Book Reviews - Autumn 2020

Beneath the Powdered Wig

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Reinterpreting the life of our trendiest Founding Father

By Nancy Isenberg | September 23, 2020
Detail of Alexander Hamilton, 1806, by John Trumbull (Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of Alexander Hamilton, 1806, by John Trumbull (Wikimedia Commons)

Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons From a Misunderstood Founder by Christian Parenti; Verso, 304 pp., $26.95

Since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical became a Broadway sensation and made the 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel “of the moment,” the field of Revolutionary and early republican American history has found itself caught in the crossfire. For those who prefer it that way, the men in powdered wigs are no longer dead white guys; they’re streetwise. It all sounds new, but it’s not. Every generation has refashioned the Founders in its own image, mixing patriotic lore with filiopietistic tales to enshrine America’s cherished ideals. After his death, George Washington was revered as a demigod and saint, with his Jesus-like apotheosis captured in art and eulogy. New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned Paul Revere into a democratic symbol of the common man. In the middle of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate the author of the Declaration of Independence as a beacon of democratic idealism. That same year, 1943, Broadway’s The Patriots presented Hamilton as the champion of an aristocratic (code for fascist) class. The first secretary of the Treasury stood in for the widespread fear (as voiced by then Vice President Henry Wallace) that self-satisfied industrialists might sell out America for profits. Political theater has long elevated one favored Founder over another.

At the moment, we have a thriving cottage industry touting Hamiltonian revisionism. This fall, Cornell University Press will release Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today’s Most Contentious Legal Issues through the Hit Musical, in which legal scholars “embrace Alexander Hamilton as the trendiest historical face in American civics.” Since 2015, not one but three novels have been written about the fallen duelist’s widow, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, one of which is said to be “a juicy answer to Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.” A romance writer has churned out a trilogy for teens on the Hamilton and Eliza love story. There are a coffee- table photographic album of the musical and—God forgive us—adult coloring books.

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