Lum: Floundering founding fathers
Geography and history were two subjects in the public schools that were woefully presented in my day. What should have been lively, interesting information about the world and fascinating elucidations on how we got where we are now were reduced to memorized imports and exports and the years that things happened rather than the events themselves.
So it was that I reached advanced years believing the simplistic explanation that our first president (who I knew, was George Washington) and our founding fathers were a convivial group of geniuses, who sat down together and cranked out the Constitution without a whisper of disharmony.
My friend Nancy Thomas has, for the past year or two, mentioned a book that she was plowing through: “Alexander Hamilton,” by Ron Chernow. The book was so long she could hardly lift it but so interesting she had a hard time putting it down and was only hampered by finding the time to devote to it.
A huge tome about a historical figure is not really my kind of book, but my back has been acting up and forcing me to stay down. I was due for a freebie from Audible, where “Alexander Hamilton” normally costs $56. Thirty-six hours of read-aloud while my bones and nerve endings get a grip on themselves — who could resist?
Right away, the book took me back to what little I knew about the Revolutionary War, namely that a chunk of it went on in my front yard. Washington’s headquarters was in Morristown, New Jersey, which was just a hoofbeat from Boonton and our house — which started as one room — built in 1739. The original house wasn’t big enough to accommodate Washington’s troops, but surely they must have marched back and forth, and as a kid I used to sit on the swing by the road trying to imagine it.
Anyone who came to visit us was taken to Morristown to tour the headquarters, and the book spoke to that landmark house, so it was a bit like time travel, and I got sucked in right away.
This isn’t going to be a history lesson. The book is way too long to be eligible for condensation, but to me a very interesting part was the bad blood between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, with Washington not thrilled with the situation, either.
Just as an example, during a plague of yellow fever, Hamilton came down with it, and Jefferson openly accused him of faking his symptoms. Jefferson wrongly claimed that Hamilton just had a bad cold.
I had always thought or assumed that Jefferson was an intellectual philanthropist who, except for his well-publicized dalliance, was pretty much a good guy, but this book had me reviewing the bidding. That may just be Chernow looking over the other side of the fence, but from the footnotes I’d say it was very well-researched.
Madison was no buddy, either, and they were no stellar examples of civility. Also, Hamilton was screwing around while his wife was carrying his sixth or seventh kid — nice guy.
A striking thing about the book was seeing how very young all these men were when they were moving and shaking and squabbling over the Constitution. Thirty was pretty much over-the-hill; 25 was more like it for prime time. Hamilton was 47 when he died, but since he was killed in a duel, that doesn’t really count. I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so don’t post any spoilers.
And the lengths they had to go to get anywhere were staggering. Imagine just commuting to Glenwood Springs on horseback, much less traveling across the entire state of Pennsylvania to attend a meeting.
Meanwhile, Hamilton was reading 15 hours a day and writing (by hand with a quill pen) reams and reams of tracts and treatises and essays, which I imagine fill up a library somewhere. Who would have the time? It’s mind-bending.
This isn’t a book report, either, but if you’re temporarily (I hope) infirm, I highly recommend it and especially recommend it in some form of audio. My mind does sometimes wander to weird things like remembering the names of my junior high teachers (oops, rewind), but being read to is a treat, and I don’t have to lug the book around.
Su Lum is a longtime local who solicits reading recommendations. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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