence was far from being uniformly accepted by everyone. Strong pockets of Tories and other British sympathizers were scattered throughout the colonies leading to frequent violent confrontations with injury and death often as consequences. America was a country at war with itself every bit as much as it was with the British.

The book ends with Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Eve night 1776 for a surprise attack on three British and Hessian (German mercenary soldiers allied with the British) positions. Washington’s daring night river-crossing and surprise attack caught the British completely off guard and resulted in a much needed victory for the Continental Army. Militarily the defeat proved a minor setback for the British. Psychologically it was a critical boost to Washington and his forces, improving their moral and once again providing the confidence that would be needed for a struggle that was still in its infancy. And just as critical, providing solid evidence for American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to present to a reluctant French government who were being urged to enter the war in support of the Americans.

The promise the Declaration of Independence had so magnificently proclaimed in the summer of 1776 nearly withered to worthless words upon a page. However it now had renewed life with Washington’s courageous Delaware crossing and attack upon Trenton. And with that, 1776 became a year where the hope and ideals in the Declaration took root and became the promise of a new country dedicated to the principles of liberty and freedom. And the promise continues to this day.