Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 4. THE PEN AND THE SWORD
By the time Hamilton wrote “The Farmer Refuted,” the British Parliament had declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion and ratified the king’s unswerving determination to adopt all measures necessary to compel obedience. On the night of April 18, 1775, eight hundred British troops marched out of Boston to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock and seize a stockpile of patriot munitions in Concord. As they passed Lexington, they encountered a motley battalion of armed farmers known as Minutemen, and in the ensuing exchange of gunfire the British killed eight colonists and then two more in Concord. As the redcoats retreated helter-skelter to Boston, they were riddled by sniper fire that erupted from behind hedges, stone walls, and fences, leaving a bloody trail of 273 British casualties versus ninety-five dead or wounded for the patriots.
The news reached New York within four days, and a mood of insurrection promptly overtook the city. People gathered at taverns and on street corners to ponder events while Tories quaked. One of the latter, Judge Thomas Jones, watched exultant rebels storm by in the street “with drums beating and colours flying, attended by a mob of negroes, boys, sailors, and pickpockets, inviting all mankind to take up arms in defence of the ‘injured rights and liberties of America,’” he said.1 The newly emboldened Sons of Liberty streamed down to the East River docks, pilfered ships bound for British troops in Boston, then emptied the City Hall arsenal of its muskets, bayonets, and cartridge boxes, grabbing one thousand weapons in all.2
Armed with this cache, volunteer militia companies sprang up overnight, as they did throughout the colonies. However much the British might deride these ragtag citizen-soldiers, they conducted their business in earnest. Inflamed by the astonishing news from Massachusetts, Hamilton was that singular intellectual who picked up a musket as fast as a pen. Nicholas Fish recalled that “immediately after the Battle of Lexington, [Hamilton] attached himself to one of the uniform companies of militia then forming for the defence of the country by the patriotic young men of this city under the command of Captain Fleming, in which he devoted much time, attending regularly all the parades and performing tours of duty with promptitude and zeal.”3 Fish and Troup were among the diligent cadre of King’s College volunteers who drilled before classes each morning in the churchyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. Their drillmaster was Edward Fleming, who had served in a British regiment and married into the prominent De Peyster family but was still warmly attached to the American side. As a sturdy disciplinarian, Fleming was a man after Hamilton’s own heart; Hamilton’s son said that the fledgling volunteer company was named the Hearts of Oak, although military rolls identify the group as the Corsicans. The young recruits marched briskly past tombstones with the motto “Liberty or Death” stitched across their round leather caps. On short, snug green jackets they also sported, for good measure, red tin hearts that announced “God and Our Right.”
Hamilton approached this daily routine with the same perfectionist ardor that he exhibited in his studies. Robert Troup stressed the “military spirit” infused into Hamilton and noted that he was “constant in his attendance and very ambitious of improvement.”4 Hamilton, never one to fumble an opportunity, embarked on a comprehensive military education. With his absorbent mind, he mastered infantry drills, pored over volumes on military tactics, and learned the rudiments of gunnery and pyrotechnics from a veteran bombardier. Despite the physical delicacy that Hugh Knox had observed, there was a peculiar doggedness about this young man, as if he were already in training for something far beyond humble infantry duty.
On April 24, a huge throng of patriots, some eight thousand strong, massed in front of City Hall. While radicals grew giddy with excitement, many terrified Tory merchants began to book passage for England. The next day, an anonymous handbill blamed Myles Cooper and four other “obnoxious gentlemen” for the patriotic deaths in Massachusetts and said the moment had passed for symbolic gestures, such as burning Tories in effigy. “The injury you have done to your country cannot admit of reparation,” these five Loyalists were warned. “Fly for your lives or anticipate your doom by becoming your own executioners.” This blatant death threat was signed, “Three Millions.”5 A defiant Myles Cooper stuck to his college post.
After a demonstration on the night of May 10, hundreds of protesters armed with clubs and heated by a heady brew of political rhetoric and strong drink descended on King’s College, ready to inflict rough justice on Myles Cooper. Hercules Mulligan recalled that Cooper “was a Tory and an obnoxious man and the mob went to the college with the intention of tarring and feathering him or riding him upon a rail.”6 Nicholas Ogden, a King’s alumnus, saw the angry mob swarming toward the college and raced ahead to Cooper’s room, urging the president to scramble out a back window. Because Hamilton and Troup shared a room near Cooper’s quarters, Ogden also alerted them to the approaching mob. “Whereupon Hamilton instantly resolved to take his stand on the stairs [i.e., the outer stoop] in front of the Doctor’s apartment and there to detain the mob as long as he could by a harangue in order to gain the Doctor the more time for his escape,” Troup later recorded.7
After the mob knocked down the gate and surged toward the residence, Hamilton launched into an impassioned speech, telling the vociferous protesters that their conduct, instead of promoting their cause, would “disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty.”8 One account has the slightly deaf Cooper poking his head from an upper-story window and observing Hamilton gesticulating on the stoop below. He mistakenly thought that his pupil was inciting the crowd instead of pacifying them and shouted, “Don’t mind what he says. He’s crazy!”9 Another account has Cooper shouting at the ruffians: “Don’t believe anything Hamilton says. He’s a little fool!”10 The more plausible version is that Cooper had long since vanished, having scampered away in his nightgown on Ogden’s warning.
