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Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

In 2016, I got a text from a friend with nothing but an entire line of exclamation points and a link to the Hamilton soundtrack. Somewhat skeptical about a self-proclaimed hip-hop musical about one of America’s (formerly) least spoken about founding fathers, I clicked the link, not sure what to expect.

Two hours and thirty minutes later, I was lying face down on my bed sobbing as the dulcet tones of Phillipa Soo as Eliza sang about who lives, who dies, and who tells your story…

The story, in this case, is a story that I and everyone else who spent 12 years in the American education system have heard our entire lives: The Story of America. And while at least one generation of Americans can sing along to the preamble of the constitution, for most of us the sound of the American Revolution errs more towards drums, flutes, and yankee-doodle-dandy’s (or 70’s rock music if your revolutionary musical of choice is 1776) and not hip-hop.

But what’s the spirit of revolutions, of theatre, of hip-hop, if not subverting expectation and challenging the status quo? And Hamilton certainly did subvert – both the story of the revolution and the theatrical standard on Broadway, the founding father without a father smashed his way into sold out audiences and a string of Tony awards. Hamilton quickly became the most notorious musical of a generation.

With all the newfound attention on Hamilton, the eponymous founding father was suddenly in the spotlight for the first time in over 200 years, with the American public suddenly very interested in brushing up on American history most of them hadn’t touched since passing that last US History test or citing a Wikipedia article in a Facebook argument with a distant relative. Of course, Robert Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is the infamous biography that inspired Lyn Manuel Miranda, but the genre of American History non-fiction is extensive, intimidating, academic, and decorated in the same “maroon, cream, navy, and coffee stain brown” color pallet that makes casual readers who tend to prefer fiction to Founding Fathers seriously question their dedication to revisiting a topic most of us are pretty confident we know enough about.

On July 3rd, 2020, Hamilton debuted on the streaming service Disney+ and with it brought back the love and interest in the lore of the show (i.e. American Revolutionary History). Luckily, I’ve spent the past four years diligently catching up and reading every maroon and cream colored book I could get my hands on, so you didn’t have to.

Here are the top 10 books (and some runner ups) that not only report information about the Revolutionary period of American history, but also embody the rebel spirit captured in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The books on this list are exciting, subversive, modern, and full of enough facts that your high school history teacher would cry with pride. So rise up, raise a glass to freedom, and don’t throw away your shot at these 10 excellent reads which will definitely leave you satisfied.

Bennett Martin Public Library

What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow (Biography Hamilton)

Where else could we start in the Hamilton booklist, then with the OG inspiration for America’s favorite musical. Legend has it that Lin Manuel Miranda picked up Chernow’s incredibly thorough biography of the 10 dollar founding father without a father at an airport, and by the end of the flight asked the golden question “Why has no one written a musical about this guy?”.  

As a biography, Chernow’s account is exhaustively detailed and leaves nothing out; which is great if you’re a fan of extensively researched biographies and you aren’t afraid to dive into 800 pages of what I find to be rather dry writing of interesting history. But, the overwhelming amount of 5 star reviews for this one disagree with me, so if you’re able to commit to it, start here and try not to get distracted singing Hamilton lyrics in your head…

Yeah, I’m just like my country; I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot!

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution
by Kathleen Duval (973.3 Duv)

Hamilton famously reimagines the American story with a cast that reflects America today, giving stand out roles to actors of color and subverting the expectations of what historical white slave owners look like. In Duval’s Independence Lost, we get to hear that American story as told through those marginalized voices during the time: women, slaves, and indigenous Americans in the revolution.

Focusing outside of the 13 colonies, Dr. Duval takes a look at the edges of the revolution. While Hamilton and Co were writing essays and fighting redcoats, the Spanish were carving up the Louisiana territory and pressing against the already strained British army. Tribes such as a the Chickasaw were courted by the French and Spanish, all the while fighting to protect their own lands and people from encroaching European imperialism. Enslaved people were organizing to fight for their freedom, both for and against the British.   Independence lost provides a unique perspective of the American revolution as told from the outside, and is a must read for fans of both history and the subversive perspectives of the Hamilton revolution.

Here comes the general!

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
by Alexis Coe (Biography Washington)

Alexis Coe takes on America’s First President in this witty and compelling biography of George Washington. From his youth all the way to his retirement and death, Coe repaints the vision of Washington that has long saturated the American populace. Part myth busting, part biography, this book brings excitement and new life to history.

While Coe’s humor and wit makes this book an airy and easy read, she doesn’t skirt around the uglier parts of Washington’s life, including the treatment of his slaves. Coe presents a George Washington who isn’t a glorified hero or a rough and secret villain, but a human being in the middle of the mess of early American history.  If you’re the kind of person who fell asleep in high school history class, and who hasn’t even thought about reading a biography since 6th grade social studies, then pick up “You Never Forget Your First” and rediscover how fun history can be.

Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
by Sarah Vowell (Biography Lafayette)

Sarah Vowell uses her unique and hilarious voice to take on the history of an immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in. From his youth in France, to his role in the revolution, and his triumphant return 30 years later, the Marquis de Layfayette is spread across the American origin story. Vowell’s book delves into the relationships between Lafayette, Washington, Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as taking a look at contemporary perceptions of the Frenchman.

