BOOK REVIEW: “Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father”

9780399580000-600x857The United States of America had a difficult birth.  That seems to be the main message behind Jonathan Hennessey and Justin Greenwood’s graphic novel Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father.  I typically avoid graphic novels with a historical, political, or biographical theme.  Lately, however, I have found myself more drawn to these.  Alexander Hamilton is all of these (historical, political, biographical) in one.  My fear is that this excellent book would not be widely read or respected because it is a “comic book.”  That would be a shame, because this book sheds light on the primary tension that faced a young United States, and it is a tension that we should still be aware of today.

That tension is encapsulated in the question, “How powerful should the government of a nation be?”  Many of the Founding Fathers might qualify as anarchists by today’s standards—they had just gotten rid of the king’s rule and “taxation without representation.” The efforts of Federalists like Hamilton served to centralize government at a critical juncture in history, possibly saving the new nation from early extinction.  George Washington trusted Hamilton, and history was made.  However, Hamilton staked his reputation on his Federalist efforts, and he paid the price socially and fiscally.  So this is the story of a man who gave it all for his nation.

Hennessey doesn’t sugarcoat or glorify the Founding Fathers.  He lets them be human, showing all their improprieties and foibles.  What does it mean for key pioneers of liberty such as Jefferson and Washington to own slaves?  What about the man, Hamilton, who founded the national bank and led the nation out of debt, yet was fiscally irresponsible with his own money and died with enormous personal debt?  Another key irony involves the “necessity” of gentlemen to engage in the barbaric practice of dueling whenever their honor is at stake, leading to tragic, needless death.  Hennessey allows these tensions to remain and doesn’t fight against them—he lets them be part of our history like they should be.  Why do we feel the need to deify these imperfect men?  Maybe the evidence of Providence that we seek is in the knowledge that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights emerged from the efforts of very imperfect men who often reviled, yet respected, one another.

This is one of the graphic novels where the art takes a backseat to the writing.  This is a shame because Greenwood’s art is stylish and expressive.  The art takes a backseat because Hennessey is fond of the lengthy discourse, which often overwhelms the page.  His writing is superb, but practically renders this book an “Illustrated Life of Alexander Hamilton” rather than a graphic novel.  This is likely because this book intends to make political commentary and not just be a narrative biography.  I can appreciate that.  And sometimes the art manages to engage the writing for ironic effect.  For example, a wide shot of Jefferson’s mansion depicts black slaves hard at work while Jefferson declares America to be an “undiminished sanctuary of liberty.”

I highly recommend this book, even for those who don’t typically read graphic novels.  Hopefully books like this will continue to elevate the medium in the minds of readers, even if this particular example leans more toward the “novel” than the “graphic.”

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

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