Hamilton likely knew he couldn’t stop the intruders, but he won the vital minutes necessary for Cooper to clamber over a back fence and rush down to the Hudson. Afraid for his life, Cooper meandered along the shore all night. The next day, he boarded a man-of-war bound for England, where he resumed his tirades against the colonists from the safety of a study. Among other things, he published a melodramatic poem about his escape. He told how the rabble—“a murderous band”—had burst into his room, “And whilst their curses load my head / With piercing steel they probe the bed / And thirst for human gore.”11 This image of the president set upon by bloodthirsty rebels was more satisfying than the banal truth that he cravenly ran off half dressed into the night. Cooper never saw Hamilton again and wept copiously when England lost the Revolution. He could not resist grumbling in his will that “all my affairs have been shattered to pieces by this abominable rebellion.”12
Of all the incidents in Hamilton’s early life in America, his spontaneous defense of Myles Cooper was probably the most telling. It showed that he could separate personal honor from political convictions and presaged a recurring theme of his career: the superiority of forgiveness over revolutionary vengeance. Hamilton had shown exemplary courage. Beyond risking a terrible beating, he had taken the chance that he would sacrifice his heroic stature among the Sons of Liberty. But Hamilton always expressed himself frankly, no matter what the consequences. Most of all, the episode captured the contradictory impulses struggling inside this complex young man, a committed revolutionary with a profound dread that popular sentiment would boil over into dangerous excess. Even amid an insurrection that he supported, he fretted about the damage to constituted authority and worried about mob rule. Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends. In a moment of acute anxiety a year earlier, John Adams had wondered what would happen if “the multitude, the vulgar, the herd, the rabble” maintained such open defiance of authority.13
For Hamilton and other patriotic New Yorkers, the late spring of 1775 was a season of pride, dread, hope, and confusion. When New England delegates to the Second Continental Congress swept through town en route to Philadelphia on May 6, thousands of New Yorkers jammed rooftops, stoops, and doorways to roar their approval above an incessant clanging of church bells. Since the old Loyalist assembly in New York had refused to send delegates to the First Continental Congress, it was disbanded and replaced by a New York Provincial Congress. This new body pieced together a slate of delegates to send to Philadelphia, including Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s future father-in-law, and George Clinton, his future political nemesis.
As the congress convened in the Pennsylvania State House (today’s Independence Hall) on May 10, most colonists still prayed for a peaceful resolution of the standoff, though armed conflict now seemed inevitable. The Second Continental Congress lacked many of the prerequisites of an authentic government—an army, a currency, taxing power—yet it evolved in pell-mell fashion into the first government of the United States. Its most pressing task was to appoint a commander in chief. All eyes turned to a strapping, reticent Virginian who carried himself with unusual poise and wore a colonel’s uniform to advertise his experience in the French and Indian War. One congressman said that George Washington was “no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.”14 On June 15, Washington, forty-three, was named head of the Continental Army for reasons that transcended talent and experience. Since the fighting had thus far been restricted to New England, the choice of a Virginian signaled that this was a crusade of unified colonies, not some regional squabble. Also, with one-fifth of the population of the colonies, Virginia felt entitled to a leadership role, and the selection of Washington was the first of many efforts by the north to please and placate the south.
Two days later, at Bunker Hill—or, rather, Breed’s Hill—north of Boston, a battle took place that hardly seemed at first like a patriotic victory. Americans were flushed from their elevated fortification, and more than four hundred were killed or wounded. Nevertheless, the patriotic soldiers showed great coolness under fire, and the British suffered more than one thousand casualties, including dozens of officers. “The dead lay as thick as sheep in a fold,” said Colonel John Stark.15 This first formal battle of the Revolution demolished the myth of British invincibility and raised, for the first time, the question of just how many deaths the mother country would tolerate to subjugate the colonies. The British were unhinged by the colonists’ unorthodox fighting style and shocking failure to abide by gentlemanly rules of engagement. One scandalized British soldier complained that the American riflemen “conceal themselves behind trees etc. till an opportunity presents itself of taking a shot at our advance sentries, which done, they immediately retreat. What an unfair method of carrying on a war!”16
Following this battle, George Washington stopped in New York on his way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to assume his command. On June 25, he crossed the Hudson on the Hoboken ferry, then proceeded along Broadway in a carriage pulled by a team of white horses, the triumphant procession moving grandly past King’s College. On that glorious summer afternoon, Alexander Hamilton stood unnoticed among the delirious spectators, unaware that within two years he would serve as chief aide to the general he now observed for the first time. Probably accompanied by Major General Philip Schuyler, Washington sped by with a touch of magnificence, a purple sash across his blue uniform, and a ceremonial plume sprouting from his hat.
Hamilton had not been idle while the Second Continental Congress deliberated and urged Canadian colonists to join the fray. On the day that Washington was appointed top commander, Hamilton published the first of two letters in Rivington’s paper assailing the Quebec Act, passed the previous year; the second article appeared just three days before Washington’s visit. The act extended Quebec’s boundaries south to the Ohio River and guaranteed full religious freedom to French-Canadian Catholics. For the patriots, this did not reflect British tolerance so much as the frightening imposition of French civil law and Roman Catholicism in a neighboring frontier area. Hamilton discerned a sinister intent behind Britain’s bid to enlist the aid of the Roman Catholic clergy in Canada. “This act develops the dark designs of the ministry more fully than any thing they have done and shows that they have formed a systematic project of absolute power.”17 If Hamilton displayed some atavistic Huguenot fear of popery, he also sounded a theme that was to resonate straight through the Revolution and beyond: that the best government posture toward religion was one of passive tolerance, not active promotion of an established church.
On July 5, the Second Continental Congress made one final feeble effort to ward off further hostilities when it endorsed the Olive Branch Petition, urging a negotiated solution to the conflict with England. The document professed loyalty to the king and tactfully blamed his “artful and cruel” ministers.18 When the haughty King George III did not deign to answer this conciliatory message, his frosty rigidity demoralized congressional moderates and guaranteed intensified military preparations. On August 23, the king issued a royal proclamation that his American subjects had “proceeded to open and avowed rebellion.”19 The world’s most powerful nation had now pledged itself, irrevocably, to breaking the resistance of its unruly overseas colonists.
By coincidence, on that same night of August 23, Alexander Hamilton got his first unforgettable taste of British military might. Everyone knew that Manhattan, encircled by water, was vulnerable to the royal armada and would not be defensible for long without a navy. So when the British warship Asia appeared in the harbor that summer, it proved an effective instrument of terror. The New York Provincial Congress worried that the two dozen cannon posted at Fort George at the tip of the Battery might be seized by the British. Hamilton, joined by fifteen other King’s College volunteers, signed up for a hazardous operation to drag the heavy artillery to safety under the liberty pole on the Common. (College lore later claimed that two of the salvaged cannon were buried under the campus green.) Lashing the cannon with ropes, Hamilton and his fellow students rescued more than ten big guns before a barge from the Asia, moored near the shore, began to strafe them with fire. The patriots, possibly including Hamilton, returned fire as the barge darted back to the Asia. The warship then let loose a thunderous broadside of grapeshot and cannonballs that blew a big hole in the roof of Fraunces Tavern and sent thousands of panicky residents fleeing from their beds and screaming into the streets.
