I came to this book because of my obsession with Hamilton, of course; I was interested to read a book that focused entirely on the relationship between Hamilton and Washington, and I was also interested to learn about the years that aren’t covered in much detail in the musical. This book is readable, and I did learn some more details about this alliance, including the fact that Washington sent Hamilton a “wine cooler” as a show of support when the Reynolds scandal broke. I’m presuming this gift was some kind of contraption that would keep wine cold in the pre-electric years, but I prefer to think of Washington showing up on the former treasury secretary’s doorstep with a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes.
I enjoyed the chapter on “Partisanship, Fear, and Loathing,” in which we learn that John Adams publicly complained of Hamilton’s “superabundance of secretions” and declared that all the honors heaped upon George Washington were the consequence of his “handsome face” and “elegant form.” The authors are decidedly pro-Hamilton and pro-Washington, defending their subjects by characterizing Adams as paranoid and shrewish and claiming that he tended “to consider everyone he knew to be a potential foe instead of a potential ally” (224). As the book progressed, the bias grated on me a little. I wanted the authors to dig into Washington and Hamilton’s relationship and unearth connections that previously went unnoticed, when what they do most often is skate over the surface. In the book’s final chapter, Knott and Williams abandon all trace of objectivity in what is obviously a defense of Hamilton himself and of Washington’s confidence in Hamilton. They praise his encyclopedic mind and his caution, noting that “there would be times when statesmanship would require the president to resist the wishes of the people” (248). They also acknowledge that Hamilton “was a horrible politician, but as a nation-builder and strategic thinker, he was without parallel” (249).
I found this book very readable and generally enjoyed it, but ultimately it never quite transcends its sources. Almost every time I found a point intriguing, I checked the bibliography and found that it came from Ron Chernow – either from his biography of Washington or his biography of Hamilton, the former of which was also Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration and key source for the musical. I suppose this book is ideal for readers who are caught up in Founding Father Fever but aren’t quite ready to commit to reading both of Chernow’s massive biographies. I haven’t read either one yet, but I definitely intend to – so maybe I am not the ideal reader for Knott and Williams’ book, which is more a synthesis of other biographies than a work of scholarship in its own right.