Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 5. THE LITTLE LION
Plagued by foul weather and abysmal morale and with the British tailing his movements, George Washington led the bedraggled Continental Army across New Jersey. The losses he had sustained in New York strengthened his sense that he had to dodge large-scale confrontations that played to the enemy’s strength. “We should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk,” he told Congress, “unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn.”1 Instead, he would opt for small-scale, improvisational skirmishes, the very sort of mobile, risk-averse war of attrition that Hamilton had expounded in his undergraduate article. Hamilton continued to believe in his theory. “By hanging upon their rear and seizing every opportunity of skirmishing,” the situation of the British could “be rendered insupportably uneasy,” he wrote.2 The rugged terrain and dense forests of America would make it difficult for the British to wage conventional warfare.
Washington had occasion to marvel anew at Hamilton’s prowess during the retreat. The general hoped to make a stand at the Raritan River, near New Brunswick, then decided that his straggling troops could not withstand an enemy offensive and decided to push ahead. Posted with guns high on a riverbank, Hamilton ably provided cover for the retreating patriots. According to Washington’s adopted grandson, the commander “was charmed by the brilliant courage and admirable skill” Hamilton displayed as he “directed a battery against the enemy’s advanced columns that pressed upon the Americans in their retreat by the ford.”3 In an early December letter to Congress, Washington, though not mentioning Hamilton by name, hailed the “smart cannonade” that allowed his men to escape.4 In yet another blunder, General Howe occupied New Jersey but permitted Washington and his men to cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. As he pondered his scruffy, poorly clad men, Washington warned Congress on December 20, “Ten days more will put an end to the existence of our army.”5 With the enlistment periods of many soldiers about to expire, he needed to assay something daring to rally his despondent troops, who lacked winter clothing and blankets.
In his waning days as an artillery captain, Hamilton confirmed his reputation for persistence despite recurring health problems. He lay bedridden at a nearby farm when Washington decided to recross the Delaware on Christmas night and pounce on the besotted Hessians drowsing at Trenton. Hamilton referred vaguely to his “long and severe fit” of illness, but he somehow gathered up the strength to leave his sickbed and fight.6 Through death and desertion, Hamilton’s company had now been pared to fewer than thirty men. As part of Lord Stirling’s brigade, they were summoned to move out after midnight, huddling in cargo boats caked with ice as they poled their way across the frigid Delaware.
After an eight-mile march through a thickening snowfall, Hamilton and his troops, equipped with two cannon, glimpsed the metal helmets and glinting bayonets of a Hessian detachment. When they exchanged fire, Hamilton narrowly escaped cannonballs, which whizzed by his ears. With snow muffling their footsteps, Washington and his men crept up on the main body of Hessians, groggy from their Christmas festivities the night before, and captured more than one thousand of them. The fire from Hamilton’s artillery company helped to force the surrender of many enemy soldiers. Patriots everywhere rejoiced at the news, which had a psychological impact far out of proportion to its slim military significance.
Eager to capitalize on his triumph, Washington then attempted a stunning foray against British forces at Princeton on January 3, 1777—another minor but hugely inspiring triumph that revived faith in Washington’s leadership. As his men rounded up two hundred British prisoners, an exultant Washington exclaimed, “It is a fine fox chase, my boys!”7 A senior officer recalled Hamilton and his rump company marching into the village. “I noticed a youth, a mere stripling, small, slender, almost delicate in frame, marching beside a piece of artillery, with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought, with his hand resting on a cannon, and every now and then patting it, as if it were a favorite horse or a pet plaything.”8 A mythic gleam began to cling to the young captain. People had already noticed his special attributes during the retreat across New Jersey. “Well do I recollect the day when Hamilton’s company marched into Princeton,” said a friend. “It was a model of discipline. At their head was a boy and I wondered at his youth, but what was my surprise when that slight figure…was pointed out to me as that Hamilton of whom we had already heard so much.”9 Hamilton found himself back at the college that had spurned him a few years earlier, only this time one regiment of enemy troops occupied the main dormitory. Legend claims that Hamilton set up his cannon in the college yard, pounded the brick building, and sent a cannonball slicing through a portrait of King George II in the chapel. All we know for certain is that the British soldiers inside surrendered. Hamilton believed that the Continental Army had regained its esprit de corps, showing that green patriots could outwit well-trained British troops. He later referred to “the enterprises of Trenton and Princeton…as the dawnings of that bright day which afterwards broke forth with such resplendent luster.”10
With these back-to-back victories, Washington saved Philadelphia from enemy forces and gained several months to restore his depleted army. He moved his three thousand men into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, thirty miles from New York and cupped in a beautiful valley that formed a protective perimeter around his men. When a vacancy opened on Washington’s staff, Hamilton was ideally suited to fill it. By now, the boy genius had been “discovered” by four generals—Alexander McDougall, Nathanael Greene, Lord Stirling, and Washington himself—any one of whom might have been responsible for his promotion. Robert Troup ascribed the foremost influence to Henry Knox, artillery commander of the Continental Army and Hamilton’s nominal superior. A former Boston bookseller of Scotch-Irish ancestry, the three-hundred-pound Knox was a jolly fellow with a bulbous nose, a warm spirit, and an earthy sense of humor. He was already renowned for his heroism, having dragged artillery captured at Fort Ticonderoga across snow-covered expanses to defend Boston. Like many people Hamilton befriended in these years, the self-made Knox had known early hardship. His father died when he was twelve, and he had become his mother’s sole support. Like Hamilton, Knox was a voracious reader who had tutored himself in warfare by digesting books on military discipline and quizzing British officers who visited his bookshop.