As in his defense of Myles Cooper, the intrepid Hamilton displayed unusual sangfroid. “The Asia fired upon the city,” wrote Hercules Mulligan, “and I recollect well that Mr. Hamilton was there, for I was engaged in hauling off one of the cannon when Mr. H. came up and gave me his musket to hold and he took hold of the rope.” After Hamilton disposed of his ordnance, he ran into Mulligan again and asked for his musket back, only to be told that the tailor had left it down at the Battery—the spot most exposed to fierce shelling from the Asia. “I told him where I had left it,” Mulligan continued, “and he went for it notwithstanding [that] the firing continued, with as much unconcern as if the vessel had not been there.”20
During an autumn term that allowed little time for leisure, Hamilton found himself in a new predicament over the progressively more precarious situation of James Rivington, the New-York Gazetteer publisher. The son of a prosperous London bookseller, Rivington was an elegant but combative man who wore a silver wig. When he inaugurated his newspaper in 1773 at the foot of Wall Street, he prided himself on his political neutrality and swore that he would be receptive to all viewpoints. As shown by his relationship with Hamilton, he did not shrink from questioning Tory dogma.
Nevertheless, with the passage of time Tory opinion predominated in his paper. Rivington took an especially harsh tone toward the Sons of Liberty, with their rough-hewn, working-class followers, and singled out their leaders, Alexander McDougall and Isaac Sears, for special abuse. By September 1774, Sears retaliated with scathing letters to Rivington. “I believe you to be either an ignorant impudent pretender to what you do not understand,” he wrote, “or a base servile tool, ready to do the dirty work of any knave who will purchase you.”21 Pretty soon, the rival New-York Journal ran lengthy lists of patriotic subscribers who felt so betrayed by Rivington that they had canceled their subscriptions to his paper. Rivington’s days were numbered after Lexington and Concord. The same mob that chased Myles Cooper from King’s proceeded to attack the petrified Rivington, who spent the next ten days in seclusion aboard the man-of-war Kingfisher. Though he returned to his print shop, his ordeal wasn’t over. Later that summer, the New York Provincial Congress ruled that anyone aiding the enemy could be disarmed, imprisoned, or even exiled. Isaac Sears seized on this decision to be done with Rivington once and for all.
Though nicknamed the “king” of the New York streets, Sears was not a plebeian hero but a prosperous skipper who had worked the West Indian trade and amassed a small fortune as a privateer during the French and Indian War. On November 19, Sears gathered up a militia of nearly one hundred horsemen in Connecticut, kidnapped the Reverend Samuel Seabury, and terrorized his prisoner’s family in Westchester before parading his humiliated Tory trophy through New Haven. Confined under military guard, Seabury refused to confess that he was the “Westchester Farmer” whose essays had provoked Hamilton’s celebrated rebuttal. Sears’s little army, turning south, then swooped down in a surprise raid on Rivington’s print shop in Manhattan, planning to put it out of business. Because Hamilton poured out his anguish afterward in a letter to John Jay, this is one of the better-documented episodes of his King’s College days. We also know about the fracas from another source. Probably encouraged by his old mentor, Hugh Knox, Hamilton seems to have mailed unsigned dispatches from New York to the Royal Danish American Gazette.These hitherto undiscovered articles give a more detailed glimpse of his life in the early days of the rebellion and fill major gaps in the sketchy documentary record of Hamilton’s early career. In a report on Rivington, the anonymous correspondent wrote:
The contents of all last week’s New-York Gazetteer occasioned Mr. Rivington, the printer, to be surprised and surrounded on the 23rd of November by 75 of the Connecticut Light horse, with firelocks and fixed bayonets, who burst into his house between twelve and one o’clock at noon, and totally destroyed all his types, and put an entire stop to his business, and reduced him at upwards of 50 years of age to the sad necessity of beginning the world again. The astonished citizens beheld the whole scene without affording the persecuted proscribed printer the least assistance. The printing of the New-York Gazetteer will be discontinued until America shall be blessed with the restoration of good government.22
Although the author of this dispatch was anonymous, who else but Hamilton would have filed such a dispatch to St. Croix? From Hercules Mulligan, we know that the one bystander who had the pluck to rise to Rivington’s defense was Hamilton himself. “When Rivington’s press was attacked by a company from the eastward, Mr. H., indignant that our neighbours should intrude upon our rights (although the press was considered a tory one), he went to the place, addressed the people present and offered if any others would join him to prevent these intruders from taking the type away.”23
As with the mob assault against Myles Cooper, the scene at Rivington’s became stamped on Hamilton’s memory, and his horror at such mob disorder foreshadowed his fearful reaction to the French Revolution. Several days after Sears’s men pillaged Rivington’s shop, Hamilton wrote to John Jay and acknowledged that Rivington’s press had been “dangerous and pernicious” and that the man himself was “detestable.” Nevertheless, he felt obliged to condemn the lawless nature of the action:
In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch, there is great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multitude, who have not a sufficient stock of reason and knowledge to guide them, for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority. The due medium is hardly to be found among the more intelligent. It is almost impossible among the unthinking populace. When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy.24
Clearly, this ambivalent twenty-year-old favored the Revolution but also worried about the long-term effect of habitual disorder, especially among the uneducated masses. Hamilton lacked the temperament of a true-blue revolutionary. He saw too clearly that greater freedom could lead to greater disorder and, by a dangerous dialectic, back to a loss of freedom. Hamilton’s lifelong task was to try to straddle and resolve this contradiction and to balance liberty and order.
