Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father

Posted July 15, 2017 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding FatherAlexander Hamilton by Jonathan Hennessey
Published by Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony on 2017
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Historical, Comics & Graphic Novels, Nonfiction, General, History, United States
Pages: 176
Format: Electronic ARC
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Alexander Hamilton was once forgotten, but he’s returned to the spotlight thanks to a popular Broadway musical. Embarrassingly enough, there was a time when I mostly associated him with a 1993 Got Milk? commercialIf you are looking for an accessible account of Hamilton’s life and his role in the American Revolution, this graphic history might perfect for you. Hamilton is one of America’s Founding Fathers and the first secretary of the Treasury. He played an integral role in shaping the United States’ political, financial, and legal institutions. This graphic history takes us from his childhood in the West Indies to his death by duel on July 12, 1804. It discusses the assets that made him invaluable to the war effort and building a new nation, as well as his contradictions and fatal flaws. However, this story is just as much about the birth of the United States as it is about a singular man. The author takes a broad view, placing Hamilton into the context of the era and American history. It outlines the beliefs that drove these revolutionaries, but also the fears, doubts, hopes, and writings that influenced their ideas. It also provides important context for activities and attitudes that seem quaint now, like duels and the thirst for war.

The tendency to see the founding fathers as invaluable statesmen and sages who capably delivered up a nation to flourish for hundreds of years obscures the fact that, in many very real ways, they were white-knuckling it through completely uncharted waters. … There was no script to follow on how to be an effective American leader.

I’m a big fan of both Hamilton: An American Musical and graphic nonfiction, so I had to give this book a try. Reading it confirmed that I’ll never be able to read a book about Alexander Hamilton’s life without the relevant lines from the musical instantly popping into my head! (And I’ll never be able to say “Hercules Mulligan” in my indoor voice!) This book is only 176 fully-illustrated pages, but it’s jam-packed with information. I usually look to the graphic format to inject a little heart into a subject, but this one is more academic in style. There’s an unavoidably large cast of characters, so it’s impossible to get too attached to anyone! It’s heavy on the text and light on the dialogue. Much of the content would have been easier for me to read in paragraphs rather than comic book style, but the graphic format makes the content easier to digest. The illustration style is perfect for the time period being discussed. If you’d like to get a feel for the artwork, there are some excerpts online: Six-Page Preview | More Pages from the Illustrator Justin Greenwood. I could this book being an excellent educational resource for older students or a precursor to a more in-depth text. Longer texts are usually more enjoyable to me if I’ve read a broad overview first. I was actually glad that I had listened to the musical before reading this book, because I was better able to appreciate the broader themes and was less overwhelmed by all the new information.

“Give all power to the many and they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both therefore ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other.” – Alexander Hamilton

One thing this book really excels at is showing the fragility of the new republic. Conflict was not only with outside forces, but with each other. Tensions were further aggravated by post-war problems, like crippling debt and dealing with Loyalists. The book opens with an excerpt from Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680): “The desire of liberty was the first cause of the fall of Adam. … The greatest liberty in the world (if it be duly considered) is for the people to live under a monarch. … All other shows or pretexts of liberty are but several degrees of slavery, and a liberty only to destroy liberty.” It’s accompanied by gorgeous “Fall of Adam” illustrations that continue to reappear throughout the story as the author lines out the deep divisions over what path the new nation should take. Many people, Alexander Hamilton included, felt that “pure, unchecked democracy” was “mob rule.” They worried that liberty “made men slaves to the worst aspects their own nature” and that the “high-minded, experimental republic might end in dictatorship.” Hamilton believed in the revolution, but didn’t want it to go “too far”; he didn’t want “revolution, rebellion, and fragmentation” to become the new American way-of-life. Others were repulsed by that line of thinking. They risked their lives fighting a strong, centralized power. Why would they want to set up a government that looked remarkably similar what they just fought against?  With so many strong feelings on both sides, how would they ever strike a balance between states’ rights and a strong central government?

Shades of the early conflicts continued to rage on through the decades, and even today: rural vs. urban, “North and South, different economic interests, factions in Congress, schools of constitutional thought.” The Founding Fathers are often idealized and viewed as a monolithic entity, but a balanced portrait of these complex people makes the story of the United States’ birth even more remarkable. This book reveals how uncertain and risky their undertaking was. Despite the incredible odds they faced, their grand experiment continues on 241 years later.

• If you enjoy this book, you might be interested in seeking out author’s other graphic nonfiction titles: The United States Constitution and The Gettysburg Address.
• How Old Were the Leaders of the American Revolution on July 4, 1776? – Many of them were so young! Fun fact: Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, was only 13 years old when he was captured by the British during the American Revolution. He’s the only prisoner of war to become president. (Source, 2)
Thomas Jefferson vs. Alexander Hamilton – a concise table of viewpoints. (PDF) “Hamilton and myself were daily pitted in the cabinet like two fighting cocks.” – Thomas Jefferson
• A quote from Condoleezza Rice came back to me as I was reading: “One of the great things about representing this country is that it continues to surprise. It continues to renew itself. It continues to beat all odds and expectations. You just know that Americans are not going to be satisfied until they really do form that perfect union. And while the perfect union may never be in sight, we just keep working at it and trying.” (November 5, 2008)


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