Yale University historian Joanne Freeman recently released her Library of America volume The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings. In a short review at The New York Times, John Williams described it as “Hamilton Minus Music,” or, “a more direct (if less rhyming) way to learn about Alexander Hamilton.”
My disquiet over Williams’s idiom of praise stems from questions about what Americans ought to know about their country’s history, or really, what they ought to want to know. One can’t know everything, and I have observed enough U.S. history survey courses to see that much over which teachers enthuse falls through the cracks in students’ interest. But still, some U.S. history topics, including Revolution, Constitution-making, and early nationhood, should clear that bar without overmuch enhancement. We should want to know about Hamilton’s career because it’s interesting. It’s also curious, formative, fascinating, and–in a way that Freeman is particularly good at bringing out–full of personalities, some deservedly famous and some stuck obscure, entirely as entertaining as television, often more so, and more significant. Those eighteenth-century arguments, the way they were framed and the way they tilted, shaped the country we all are sitting in.
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