The sequel to the print-shop raid deserves mention. James Rivington was temporarily put out of business, only to be resurrected as a “Printer to His Majesty the King” during Britain’s wartime occupation of New York. Appearances could be deceiving. Even as he reviled the patriots in The Royal Gazette, Rivington was surreptitiously relaying British naval intelligence to Washington, sealed inside the covers of books he sold to patriotic spies. He was to be rewarded in the fullness of time.
While Rivington had been muzzled by his critics, Hamilton himself was still gripped by the publishing itch. For an ambitious young man of a broadly literary bent, polemical broadsides fired at the British ministry presented the surest road to fame. In early January 1776, a self-taught English immigrant, Thomas Paine, who had arrived in Philadelphia two years earlier, provided Hamilton with a perfect model when he anonymously published Common Sense. The onetime corset maker and excise officer issued a resounding call for American independence that sold a stupendous 120,000 copies by year’s end.
By now, Hamilton had switched his journalistic allegiance to the stalwart republican paper of John Holt, the New-York Journal. He probably met Holt through William Livingston, who had cofounded the paper. In 1774, Holt had dropped the royal symbols from his masthead and replaced them with a well-known engraving that Ben Franklin had created to foster his Albany Plan of intercolonial union twenty years before: a copperhead snake sliced into segments and accompanied by the fighting slogan “Unite or Die.” (In Franklin’s version, “Join or Die.”) Robert Troup said that Hamilton published many articles while at King’s, “particularly in the newspaper then edited in New York by John Holt, who was a zealous Whig.”25 Nor had Hamilton given up on poetry. He constantly scribbled doggerel, rhyme, and satirical verse and gave Troup a thick sheaf of these poems, which the latter proceeded to lose during the Revolution.
Oddly, the otherwise thorough editors of Hamilton’s papers have reprinted his essays published by the Tory Rivington but have omitted his collaborations with the dissident Holt. Hamilton’s contemporaries knew him as the nameless scribe behind some of the New-York Journal’s most trenchant editorials. “I hope Mr. Hamilton continues busy,” John Jay told Alexander McDougall on December 5, 1775. “I have not received Holt’s paper these three months and therefore cannot judge of the progress he makes.”26 In fact, Hamilton’s contributions were evident there. From November 9, 1775, to February 8, 1776, the New-York Journal ran fourteen installments of “The Monitor,” probably the longest and most prominently featured string of essays that Holt printed before the Revolution. In this series, Hamilton recapitulated the central theme of his anti-“Farmer” essays that the colonies owed their fealty to the king, not to Parliament. Although Hamilton later retracted some of his more hot-blooded opinions, such as his opposition to standing armies, and though he may have regretted his withering mockery of statesmen, royalty, popes, and priests, many of the essays are vintage Hamilton.
In “The Monitor,” Hamilton left many clues to his authorship. Echoing his 1769 letter to Edward Stevens, in which he bemoaned the “grovelling” life of a clerk, he now warned his comrades against “a grovelling disposition” that would degrade them “from the rank of freemen to that of slaves.”27 He expressed views of leadership that closely anticipate his later dicta about the need for decisive, unequivocal action: “In public exigencies, there is hardly anything more prejudicial than excessive caution, timidity and dilatoriness, as there is nothing more beneficial than vigour, enterprise and expedition.”28 At times, he repeated his anti-“Farmer” essays almost verbatim, saying of the British ministry, “They have advanced too far to retreat without equal infamy and danger; their honour, their credit, their existence as ministers, perhaps their life itself, depend upon their success in the present undertaking.”29 Like many prolific authors, Hamilton sometimes quoted himself unwittingly.
The “Monitor” essays reveal Hamilton as an anomalous revolutionary. At the outset, he shows the rousing optimism about the revolutionary future that is the stock-in-trade of radical prose. He delivers a paean to America’s destiny as he prophesies that after the war the country will be elevated “to a much higher pitch of grandeur, opulence, and power than we could ever attain to by a humble submission to arbitrary rule.”30 Yet this hopefulness is hedged by a somber view of human affairs. Hamilton lauds the conduct of his countrymen but cannot refrain from saying sardonically that “it is a melancholy truth that the behaviour of many among us might serve as the severest satire upon the [human] species. It has been a compound of inconsistency, falsehood, cowardice, selfishness and dissimulation.”31 Hamilton also displays a swooning fascination with martyrdom, telling the colonists that they should vow either to “lead an honourable life or to meet with resignation a glorious death.”32 This idea so bewitched him that he ended one “Monitor” essay with a quote from Pope’s Iliad that begins: “Death is the worst, a fate which all must try; / And, for our country, ’tis a bliss to die.”33
Hamilton dashed off the “Monitor” essays at the frenetic pace of one a week—the more incredible as he was still a student and dutifully attending drills in the St. Paul’s churchyard each morning. Even this did not exhaust the scope of his activities. This peerless undergraduate had begun preliminary legal studies and was combing the superb law library at King’s, steeping himself in the works of Sir William Blackstone and Sir Edward Coke. As he later said, by “steady and laborious exertion” he had qualified for a bachelor’s degree and was able “to lay a foundation, by preparatory study, for the future profession of the law.”34 Hamilton probably spent little more than two years at King’s and never formally graduated due to the outbreak of the Revolution. By April 6, 1776, King’s College, tarred by its earlier association with Myles Cooper, was commandeered by patriot forces and put to use as a military hospital.
After Hamilton published his last “Monitor” installment on February 8, he parlayed his budding fame as a pamphleteer into a military appointment that perfectly suited his daydreams of martial glory. On February 18, he sent a personal dispatch to the Royal Danish American Gazette that announced he was joining the military.
The unsigned letter was filled with grim forebodings of martyrdom: “It is uncertain whether it may ever be in my power to send you another line…. I am going into the army and perhaps ere long may be destined to seal with my blood the sentiments defended by my pen. Be it so, if heaven decree it. I was born to die and my reason and conscience tell me it is impossible to die in a better or more important cause.”35
What prompted this declaration was that the Provincial Congress had decided to raise an artillery company to defend New York, providing another chance for the upwardly mobile West Indian to excel. Like most revolutions, this one made ample room for talented outsiders. Luckily for Hamilton, Alexander McDougall was in charge of forming New York’s first patriotic regiment. A fiery, pugnacious Scot and former ship captain, McDougall was yet another Presbyterian protégé of William Livingston, who may have provided the introduction. While at King’s, Hamilton borrowed political pamphlets from McDougall and was mortified when they were stolen from his room.
