BPR Interviews: Ron Chernow

Photo Credit: Nina Subin

Ron Chernow is a best-selling author and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his biography of George Washington. His biography of Alexander Hamilton served as the source material for the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

Much of your early work focused on financial history. Are there any lessons that are particularly relevant to current financial trends?

There are potentially many issues that I could talk about. But let me just talk about one, which is debt, since that was the principal problem that Alexander Hamilton faced when he became the first Treasury Secretary. The federal government was bankrupt from day one because the Revolutionary War had been financed with loans which were in default. Hamilton came up with a plan to pay off those debts, and I think that the lesson there is that the government does not have to promise to immediately repay the debt; it simply needs to come up with a clear and convincing plan over a number of years. A plan that creditors can believe in and that the government sets aside a certain amount in revenues to pay it off.

What inspired your transition to writing books on political figures?

I guess the obvious distinction to make is that when you are writing about financial history there is just much more technical material to go through. The great challenge in financial writing is that the terminology and concepts can be obscure.

I really felt that I had essentially said what I was going to say about American financial and industrial history. Alexander Hamilton represented a very nice exit strategy for me, because I didn’t want to break away entirely from what I had been doing and I knew [with] Hamilton a significant chunk of the book would be about finance.  I also knew that it would lead me down a lot of other interesting byways. Plus, the fact I realized this was far and away the most dramatic personal story of any of the founding fathers.

Given the challenge of making financial and historical writing accessible, how do you distill your research?

This is really where biography is a wonderful medium of storytelling because it always keeps the main character in the foreground. My first book was House of Morgan. I wanted to do a history of Wall Street. I realized if it was just a straight history it would be rather dry and tedious and difficult for the average person to absorb. On the other hand, I thought if I could tell the story through the prism of a banking family that was at the center of everything that had happened in Anglo-American finance, the reader would be receiving an enormous amount of information but in an absolutely entertaining and painless fashion.  I always try to have a very rich psychological portrait at the center of the story. At the same time, I’m constantly, throughout all of the books, filling in the historical background and circumstance.

What is the challenge of writing for an audience that may not have any previous experience reading about the time period or the subject?

Well one has to have a grasp of the period, one has to have a sense of all the forces that were shaping people at the time, shaping their thoughts, shaping their actions, because if you don’t, you can wrongly attribute something to a person’s individual nature that was really common to many people at the time. I’ll give one example from Hamilton… Many people who’ve read the book and who’ve watched the show, imagine that Hamilton was in a suicidal frame of mind…and they tend to trace it to his individual depression after the Reynolds scandal and after the death of his son. But I think that if one begins to study the whole culture of dueling and to perceive how people at the time perceived it, at least those who believed in the dueling code, you have a very different reaction to it. For instance, there were a lot of both politicians and military figures at the time who were very caught up in this whole honor culture, duels were a part of honor…There was a wonderful book by Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale, called Affairs of Honor. She studied many of the duels in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century and discovered that very often duels were fought by politicians whose careers were in decline; it was a way of rehabilitating yourself after a disastrous election defeat. After reading that, suddenly you look at the Hamilton-Burr duel, and instead of seeing it simply in terms of the individual psychology of the two men, you say “Oh this is interesting because Burr had just been dropped from the ticket in 1804 by Jefferson, so he’s in the political wilderness, Hamilton between the Reynolds scandal and the open letter to John Adams had just blown up his career too.” …They’re both politicians who are looking to rehabilitate their career. Again, if you don’t know anything about the history of the period or really the sociology of dueling, you can attribute this purely to the personal anger and rivalry between the men.

You are a historical consultant on Hamilton, however, Lin Manuel Miranda did choose to include some historical inaccuracies. What are your thoughts on those inaccuracies?

There are inevitably instances of dramatic license when you’re doing this. Why? I wrote an 800 page book that has hundreds of figures mentioned in the book. When you are doing a Broadway show, the first fact of life is that this is all going to have to unfold in about two to three hours. And everything that happens in the show is going to happen by, through, and to maybe eight or ten principal characters…

In the book I tell this story that while Hamilton was still Treasury Secretary, after he had broken off the affair with Mariah Reynolds…he was suddenly was approached by three Jeffersonians, including James Monroe, and confronted with his payments to a Mr. James Reynolds…Lin wanted to have that scene in the show. But the three particular people who confronted Hamilton…are not in the show.  What Lin did, which I think was very ingenious and very faithful to the spirit of the episode, is he has three Jeffersonians confront Hamilton, including Jefferson himself.

Why did you choose to write your next biography on President Grant?

I’ve liked each book to have a relationship to the one before. And I thought it would be interesting to go from George Washington, who was the victorious general in the Revolutionary War and then became two-term president, to go to Grant, who had been the victorious general in the Civil War and then a two-term president. Also, I spend a lot of time in both Hamilton and Washington biographies talking about the issue of slavery and the postponement of that issue and the wishful thinking  that it would gradually fade away. And instead of gradually fading away it became ever more entrenched in the run up to the Civil War… I feel particularly, for most Americans, the Civil War is pretty familiar, but Reconstruction is a black hole. It is just an area of complete ignorance for many Americans. And I can’t think of a period that is more vital to understand than Reconstruction. More vital to understand American politics today. And Grant is a wonderful figure to write about because if you want to write about the Civil War and Reconstruction, he is the big figure who straddles both of those periods, since Lincoln did not see Reconstruction.