The Essential Hamilton

The Essential Hamilton, Letters and other Writings
Edited with introduction by Joanne B. Freeman

Library of America 2017 Paperback
ISBN 978-1-59853-536-5

Alexander Hamilton’s extraordinary and controversial life headlines a popular musical but if you want an in-depth view of his life, The Library of America offers meaningful insight with “The Essential Hamilton Letters & Other Writings,” compiled by historian Joanne B. Freeman.

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“. . . a gem to add to your library.”

Most fascinating is how a “poor and illegitimate orphan” born in the Caribbean became a key character in defining the republic of the United States and what led to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr before his 50th birthday.

The collection includes letters Hamilton exchanged with Burr which demonstrate their polite animosity, and Hamilton’s unwillingness to apologize for suggesting Burr was not qualified for public office. There is Hamilton’s last letter to his wife, Elizabeth, to whom he writes that he is proceeding with the match to protect his self-esteem. He tells her, “Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all of my darling Children for me.”  Another letter indicates he abhorred duels, and was not likely to draw on Burr.

The thousands of pages of essays, documents and letters point to the  “power of his prose,” and why George Washington selected Hamilton as his aide-de-camp and later, as President, his Secretary of Treasury. Hamilton’s letters also show a life of conflict, especially opposing Thomas Jefferson, and generally “savaging his foes.” 

Incorporated is Hamilton’s popular “Reynolds Pamphlet” in which he attacks those who accused him of taking public funds while Treasurer. He notes a congressional committee exonerated him but also admits he was blackmailed by James Reynolds: “My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife.”

A view into Hamilton’s relaxed and humorous personality is found in his letters to his dependable friend, John Laurens. Amusing is a letter asking his friend to find him a wife, “well-bred” but also wealthy, because “money is an essential ingredient to happiness.” 

Books about Hamilton abound, but none offer an unvarnished view as The Library of America’s version, drawn from original digitized copies and or manuscripts, which makes this a gem to add to your library.


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Review by Kate Padilla