On February 23, the Provincial Congress reported that “Col. McDougall recommended Mr. Alexander Hamilton for Capt. of a Company of Artillery.”36 Robert Troup said that McDougall prodded John Jay (by this time William Livingston’s son-in-law) to wrangle the coveted commission for Hamilton. After being examined, Hamilton received the assignment on March 14, 1776. When doubts arose about this student’s fitness to lead an artillery company, McDougall and Jay persuasively overcame them. Right before Hamiliton received his appointment, he was approached by Elias Boudinot on behalf of Lord Stirling, who had been elevated to brigadier general and desired Hamilton as his military aide. The headstrong Hamilton shrank from being subordinate to anyone and rebuffed an offer that would have tempted his peers. Boudinot informed a disappointed Stirling that Hamilton had accepted an artillery command and “was therefore denied the pleasure of attending your Lordship’s person as Brigade Major.”37
Hercules Mulligan contended that Hamilton’s appointment as artillery captain was premised on the condition that he would muster thirty men; Mulligan bragged that he and Hamilton recruited twenty-five the first afternoon alone. Hamilton assumed an almost paternal responsibility for the sixty-eight men who eventually came under his command. Some of them were illiterate and entered marks instead of signatures into the so-called pay book where Hamilton kept track of their food, clothing, pay, and discipline. According to tradition, he took money from his St. Croix subscription fund and used it to equip his company. He later wrote, “Military pride is to be excited and kept up by military parade. No time ought to be lost in teaching the recruits the use of arms.”38
The twenty-one-year-old captain became a popular leader known for sharing hardships with his gunners and bombardiers. He was sensitive to inequities and lobbied to get the same pay and rations for his men as their counterparts in the Continental Army. As a firm believer in meritocracy, he favored promotion from within his company, a policy adopted by the New York Provincial Congress. His subordinates remembered him as tough but fair-minded. Years later, one of them retained Hamilton as a lawyer, even though he had become a vocal political enemy. When Hamilton questioned the wisdom of this, the ex-soldier replied, “I served in your company during the war and I know you will do me justice in spite of my rudeness.”39
Throughout his career, Hamilton was fastidious about military dress, insisting that his men be properly attired. “Nothing is more necessary than to stimulate the vanity of soldiers,” he later wrote. “To this end a smart dress is essential. When not attended to, the soldier is exposed to ridicule and humiliation.”40 His men wore blue coats with brass buttons and buff collars and white shoulder belts strapped diagonally across their chests. Within four months, he had secured seventy-five pairs of buckskin breeches for his men and personally advanced them money if needed. Hamilton’s company looked and acted the part. “As soon as his company was raised,” said Troup, “he proceeded with indefatigable pains to perfect it in every branch of discipline and duty and it was not long before it was esteemed the most beautiful model of discipline in the whole army.”41 Later on, as a major general, Hamilton instructed his officers on the need to be personally involved in drilling and training their men.
Hamilton betrayed none of the novice’s typical air of slipshod indecision and made a profound impression on several senior military figures, who joined his swelling circle of admirers. One day, General Nathanael Greene, an ex-Quaker and former ironmonger from Rhode Island, was crossing the Common when Hamilton caught his eye. He was struck by how smartly this young man put his troops through their parade exercises and paused to chat with him. He then invited Hamilton to dinner and was thunderstruck by his immense military knowledge. The largely self-educated Greene was well placed to appreciate Hamilton’s instant expertise, for his own military background was restricted to two years of militia duty. Most of what he knew about war was also gleaned from books. “His knowledge was intuitive,” artillery chief Henry Knox later said of Greene. “He came to us the rawest and most untutored human being I ever met with, but in less than twelve months he was equal in military knowledge to any general officer in the army.”42 George Washington valued Nathanael Greene above all his other generals, and it was likely Greene who first touted Hamilton’s merits to Washington. Like Lord Stirling, Greene may even have offered Hamilton a job as his military aide. If so, Hamilton again spurned a general’s offer.
After Boston fell to the Continental Army in March—a shock for the British and a tonic to patriotic spirits—New York loomed as the next battlefront, and the city braced for impending invasion. Hamilton had already informed his distant St. Croix readers, “This city is at present evacuated by above one half of its inhabitants under the influence of a general panic.”43 Starting in March, Lord Stirling had supervised four thousand men who sealed off major streets and strung a network of batteries and earthworks across Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River. Hamilton’s company constructed a small fort with twelve cannon on the high ground of Bayard’s Hill, near the present-day intersection of Canal and Mulberry Streets.
In April, Washington came down from New England to oversee military preparations in New York and employed as his headquarters a Hudson River mansion called Richmond Hill, later the home of Aaron Burr. By a curious coincidence, Burr, fresh from the failed patriot assault on Quebec, visited Washington in June and accepted his offer to serve on his military staff, or “family,” as it was known. By some accounts, the aristocratic young Burr had grandiose expectations and imagined that Washington would confer with him on grand matters of strategy. When he realized that he would be relegated to more prosaic duties, he quickly quit in disgust and sent a letter to Washington protesting that less-qualified men had been promoted ahead of him. He then went to work for Major General Israel Putnam. Something about Aaron Burr—his penchant for intrigue, a lack of sufficient deference, perhaps his insatiable chasing after women—grated on George Washington. Much of Burr’s political future was shaped by his decidedly cool wartime relations with Washington, while other contemporaries, Hamilton being the prime example, profited from the general’s approbation.