On January 20, 1777, slightly more than two weeks after the fighting at Princeton, Washington penned a note to Hamilton, personally inviting him to join his staff as an aide-de-camp. Five days later, The Pennsylvania Evening Post inserted this item: “Captain Alexander Hamilton, of the New York company of artillery, by applying to the printer of this paper, may hear of something to his advantage.”11 This cryptic sentence must have referred to Washington’s note. The appointment was announced officially on March 1, and from that date Hamilton was jumped up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. By then, Hamilton was already encamped with Washington, who had set up his headquarters at Jacob Arnold’s tavern on the village green at Morristown.
In fewer than five years, the twenty-two-year-old Alexander Hamilton had risen from despondent clerk in St. Croix to one of the aides to America’s most eminent man. Yet Hamilton did not react with jubilation. Such was his craving for battlefield distinction that he balked at taking a job that would chain him to a desk, precluding a field command. Washington once wrote that those around him were “confined from morning to evening, hearing and answering…applications and letters.”12 More than twenty years later, when capable of much greater candor with Washington, Hamilton told him of his early disappointment on this score: “When in the year 1777 the regiments of artillery were multiplied, I had good reason to expect that the command of one of them would have fallen to me had I not changed my situation and this in all probability would have led further.”13 Hamilton may have underrated the signal importance of his promotion in March 1777, for that job won him the patronage of America’s leading figure and ushered him into the presence of military officers who were later to form a critical sector of his political following. In many respects, the political alignments of 1789 were first forged in the appointment lists of the Revolution.
Still recuperating from illness, Hamilton was fortunate to take up his assignment with Washington at a slack moment in the campaign. The British fought at a leisurely pace, even though time worked to the Americans’ advantage. Several weeks after reporting to Morristown, Hamiliton told his New York associates of daily skirmishes but “with consequences so trifling and insignificant as to be scarcely worth mentioning.”14 He informed Hugh Knox in St. Croix that for several months after his appointment the war had produced “no military event of any great importance.”15 Yet if Hamilton sounded faintly bored at first, he took charge of Washington’s staff with characteristic, electrifying speed. On March 10, he wrote to Brigadier General Alexander McDougall that Washington had been ill and that he had hesitated to disturb him. Now that Washington had recovered, Hamilton went on, “I find he is so much pestered with matters which cannot be avoided that I am obliged to refrain from troubling him on the occasion, especially as I conceive the only answer he would give may be given by myself.”16 How rapidly Hamilton had acquired the confidence to function as Washington’s proxy! He already spoke in an authoritative voice and seemed to have few qualms about exercising his own judgment in Washington’s absence.
