Catherine's Learning Journal

Lessons from the real Alexander Hamilton

08 06 16 Real Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is a man after my own heart.

His life story not only makes for a great musical, it is also an object lesson in being a successful autodidact. I can totally relate to his approach to making sense of the world – which was through extensive reading and long-form writing. Despite his personal flaws and the ways I might disagree with his politics, I stand in awe of the ways he exemplifies the autodidact ideal.

After getting caught up in Hamilton, The Musical, I decided it might be a good idea to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography as well – on the theory that it’s always a bad idea to take one’s understanding of the man and the birth of the nation from a 3-hour musical. The book is really a terrific read and I highly recommend it.

Chernow calls Alexander Hamilton “a fantastically quick study” which is evidenced over and over again in the ways Hamilton read up on a topic and immediately turned those ideas around to proposals and political arguments. He took just a few months to catch up on what he needed to learn to enter college once he arrived in the colonies, and he self-studied his way to a law degree as well, compressing three years of study to nine months.

Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.
~ Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton had a habit of keeping notes on what he read. Even during the Revolutionary War, he carried a notebook to keep track of what he was learning. During that time, he read Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, which proved solid ground for his role as Treasury Secretary. Even before the war was won, Hamilton was thinking ahead to what would be needed to create a nation. Hamilton’s 177 pages of notes on New York Supreme Court proceedings (made during his law school studies) proved so useful that law students copied them for reference for years afterward. I feel less self-conscious of the fact that I tend to tote books everywhere when I know that Hamilton carried books in the middle of a war and “accumulated books insatiably” during his entire life. I can relate!

Hamilton is held up as a genius, capable of speaking extemporaneously in paragraphs, making detailed cogent arguments, and writing prodigious amounts of beautifully written text (which, by the way, included elegant insults for those on the other side of the argument). Back in the day (lacking social media and televised sound bites), people like Hamilton wrote extensive pamphlets to make the case for the ideas they wanted to advance. And they wrote and published them quickly. For example, Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers (advocating for passage of the Constitution) in just 6 months. As Treasury Secretary, he took just 3 months to research and prepare the Report on Public Credit for congress which “wrote our financial systems into existence.”* As Lin-Manuel Miranda has said, Alexander Hamilton “embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.”

Reading the biography of such an accomplished, vibrant life certainly gives me pause. Hamilton – The Musical tells the man’s story in such a way that by the end, you are left to ponder what greatness you might make of your own life. The full scope of Hamilton’s accomplishments detailed in Chernow’s book certainly set a high bar as well.

While I don’t really hope to live up to that standard, reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton does remind me of some of the learning strategies that I hold dear to my heart. And it challenges me to employ these more extensively.

The strategies are quite simple: read deep texts, keep notes, and write about what it all means. Yup, simple.

I have noticed that I have picked up the pace of my reading lately, and I deliberately choose paper texts so that I can highlight and write notes in the margins as I read. I’d like to get back in the habit of summarizing thoughts here in this blog because I have always found that effort to be worth the time for the ways I can later reference these notes for myself or others. Publishing articles and guest-blogging also gives me a chance to put ideas together in a more coherent fashion, and I hope to do more of that in the future (a few in process even now).

It’s also important, I think, to get more involved with public conversation. I so value blog exchanges that I have come across where folks are sharing their perspectives on a debatable topic. I need to make time to engage in these dialogs as a way of processing my own ruminations and gathering additional input from others as I think through challenges. (I do not, however, plan to emulate Hamilton’s eloquence with the personal insults. We can do with much less of that.)

Ron Chernow summarizes Alexander Hamilton’s legacy this way:

Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.

While I could never hope to match his accomplishments, my bookish heart can dream about “turning abstractions into institutional realities,” and in my writing, I can aspire to “infuse principles with expansive life.”

I’m taking lessons from Alexander Hamilton.

* This quote is from the musical, not the book. All other quotes are from Alexander Hamilton, by Rob Chernow.

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