During this period, Washington was at least marginally aware of Hamilton. An exacting captain, Hamilton ordered the arrest of a sergeant, two corporals, and a private for “mutiny,” and they received mild punishments in a court-martial. Washington pardoned the two principal offenders before issuing general orders for Hamilton to assemble his company on May 15, 1776, “at ten o’clock next Sunday morning upon the Common.”44 A month later, as we learn from the Royal Danish American Gazette, Hamilton gallantly led a nighttime attack of one hundred men against the Sandy Hook lighthouse outside New York harbor. “I continued the attack for two hours with fieldpieces and small arms,” the war correspondent– cum–artillery captain reported, “being all that time between two smart fires from the shipping and the lighthouse, but could make no impression on the walls.”45 Hamilton did not lose any men and said the raid miscarried because he lacked sufficient munitions and because the enemy had been tipped off to the attack. With the speed of youthful dreams, Hamilton had moved from the fantasy to the reality of combat leadership.
Back in Manhattan, the young captain found a city engaged in a spree of wanton violence against Tory sympathizers. Many Loyalists were subjected to a harrowing ritual known as “riding the rail,” in which they were carried through the streets sitting astride a sharp rail borne by two tall, strong men. The prisoners’ names were proclaimed at each street corner as spectators lustily cheered their humiliation. One bystander reported, “We had some grand Tory rides in the city this week…. Several of them were handled very roughly, being carried through the streets on rails, their clothes torn off their backs and their bodies pretty well mingled with the dust…. There is hardly a Tory face to be seen this morning.”46
Because New York had been a citadel of Tory sentiment, there was a pervasive fear of clandestine plots being hatched against Washington, whose capture or assassination would have been an inestimable prize to the British. Indeed, the former New York governor, William Tryon, tried to orchestrate just such a plan. On June 21, as Hamilton returned from Sandy Hook, a cabal to murder General Washington and recruit a Loyalist force to aid the British was laid bare. New York’s Tory mayor, David Mathews, was charged “with dangerous designs and treasonable conspiracies against the rights and liberties of the United Colonies of America.”47 Others implicated in this shocking plot included several members of Washington’s personal guard, especially Sergeant Thomas Hickey. Mayor Mathews admitted to having contact with the British and was imprisoned in Connecticut, but a defiant Hickey produced no witnesses at his court-martial and was sentenced to death.
Hamilton regaled his St. Croix readers with these dramatic events, telling them that “a most barbarous and infernal plot has been discovered among our Tories.” He sketched a widespread conspiracy, the goal of which was to “murder all the staff officers, blow up the magazines, and secure the passes of the town.”48 On June 28, nearly twenty thousand spectators—virtually every person still in town, Hamilton included—turned out in a meadow near the Bowery to watch Thomas Hickey mount the gallows. The prisoner had remained unrepentant, and Washington decided to make an example of him. Hickey waived the presence of a chaplain, explaining that “they are all cutthroats.”49 He kept up his air of bravado until the hangman slipped the noose and blindfold over his head, at which point he briefly wiped away tears. Moments later, his body hung slack from the gallows. In his second dispatch on this sensational event, Hamilton applauded Washington’s swift justice. “It is hoped the remainder of those miscreants now in our possession will meet with a punishment adequate to their crimes.”50 Hamilton might have ended his dispatch there. Instead, in a curious non sequitur, the future treasury secretary reported rumors that copper coins made with base metal alloys would be called in, possibly replaced by new continental copper coins of larger size. Evidently, the young captain was boning up on monetary policy.
Within days of Hickey’s execution, King George III revealed just how far he was prepared to go to crush his refractory colonies. The world’s foremost naval power began to gather a massive armada of battleships and transports at Sandy Hook, the prelude to the largest amphibious assault of the eighteenth century. An assemblage of military might was soon marshaled—some three hundred ships and thirty-two thousand men, including eighty-four hundred Hessian mercenaries—a fighting force designed expressly to intimidate the Americans and restore them to their sanity through a terrifying show of strength. The British had so many troops stationed aboard this floating city that they surpassed in numbers the patriotic soldiers and citizens left facing them in New York.
Entrenched in southern Manhattan, with fewer than twenty thousand inexperienced soldiers at his disposal and lacking even a single warship, Washington must have wondered how he could possibly defeat this well-oiled fighting machine. He was making “every preparation” for an imminent assault, he wrote, but conceded that his army was “extremely deficient in arms…and in great distress for want of them.”51 To remedy a grave shortage of ammunition, the New York Provincial Congress ordered that lead be peeled from roofs and windows and melted down to make bullets. So many trees had already been chopped down for firewood that New York resembled a ghost town. “To see the vast number of houses shut up, one would think the city almost evacuated,” one fleeing Tory wrote. “Women and children are scarcely to be seen in the streets.”52
On July 2, the British battle plan began to unfold as General William Howe directed ships commanded by his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, to sail up through the Narrows. Thousands of redcoats disembarked on Staten Island. From Manhattan wharves and rooftops, Continental Army soldiers stared flabbergasted at the interminable procession of imposing vessels crowding into the harbor. Surveying a bay thick with British masts, one American soldier said that it resembled “a wood of pine trees.” “I could not believe my eyes. I declare that I thought all London was afloat.”53 Captain Hamilton and his artillery company, posted at the Battery, had an unobstructed view of the enemy.
It seemed an inauspicious moment for the threatened colonies to declare independence, and yet that is exactly what they did. Faced with the military strength of the most colossal empire since ancient Rome, they decided to fight back. On July 2, the Continental Congress unanimously adopted a resolution calling for independence, with only New York abstaining. Two days later, the congress endorsed the Declaration of Independence in its final, edited form. (The actual signing was deferred until August 2.) There was nothing impetuous or disorderly about this action. Even amid a state of open warfare, these law-abiding men felt obligated to issue a formal document, giving a dispassionate list of their reasons for secession. This solemn, courageous act flew in the face of historical precedent. No colony had ever succeeded in breaking away from the mother country to set up a self-governing state, and the declaration signers knew that the historical odds were heavily stacked against them. They further knew that treason was a crime punishable by death, a threat that scarcely seemed abstract as reports trickled into Philadelphia of the formidable fleet bearing down on New York.