The pause in the fighting that spring gave Hamilton plenty of time to study his new boss. The superficial contrast between the tall forty-five-year-old Virginian and his slight twenty-two-year-old aide was striking. Washington towered over Hamilton by at least seven inches. This physical contrast, among other things, belies the moldy canard that Washington had fathered the illegitimate Hamilton on a trip to Barbados in 1751, four years before Hamilton was actually born. Many events in Washington’s early years might have engendered sympathy in him for Hamilton. Washington’s patrician aura could be misleading. Though the son of a wealthy tobacco planter who died when George was only eleven, leaving him at the mercy of an imperious mother, Washington had limited formal schooling, never attended college, and had trained as a surveyor as an adolescent. Famous later on for granite self-control, he had been a hot-tempered youth. “I wish that I could say that he governs his temper,” Lord Fairfax wrote to the mother of the sixteen-year-old Washington. “He is subject to attacks of anger and provocation, sometimes without just cause.”17
As a teenager who knew the insecurities of an outsider and was eager to earn respect, Washington tried to advance into polished society through a strenuous program of self-improvement. He learned to dance and dress properly, read biographies and histories, and memorized rules of deportment from a courtesy manual. Like Hamilton, the young Washington saw military fame as his vehicle for ascending in the world. By age twenty-two, he was already a precocious lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia, showing a brash courage during the French and Indian War. “I have heard the bullets whistle,” he said after experiencing battle, “and believe me there is something charming in the sound.”18 Sensitive to slights, Washington chafed under the British condescension toward colonial officers and never forgot his experience as aide-de-camp to the abusive, pigheaded General Edward Braddock. Early disappointments with people left Washington with a residual cynicism that was to jibe well with Hamilton’s views.
By a swift, unforeseen series of events, Washington had been catapulted from frustrated young officer to prosperous planter. The death of his half brother Lawrence after their visit to Barbados eventually left him sole owner of the family estate, Mount Vernon. His prospects were further enhanced by marriage at twenty-six to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Though Custis had two surviving children from her previous marriage, she never had children with Washington, prompting speculation that he was sterile, possibly as a by-product of smallpox he contracted on the Barbados trip. Perhaps from unfulfilled paternal instincts, Washington had several surrogate sons during the Revolution, most notably the marquis de Lafayette, and he often referred to Hamilton as “my boy.”
Washington proved an excellent businessman, first as a canny speculator in western lands, then as lord of Mount Vernon. Sometimes buying human cargo directly from the holds of slave ships, he came to own more than one hundred slaves by the Revolution and expanded his estate until it encompassed thirteen square miles. An innovative farmer, he invented a plough and presided over a small industrial village at Mount Vernon that included a flour mill and a shop for manufacturing cloth, an entrepreneurial bent that appealed to Hamilton. Washington also brought extensive political experience to his military command, having served for fifteen years in the Virginia House of Burgesses and having attended the First and Second Continental Congresses. In a supreme act of patriotism, he refused to take a salary for his services during the Revolution, accepting money only for expenses.
The relationship between Washington and Hamilton was so consequential in early American history—rivaled only by the intense comradeship between Jefferson and Madison—that it is difficult to conceive of their careers apart. The two men had complementary talents, values, and opinions that survived many strains over their twenty-two years together. Washington possessed the outstanding judgment, sterling character, and clear sense of purpose needed to guide his sometimes wayward protégé; he saw that the volatile Hamilton needed a steadying hand. Hamilton, in turn, contributed philosophical depth, administrative expertise, and comprehensive policy knowledge that nobody in Washington’s ambit ever matched. He could transmute wispy ideas into detailed plans and turn revolutionary dreams into enduring realities. As a team, they were unbeatable and far more than the sum of their parts.
Nonetheless, the two men had clashing temperaments and frequently showed more mutual respect than true affection. When Charles Willson Peale painted Washington in 1779, he presented a manly, confident figure with a quiet swagger and an easy air of command. In fact, Washington wasn’t nonchalant and could be exacting and quick to take offense. While he had a dry wit, his mirth was restrained and seldom expressed in laughter. He did not encourage familiarity, fearing it would encourage laxity in subordinates, and held himself aloof with a grave sobriety that gave him power over other people. In addition, over time he became such a prisoner of his own celebrity that people couldn’t relax in his presence. Gilbert Stuart noted the fierce temper behind the fabled self-control, and his later paintings of Washington show something hooded and wary in the hard, penetrating eyes. The self-control was something achieved, not inherited, and often masked combustible emotions that could explode in fury. “His temper was naturally irritable and high-toned, but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it,” Jefferson later said perceptively. “If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath.”19
Those who met Washington in social situations were usually taken with his gallantry and convivial charm. Abigail Adams fairly cooed when she met him, reassuring John that “the gentleman and soldier look agreeably blended in him.”20 Working with him in cramped quarters, however, Hamilton had many chances to see Washington’s irritable side and sometimes ungovernable temper. Washington was extremely fond of Hamilton, preferring him to his other aides, but he did not express his affection openly. Hamilton always addressed him as “Your Excellency,” and it irked him that he could not penetrate the general’s reserve. But Lafayette noted that Hamilton, in turn, held something back. The notion that Hamilton was a surrogate son to Washington has some superficial merit but fails to capture fully the psychological interplay between them. If Hamilton was a surrogate son, some suppressed Oedipal rage entered into the mix. Hamilton was so brilliant, so coldly critical, that he detected flaws in Washington less visible to other aides. One senses that he was the only young member of Washington’s “family” who felt competitive with the general or could have imagined himself running the army. It was temperamentally hard for Alexander Hamilton to subordinate himself to anyone, even someone with the extraordinary stature of George Washington. At the same time, he never doubted for an instant that Washington was a great leader of special gifts and the one irreplaceable personage in the early American pageant. He had the deepest admiration for Washington, even if he didn’t wallow in hero worship. He had misgivings about Washington as a military leader—the general did lose the majority of battles he fought in the Revolution—but not about him as a political leader. Having hitched his star to Washington, Hamilton struck a bargain with himself that he honored for the remainder of his career: he would never openly criticize Washington, whose image had to be upheld to unify the country.
