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Patriots & Partners: An Interview with Ron Chernow

Adapted from a conversation between the Washington Library’s Doug Bradburn and author Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow is the author of best-selling biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Chernow sat down with Doug Bradburn, the Washington Library’s founding director, to discuss that history-making partnership, including its most recent and innovative portrayal—the hit hip-hop musical Hamilton, for which he was the historic advisor.

How did you become interested in Hamilton? Washington?

In 1998, when I started working on Hamilton, he seemed to be the neglected and misunderstood founding father. I decided to write about Washington because, when I was writing about Hamilton, I had a moment of epiphany. Seeing Washington through Hamilton—who was very perceptive and a good enough writer that he could really make characters come alive—I began to spy a portrait of Washington that had not been done before.

Alexander Hamilton and George Washington were from very different worlds—why were they so attracted to one another?

Alexander Hamilton, an illegitimate orphan from the Caribbean, is painfully aware of his lack of status but is tremendously ambitious. He is an outsider trying to fight his way into the inner ranks of society and government. George Washington was born at a much higher level, but was very self-conscious about what he referred to as his “defective” education. He wanted to enter the upper ranks of Virginia gentry, and so he was, in his way, conscious of being an outsider.

Author and historian Ron Chernow
Author and historian Ron Chernow

How would you characterize the relationship between Washington and Hamilton?

Hamilton said, “Our dispositions could not have been more unlike.” His was a brash and headstrong personality; he was very mercurial and brilliant and very impulsive. Washington was the opposite: cautious, thorough, slow, and methodical. These two men complement each other in a way that just feels uncannily right.

When did Hamilton catch the attention of Washington and become part of his “military family”?

Hamilton’s reputation preceded him even before January 1777, which is when he received notice to contact Washington about being an aide de camp. He had already distinguished himself in battle, and rebuffed invitations to join the staffs of three generals. But a request from Washington was irresistible.

A sculpture of Alexander Hamilton on display in the Washington Library. (Mark Finkenstaedt)
A sculpture of Alexander Hamilton on display in the Washington Library. (Mark Finkenstaedt)

How did Washington and Hamilton get on during the war? Did they have disagreements? Did they have a falling out?

Hamilton had this obsession with military glory, so he keeps asking Washington for field command, where another young man would have been so pleased and flattered to be in Washington’s “family.” Washington made the right decision that Hamilton was probably more valuable behind a desk than he was on the field of battle, but when Hamilton finally had his chance at Yorktown, he certainly did cover himself with glory.

What was their relationship like after the war in the 1780s?

Their political vision of the country had been very much forged going through the war together. Hamilton was very important in coaxing Washington back out of retirement, convincing him that the American Revolution is incomplete without the Constitutional Convention. I think this was really the most productive partnership of the early years of the republic. I think that they were an unbeatable team, one of those cases in history where the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.

How did Washington’s relationship with Hamilton evolve as his friendship with Madison/Jefferson began to deteriorate?

Even when Hamilton and Jefferson started feuding, Washington was able to tolerate a quite significant degree of dissent from within his administration. Madison exiled himself from Washington’s affection. Jefferson, too, pulls away from Washington. But Washington never had a cause to doubt the personal and political loyalty of Alexander Hamilton right up to the day that Washington died.

Ron Chernow: Washington and Hamilton

We sit down and talk with Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Ron Chernow to discuss the unique relationship between Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.