The Declaration of Independence did not achieve sacred status for many years and was not even officially inscribed on parchment for another two weeks. Instead, a Philadelphia printer, John Dunlap, ran off about five hundred broadsides that were distributed by fast riders throughout the colonies. On July 6, while Captain Hamilton wandered about trying to find a purse with money that he had lost—he sometimes had a touch of the absentminded genius—the local press announced independence. Two days later, Washington held a printed copy of the declaration in his hands for the first time. The next day, the New York Provincial Congress ratified the document, and at 6:00 P.M.Washington gathered all his troops on the Common—the very same Common where Hamilton had debuted as a speaker—to hear the stirring manifesto read aloud. As the rapt soldiers listened, they learned that “the United Colonies” of America had been declared “Free and Independent States.”54
The long-awaited words triggered a rush of patriotic exuberance. Militiamen and civilians barreled down Broadway, destroying every relic of British influence in their path, including royal arms painted on tavern signs. At Bowling Green, at the foot of Broadway, they mobbed a gilded equestrian statue of George III, portrayed in Roman garb, that had been erected to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. John Adams had once admired this “beautiful ellipsis of land, railed in with solid iron, in the center of which is a statue of his majesty on horseback, very large, of solid lead, gilded with gold, on a pedestal of marble, very high.”55 Now, for reasons both symbolic and practical, the crowd pulled George III down from his pedestal, decapitating him in the process. The four thousand pounds of gilded lead was rushed off to Litchfield, Connecticut, where it was melted down to make 42,088 musket bullets. One wit predicted that the king’s soldiers “will probably have melted majesty fired at them.”56
The action boosted morale in the besieged city at a time of imminent peril. On July 12, the British decided to throw the fear of God into the rebels and test their defenses by sending the Phoenix, a forty-four-gun battleship, and the Rose, a twenty-eight-gun frigate, past southern Manhattan with guns blazing. Undeterred by fire from the Manhattan shore, the two ships raced up the Hudson, peppering several New York rooftops with cannonballs and sailing by unscathed. The din from the shelling was deafening. Hamilton commanded four of the biggest cannon in the patriotic arsenal and stood directly in the British line of fire. Hercules Mulligan recalled, “Capt. Hamilton went on the Battery with his company and his piece of artillery and commenced a brisk fire upon the Phoenix and Rose then sailing up the river, when his cannon burst and killed two of his men who…were buried in the Bowling Green.”57Actually, Hamilton’s exploding cannon may have killed as many as six of his men and wounded four or five others. Some critics blamed inadequate training for the mishap, but the general dissipation of troops addicted to whoring and drinking was more likely to blame. Lieutenant Isaac Bangs reported that many cannon at the Battery had been abandoned by troops who “were at their cups and at their usual place of abode, viz., on the Holy Ground.”58 Of the specific incident involving Hamilton’s men, Bangs wrote that “by the carelessness of our own artillery men, six men were killed with our own cannon and several others very badly wounded. It is said that several of the company out of which they were killed were drunk and neglected to sponge, worm, and stop the vent and the cartridges took fire while they were ramming them down.”59 (In other words, the men hadn’t swabbed out the sparks and powder after the previous firing.) That Hamilton was never reprimanded and that his military reputation only improved suggests that he was never faulted for the fatal mishap. However, crushed by the incident, he quickly learned that war was a filthy business.
By August 17, New York’s population stood in such grave danger that Washington urged residents to evacuate immediately; only five thousand civilians of a prewar population of twenty-five thousand remained. With a condescension typical of the British command, Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, snickered at the rebel forces as “the strangest that was ever collected: old men of 60, boys of 14, and blacks of all ages and ragged for the most part, compose the motley crew.”60 Washington had dispersed his tattered forces across Manhattan and Brooklyn. After crossing the East River to scout out the terrain, Hamilton doubted that the Continental Army could defend Brooklyn Heights against a concerted British onslaught. Hercules Mulligan recalled a dinner at his home at which Hamilton and the Reverend John Mason agreed on the need for a tactical retreat from Brooklyn, lest the Continental Army be wiped out. After they had “retired from the table, they were lamenting the situation of the army on Long Island and suggesting the best plans for its removal when Mr. Mason and Mr. Hamilton determined to write an anonymous letter to Gen[era]l Washington pointing out their ideas of the best means to draw off the army.”61 Mulligan transmitted this plan to one of Washington’s aides, to no avail.
Hamilton proved dolefully accurate in his predictions. On August 22, the British began to transfer a huge invasion force across the Narrows from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Within a few days, British redcoats and Hessian mercenaries on Long Island numbered around twenty thousand, or more than twice the number of able-bodied Americans. Following a deceptive lull of several days, the British soldiers then advanced north through quaint Dutch and English farming villages. Moving through marsh and meadow, they leveled homes, flattened fences, uprooted crops in their paths, and slaughtered the inexperienced American soldiers. They took different routes, but their common objective was to reach and breach the patriotic fortifications erected on Brooklyn Heights. Although Washington rushed in reinforcements from Manhattan, the battle of Brooklyn turned into a full-blown fiasco with the patriots heavily outgunned. About 1,200 Americans were killed or captured, dwarfing British losses, and it looked as if Washington’s army was now trapped in a vise, with the British Army in front and the East River at its back. The British had a chance to smash the revolt with one decisive blow.
It is commonly said that Hamilton took no part in the battle, yet an unnamed correspondent for the Royal Danish American Gazette submitted a narrative of his own involvement. One suspects the dispatch was Hamilton’s handiwork, though the author identified himself only as a member of the “Pennsylvania troops.” Along with Maryland and Delaware troops, these soldiers were commanded by Hamilton’s hard-drinking former patron, Lord Stirling, and they displayed great valor. In the words of Stirling’s biographer, “Neither he nor anyone else could have predicted that this overweight, rheumatic, vain, pompous, gluttonous inebriate would be so ardent in battle.”62 The St. Croix correspondent credited the bravery of Stirling’s men, who defended a weak position with “but few cannon to defend them.” He also explained the strategy behind Washington’s famous nocturnal retreat across the East River on the night of August 29, saying that Washington feared that British men-of-war would sail upriver the next day and sever his access to Manhattan. The author told how in a cold, steady drizzle, “we received orders to quit our station about two o’clock this morning and had made our retreat almost to the ferry when General Washington ordered us back to that part of the line we were first at, which was reckoned to be the most dangerous post.”63 The reporter’s company, stranded on a spit of land, crouched within easy musket-fire range of the dozing British troops but were screened by darkness and thick, rolling fog. At dawn, the author and his men scurried safely aboard one of the last ships to slide away from the Brooklyn shore. In an exemplary act of gallant leadership, Washington waited for one of the last boats before he himself crossed the river.