As a side note- this one has an audiobook that I can personally vouch for as delightful – Vowell herself is the narrator, and she brings in a spectacular cast to narrate other historical figures (Nick Offerman as George Washington? I think yes.)

Gentleman of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me: are you aware we’re making history? The first murder trial of our brand new nation!

Duel With the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery
by Paul Collins (364.152 Col)

Why does a book relating to one line in one song get its whole own entry? Because it’s a really good book and, moreover, a fascinating subject. If you don’t know, the trial of Levi Weeks over the murder of Elma Sands in 1799 WAS the first recorded murder trial in a newly formed United States. When Elma Sands was found dead in Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Well, not only would the United States get its first murder trial, but also become the first sensationalized crime in the country – an early American entry into the newly emerging genre of Victorian Crime Journalism.  “Duel with the Devil” is part history, part true crime novel, and all parts compelling and intriguing. Besides giving context to the rivalry and working relationship of Burr and Hamilton, “Duel with Devil” will introduce you to America’s original cold case- oh, yeah, the case never actually got solved. And also Hamilton was cursed to die an unnatural death at the end of the trial.

Dear Theodosia…

The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr: A Tale of Homicide, Intrigue and a Father’s Worst Fear
by H.W. Brands (Biography Burr)

Any Hamilton book list would be incomplete without at least one book about Hamilton’s friend, rival, and executioner: Aaron Burr. Brands’ Heartbreak of Aaron Burr tells the lives and struggles of Burr through a mix of creative fact telling and letters from Burr to his daughter Theodosia. Burr’s legacy was written mostly by his enemies, and he’s mainly remembered for killing Hamilton, but Brands reframes the Aaron Burr as complex, multifaceted character with love, hurt, struggle, and ambition.
Lin Manuel Miranda has said this book was key to him unlocking Burr’s character, so fans of the musical wanting a deeper dive into Aaron Burr (even without the vocal talent of Leslie Odom Jr.) should definitely give “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” a read.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine- There are 10 things you need to know…

War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation
by John Sedgewick (973.46 Sed)

Hamilton cheated on his wife, Phillip died, and now we reach the climax of act two: the fateful duel between A. Ham and A. Burr. John Sedgewick sheds new light on this monumental event, sharing letters between the two men, including a letter addressed to then speaker of the house Theodore Sedgewick, who happens to be an ancestor of the author- we love a personal touch!

Sedgewick takes a long and detailed view of the lives of both Hamilton and Burr, divining into both men’s personal lives, professional and political disputes, scandals, motivations, and conflict- culminating with the famous duel in 1809. “War of Two” gives insight and context to the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in a way that brings both of these historical figures into the present day for a modern reader. No need to be a historical buff for this one either- Sedgewick catches you up on everything you need to know.

Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into the room, diametrically opposed, foes-

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s: Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the Evening That Changed America
by Charles Cerami (973.41 Cer)

Charles Cerami gives a glimpse into the room where it happened in Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s. Combining historical accounts, speculation, and a charming mix of revolutionary wine lists and recipes, this book is an intriguing and charming look into the secretive dinner that changed the course of American history.

Beginning at Jefferson’s return to America from France, Cerami takes a look at the motivations and past of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, explaining what brought each man to the dinner and what they left with.  While not as historically comprehensive as some of the other titles on this list, Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s is a quick and easy read, and the historical recipes and wine lists add a special touch that makes this a must for history fans and foodies.

Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Yo, who is this kid, what’s he going to do?

Founding Brothers
by Joseph J. Ellis (973.4 Ell)

Another book that guided Miranda, Founding Brother’s detailed six key events that happen after the Revolution, including George Washington’s farewell address, the dinner between Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, Congresses discussions on slavery, and of course the famous Hamilton-Burr duel.

Ellis’s book is extensive and well researched, and focuses more on the relationships between the founding fathers opposed to a recitation of historical fact. By detailing who these men were as people – their loves, losses, struggles, arguments, and hopes – Ellis brings a human perspective to who these men were in their time and how those same character traits can be found in modern America.
If you were forced to read this book in your University intro to American history class and hated it or simply find Chernow’s historical epic overwhelming, give ‘Founding Brothers’ a try, this time reading for fun and interest and now with a Tony winning background track.

And when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’m going to compel him to include women in the sequel! Work!

Revolutionary Mothers : Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence
by Carol Berkin (973.308 Ber)

The Best of wives and women, indeed, some of the greatest unsung heroes of the American Revolution were women. Organizing boycotts, raising funds, hosting secret meetings, and even taking the place of men on the battlefield are only a few ways that women shaped America during the revolution. Carol Berkin opens a new female chapter of the American story by detailing the lives of women involved in the revolution. While somewhat biographical of the various subjects, Berkin also examines societal and cultural roles of women in pre-revolution colonial America, during the war itself, and the long lasting social effects on women after the revolution in an evolving country. Revolutionary Mothers gives voice to not only prominent well known women, but also those often silenced: poor women, black women, native women, and even british loyalists.


Honorable Mentions

Thomas Jefferson’s Crème brûlée by Thomas J. Craughwell

1774: The Long Year of Revolution By Mary Beth Norton

In the Name of the Father : Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation By Francois Furstenberg

Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different By Gordon S. Wood

The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution by William Cooper Nell

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America by Douglas R Egerton

The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence by T.H. Breen

Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder by Christian Parenti

The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood

American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution by Woody Holton

posted to BookGuide in September 2019 — LG