Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton: the man behind the hit musical

As Hamilton arrives in London’s West End, we spoke to historian Ron Chernow about the amazing life of the American Founding Father, his biography which inspired the hip-hop musical sensation, and his role as a historical consultant to the show… 

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806. (Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo)

Though it’s perhaps hard to imagine, now that Alexander Hamilton is the subject of an award-winning musical, when historian Ron Chernow began writing his biography about the American Founding Father in 1998, the figure was falling into relative obscurity.

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In a podcast interview for History Extra, Chernow explains: “When I started doing the book, most Americans – including I think Lin-Manuel Miranda [the writer of the musical] – knew two things about Alexander Hamilton: he is on the $10 bill in the United States; and he had died in a duel with the vice president at the time, Aaron Burr. But that pretty much exhausted what most people knew. And yet, the more I read about him, I realised that his personal story was far and away the most dramatic and in fact, rather unbelievable story of any of the founders.”

Hamilton’s illustrious career included a position as an aide-de-camp to George Washington during the American War of Independence, prior to gaining military glory at the battle of Yorktown in 1781. After the war, he was a key figure in the ratification of the US constitution and a prolific writer in its defence, and later he served as the first treasury secretary of the United States during Washington’s presidency. Add to this Hamilton’s remarkable rise from his illegitimate birth on a remote Caribbean island, a tumultuous personal life and his involvement in what Chernow calls “America’s first sex scandal”, and it seems amazing that Hamilton’s life was neglected for so long.

attends "Hamilton's America" intro and Q&A at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theatre during the 54th New York Film Festival on October 1, 2016 in New York City.

When historian Ron Chernow began reading about Alexander Hamilton in the 1990s, he realised that his personal story was far and away the most dramatic of any of the founding fathers. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Yet given Hamilton’s personal and professional rivalries, explains Chernow, the neglect is not such a surprise. “Hamilton’s political enemies were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe – I just named presidents two, three, four and five – and if history is written by the victors, history had very much been written by Alexander Hamilton’s enemies.

“He had always been portrayed as this ferocious snob, the stooge of the plutocrats. For most Americans, there was a feeling that he was a second- or third-rate founder and yet the more that I read about his achievements, they were so monumental that I decided that they needed to be up there with those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin et al.”

For many years, Hamilton was perhaps best known as political antagonist of Thomas Jefferson, with the figures coming to embody two different political philosophies which still resonate through American politics to this day. Hamilton believed strongly in a central government, while Jefferson believed in states’ rights, inextricably tied to the institution of slavery in the southern states. “When I was growing up,” says Chernow, “Jefferson was this perfect human being, he was the tribune of the common man and woman, and Hamilton was this furious elitist. When you look in terms of their attitudes towards slavery [Jefferson owned 200 slaves, while Hamilton was an abolitionist] and Native Americans, Hamilton starts to look better and Jefferson does not, so it’s kind of been a major change in how these figures are perceived.”

Hamilton’s profile certainly ranks more highly in this century, as Chernow’s 2004 biography has been transformed by star composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda into an award-winning musical. Hamilton: An American Musical debuted off Broadway in 2015, before moving to Manhattan’s main strip, breaking box-office records and winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In December 2017, it opened in London’s West End.

Though perhaps not the most obvious fodder for a musical featuring hip-hop, pop and soul music, Miranda saw Hamilton’s life story as a “classic hip-hop narrative,” explains Chernow. When reading the biography on holiday in Mexico, Miranda told Chernow, hip-hop songs had begun rising off the page. “For Lin, hip-hop heroes are people who had written their way out of poverty or obscurity through their power, the power of language.”

onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City.

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs a song from ‘Hamilton’ during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre in New York City in June 2016. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

“The very first time that I met Lin,” says Chernow, “he said ‘do you want to be the historical consultant to this non-existent musical?’ I laughed and said, ‘you want me to tell you when something is wrong’, and he said ‘yes, I want historians to take this seriously’. Which they have.”

“It’s a fairy-tale story and I think one aspect that Lin captures extremely well in the show is Hamilton’s driven nature, just how determined he was – in every respect: in the social, the political, the economic spheres – to obtain his place in the world, which he does by dint of his talent.”

You can listen to the full interview with Ron Chernow – in which he talks about Hamilton’s life, career and America’s first political sex scandal – on the History Extra podcast, available here.

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The musical Hamilton is showing at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End until 28 July 2018 and Alexander Hamilton (2004) by Ron Chernow is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.