Despite this stealthy retreat, it seemed to the British that everything was proceeding according to schedule and that their amateurish American foes would crumble before force majeure. Instead of pursuing the rebels and pressing their advantage, the complacent British forces dawdled and botched an opportunity that might have ended the conflict. On Sunday, September 15, they tardily resumed their offensive with a sustained, earsplitting bombardment of American positions at Kip’s Bay (approximately between Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Streets today), on Manhattan’s eastern shore. “So terrible and so incessant a roar of guns few even in the army and navy had ever heard before,” said Lord Howe’s secretary.64
As dozens of barges disgorged British and Hessian troops into the hilly, wooded area, the patriot forces lost their nerve and began to flee in undisguised terror, discarding any semblance of discipline. On horseback, an outraged Washington tried to stem the disorderly retreat. Though Washington was famous for his composure, his infrequent wrath was something to behold, and he cursed the panic-stricken troops and flailed at incompetent officers with his riding crop. Finally, he flung his hat on the ground in disgust and fumed, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?”65 Since the British dragged their feet and failed to give chase to the Americans rushing northward, most of the patriots found sanctuary in the wilderness of Harlem Heights.
Hamilton stayed cool under fire. Again, the story comes from the garrulous Hercules Mulligan: “Capt[ain] H[amilton] commanded a post on Bunker Hill near New York and fought with the rear of our army.”66 Hamilton later confirmed this story indirectly when he testified, “I was among the last of our army that left the city.”67 Hamilton showed great fortitude and did not reach Harlem Heights until after dark, having walked the entire length of a thickly forested Manhattan in a drenching rain. He was very dispirited, later telling Mulligan that “in retiring he lost…his baggage and one of his cannon, which broke down.”68 He had surrendered his heavy guns, and his company’s weaponry had now been whittled down to two mobile fieldpieces that could be pulled along by horse or hand.
As New York fell to the British, Hamilton and the ragged remnants of the Continental Army had little notion that they would be exiled from the city for seven years. Redcoats poured into Manhattan and went on a rampage, annihilating the hated vestiges of dissent. They slashed paintings and torched books at King’s College, which they used for a hospital. After midnight on September 21, a fire started at the Fighting Cocks Tavern near the Battery, the flames leaping from house to house until this blazing conflagration consumed a quarter of the city’s housing. Nobody ever solved the mystery of whether the culprit was nature or a renegade arsonist. The British, however, were convinced of rebel mischief and rounded up two hundred suspects, including an American spy, Captain Nathan Hale, who was hung from the gallows at a spot thought to be near the present Third Avenue and Sixty-sixth Street. Much of New York had been reduced to charred rubble. Despite this, thousands of desperate Tories flocked to the city for refuge, swelling its population and setting the stage for later conflicts with returning patriots.
After the humiliating loss of New York, Washington thought the craggy, wooded area of Harlem Heights would shelter his army as a natural fortress. He nearly yielded to despair as he bemoaned the drunkenness, looting, desertions in the ranks, and short-term enlistments. In pleading with Congress for a permanent army, he voiced arguments that were echoed by Hamilton and that united the two men in future years: “To place any dependence upon militia is assuredly resting on a broken staff.”69 According to Hamilton’s son, it was at Harlem Heights that Washington first recognized Hamilton’s unique organizational gifts, as he watched him supervise the building of an earthwork. It was also at Harlem Heights that Hamilton’s company first came under the direct command of Washington, who “entered into conversation with him, invited him to his tent, and received an impression of his military talent,” wrote John C. Hamilton.70 It was yet another striking example of the instantaneous rapport that this young man seemed to develop with even the most seasoned officers.
In late October, Hamilton fought alongside Washington at White Plains in yet another bruising defeat for the patriots. The war was beginning to look like a farcical mismatch. The patriots were a slovenly, dejected bunch, while the redcoats, in their trim uniforms and brandishing polished bayonets, stepped smartly into battle to the inspirational strains of a military band. At White Plains, Washington posted the bulk of his troops on high ground while sending a separate detachment of about one thousand men to the west on Chatterton’s Hill, above the Bronx River. John C. Hamilton says that his father planted his two fieldpieces upon a rocky ledge at Chatterton’s Hill and sprayed Hessian and British columns with fire as they struggled to wade across the river. “Again and again Hamilton’s pieces flashed,” he wrote, sending “the ascending columns down to the river’s edge.”71 Soon the British regrouped, forcing Hamilton and his comrades to abandon the hill and finally the entire area. Nevertheless, at White Plains, the British forces suffered larger losses than did the Americans, which provided a fillip to the dejected spirits of Washington’s men.
After White Plains, the patriots, exposed to British seapower as well, had only a tenuous hold left on Manhattan. In the spring, they had built twin forts on opposite sides of the Hudson: Fort Washington on the Manhattan side and Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. On November 16, as he manned an observation post at Fort Lee, Washington gazed in dismay as a huge force of British and Hessian troops overran Fort Washington. Along with staggering losses of men, muskets, and supplies, the surrender of Fort Washington dealt another devastating, nearly mortal, blow to the fragile morale of the Continental Army. Washington was widely castigated for his failure to safeguard the men, not to mention all the cannon and gunpowder stored at the fort. Four days later, the patriots had to surrender Fort Lee hastily to Lord Cornwallis. With his army having dwindled to fewer than three thousand forlorn men, Washington had no choice but to retreat across New Jersey, with the vile epithets of his critics ringing in his ears.