The news lately is unsettling. On some days, I finish the paper hoping the coronavirus pandemic is just a dream that I will wake up from. I know it isn’t, but part of me looks for ways to escape. Thank goodness for books! Opening a book is like opening the lid to an escape hatch. The rest of the world falls away. I become fully immersed in a way that I never reach with movies or television. My current escape hatch has taken me back to colonial America.
I’ve resisted reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton since it first came out. After reading David McCullough’s masterful biography of John Adams in 2001, I became a great admirer of Adams. My opinion of Hamilton (and Jefferson, for that matter), distorted through Adams’s lens, was not very high. Because of that, I read other books by Chernow, but not the Hamilton biography.
A few weeks ago, however, I read a great book called The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David M. Rubenstein. This was an ideal audiobook because it was Rubenstein interviewing many modern historians, among them, Ron Chernow. That book and Chernow’s interview when he talked about Hamilton was the clincher.
And so, a week ago, I set my reservations about Hamilton aside and started to read Chernow’s biography. It came at a good time. News of the coronavirus was growing increasingly grim, and I needed a mental escape. I found it in America’s colonial past. Even though I didn’t always agree with Hamilton–especially his views of Adams–I looked forward to returning to the book whenever I could, often right after finishing the newspaper.
Hamilton has impressed me in several ways. I mentally divide impressive or outstanding people into two groups: their success is based on extremely hard work; or their success derives from some innate genius. While I admire genius, it is the hard worker that impresses me most–perhaps because that is something achievable without native genius. Rarely do I find people I’d put in both categories, but Hamilton is one. Even among the many hard workers I’ve read about, Hamilton stands out. HIs energy seemed boundless. His prolific output dwarfs Asimov. Then, too, his vision for America’s economic foundation shows genius. So do his ideas on the structure of government as he describes in The Federalist Papers.
Still, McCullough introduced me to Adams and in the two decades since, my admiration for the man, and his thinking has only grown. As I read of Adams and Hamilton’s disputes, this time through a Hamiltonian lens, I kept feeling the need to jump in and defend Adams. If only Hamilton knew… I’d say to myself.
Indeed, I began to wonder how Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson would react if they all had access to one another’s papers the way we do today. Would their opinions change? Would their feeling for one another differ?
I’m nearly finished with the book, and as I got closer to the end, I worried about my return to the real world. I’ve looked forward to my escapes to colonial America as an anodyne to the uncertainty in present-day America. After all, there is no COVID-19 in colonial America. Instead, they have yellow fever, and their idea of social distancing it to retreat from the cities. I’ve decided, therefore, to extend my vacation in colonial America for now. But I need to turn back to Adams to clear my palate of Hamilton. So I have settled on two books about Adams that I haven’t read before.
The first, just released, is called John Adams Under Fire by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. It is all about Adams’s defense of the British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. The second is Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams, written in the 1960s not long after access to Adams’s papers was made more widely available. I happened to come across a boxed edition last year at the kids’ school’s annual used book fair.
Our kids, incidentally, will be home from school for the next 5 weeks. All Virginia schools were closed for at least two weeks. Our city’s schools closed down through spring break. They will have virtual classes online. The social distancing can be a real challenge. Last night, I had a virtual happy hour with a bunch of my friends scattered across the country. But with recommendations to avoid large crowds, it makes many of the typical things we’d do out of reach. Fortunately, I am surrounded by books, each one of which is an escape hatch to some other place and time.