With Hamilton’s sweep at the Tonys last night, this year’s phenomenal tide of Hamilton-mania has hit the high-water mark. You’ve cheered each much-deserved award and accolade, you’ve memorized every word of the soundtrack, you’ve devoured the #Hamiltome. Perhaps you’ve kept up with professional historians’ wide range of responses to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky few who’ve managed to score tickets to the show itself. But now, fans of the musical (and folks who are simply surrounded by them) might well find themselves asking, #WhatComesNext?
The Junto has the answer! Tomorrow afternoon, when you lose the daily ticket lottery yet again, why not start lookin’ for a mind at work? Grab a great history book and drown your sorrows in a flagon of sweet American Revolution knowledge. Here are some picks, creatively paired with favorite characters from the musical.
A few words about this list. First, some of my pairings are a bit of a stretch. Please feel free to comment with other suggestions! Second, these are all books by professional historians: these folks have done their homework for decades, they know how to tell a story, and they write with a general reader in mind. I’ve resisted listing specialized monographs (however groundbreaking), and Lord, show me how to say no to listing books by journalists and others who just happen to write about the past. Finally, I’ve also avoided listing biographies; the intrepid Googler can find good ones pretty quickly.
Alexander Hamilton. The musical, of course, depicts just one of many possible interpretations of the ten-dollar founding father’s contributions to the making of our young nation. For a different take—one that might be more in line than Ron Chernow’s biography (the inspiration for the musical) with the political priorities of our own “Bernie” moment—check out Woody Holton’s brilliant book on the revolutionary struggle between economic elites and ordinary folks, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, a finalist for the National Book Award.
Eliza Hamilton. As someone who lost both a son and a husband to duels, Eliza Hamilton well knew that duels were part of a broader culture of political combat and personal honor—a culture we twenty-first-century Americans dimly understood until Joanne Freeman reconstructed it in Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. The book concludes with a meditation on how the founders tried to shape the way their own stories would be told, despite who lived and who died. Transparency in advertising: Joanne Freeman is my mentor. But you needn’t take my word for the fact that the book rocks; it’s the basis for the musical’s number “Ten Duel Commandments.”
Aaron Burr. After his fateful duel with Hamilton, Burr went west, plunging himself into shady land schemes at and beyond the nation’s borders. Kathleen DuVal’s fantastic new book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, ends before Burr reached the borderlands. But the stories she uncovers about the diverse peoples on the southern and southwestern edge of U.S. nationbuilding do capture the spirit of his character: the shifting loyalties, the tug between ideology and interest, the calculating political intrigue. (For two great books on other frontier regions, take a look at Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, and, on the Ohio River valley, Patrick Griffin, American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier.)
Angelica Schuyler. Hands-down, the pick for fans of Angelica’s character curious about her relationship with Alexander has got to be Cassandra Good’s prize-winning Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic. Revolutionary America meets When Harry Met Sally—with a comma after “this is a damn good book.”
George Washington. For fans who want to know more about the context of the consummate Virginian, two books spring immediately to mind. Rhys Isaac explores the elite struggle to preserve authority over enslaved people in the context of war in Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation. Readers interested in the visionary Trumpian schemes of the eighteenth-century Virginia gentry, including the pride of Mount Vernon himself, should check out Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times.
Marquis de Lafayette. When revolution ravaged the homeland of America’s favorite fighting Frenchman in the 1790s, many French elites sought refuge in the new republic. François Furstenberg breathtakingly recreates their world, their experiences, and their role in American politics—especially amid the nation’s capital at Philadelphia during the Washington administration—in When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees who Shaped a Nation. In her new book, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World, Janet Polasky brings to life the spirit of the Age of Revolutions and the transatlantic connections that brought revolutionaries around the world together.
Thomas Jefferson. You will not understand Thomas Jefferson until you read Annette Gordon-Reed’s masterpiece about the family Jefferson enslaved, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which, like Hamilton, deservedly won All The Awards. I know I said I wouldn’t list any biographies, but here I just have to. Hamilton lampoons Jefferson as an utter hypocrite, but Gordon-Reed and her fellow TJ scholar Peter Onuf have recently published a biography that seeks to understand how Jefferson made sense of his own self. (Hint: he didn’t think of himself as a paradox wrapped in an enigma swallowed on a toothpick by a sphinx.) Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination recently debuted on the New York Times bestseller list.
Peggy Schuyler. Peggy Schuyler lived rich, died young, and gets about 30 seconds of stage time. For the heart-wrenching story of another sister of a revolutionary—one who lived poor and died old, but likewise gets far too little stage time in our stories of the Revolution—pick up a must-read by Jill Lepore, the most talented writer working on early America today: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. You will cry. Unless you have no soul.
King George III. LOL. Hamilton fans who fancy a bit of schadenfreude might enjoy Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. More of a military history than most of the books on this list, this title dispels the myth that the British were simply stupid, and instead tries to explain how generally genius generals and a not entirely incompetent king managed to lose a continent despite themselves.
Hercules Mulligan. Among the oldest members of the musical’s revolutionary set, Hercules Mulligan had been agitating on behalf of the American colonists’ British liberties since 1765, as a member of the Sons of Liberty and New York’s committee of correspondence. For a great recent book on a famous episode in the long run-up to revolution, check out Benjamin Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. (Yeah, yeah, Mulligan was in NYC and the Tea Party was not, but whatever.)
Samuel Seabury. Heed not the rabble! Instead, read Maya Jasanoff’s vivid account of the globetrotting and dizzyingly diverse group of Loyalists who fled as refugees from the young republic: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.
Ensemble. If your reading habits tend more towards short stories than big books, I can’t recommend highly enough Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation. A compendium of short and fast-paced essays by some of the best historians currently studying the American Revolution—including many of the authors on this list—this book brings together a huge cast of characters and lets you see and experience the Revolution through their eyes.