So diffident was George Washington in speech that John Adams described him as a great actor with “the gift of silence.”21 Washington knew that he lacked verbal flow, once writing, “With me it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions.”22 Yet this taciturn man had to cope with an unending flood of paperwork as he dealt with Congress and state legislatures while also issuing orders and arbitrating disputes among deputies. All the managerial problems of a protracted war—recruiting, promotions, munitions, clothing, food, supplies, prisoners—swam across his desk. Such a man sorely needed a fluent writer, and none of Washington’s aides had so facile a pen as did Hamilton.
Being Washington’s chief secretary was much more than a passive, stenographic task. “At present my time is so taken up at my desk,” Washington had written to Congress in September, “that I am obliged to neglect many other essential parts of my duty. It is absolutely necessary…for me to have persons that can think for me, as well as execute orders.”23 Washington further explained that his letters were drafted by aides, subject to his revision. Hamilton’s advent was thus a godsend for Washington. He was able to project himself into Washington’s mind and intuit what the general wanted to say, writing it up with instinctive tact and deft diplomatic skills. It was an inspired act of ventriloquism: Washington gave a few general hints and, presto, out popped Hamilton’s letter in record time. Most of Washington’s field orders have survived in Hamilton’s handwriting. “The pen for our army was held by Hamilton and for dignity of manner, pith of matter, and elegance of style, General’s Washington’s letters are unrivalled in military annals,” wrote Robert Troup.24 Hamilton was loath to admit that he served as a military adviser to Washington, lest this cast doubt on his boss’s abilities, but he offered him opinions on many matters. Another aide, James McHenry, said that Hamilton “had studied military service, practically under General Washington, and his advice in many instances (a fact known to myself) had aided our chief in giving to the machine that perfection to which it had arrived previously to the close of the revolutionary war.”25
Pretty soon, the twenty-two-year-old alter ego was drafting letters to Congress, state governors, and the most powerful generals in the Continental Army. Before long, he had access to all confidential information and was allowed to issue orders from Washington over his own signature. Timothy Pickering, then adjutant general, was later adamant that Hamilton was far more than the leading scribe at headquarters. “During the whole time that he was one of the General’s aides-de-camp, Hamilton had to think as well as to write for him in all his most important correspondence.”26
As Hamilton evolved from private secretary to something akin to chief of staff, he rode with the general in combat, cantered off on diplomatic missions, dealt with bullheaded generals, sorted through intelligence, interrogated deserters, and negotiated prisoner exchanges. This gave him a wide-angle view of economic, political, and military matters, further hastening his intellectual development. Washington was both military and political leader of the patriots, already something of a de facto president. He had to placate the Continental Congress, which insisted on supervising the army, and coordinate plans with thirteen bickering states. Both Washington and Hamilton came to think in terms of the general welfare, while many other officers and politicians got bogged down in parochial squabbles. In their mutual desire for a professional army and a strong central authority that would mitigate local rivalries, the two men felt the first stirrings of an impulse that would someday culminate in the Constitution and the Federalist party. Like Washington, Hamilton was scandalized by the dissension and cowardice, the backstabbing and avarice, of the politicians in Philadelphia while soldiers were dying in the field.
During his first weeks on Washington’s staff, Hamilton began building a network that became the foundation of his future political base at home. He agreed to update New York politicians about military affairs and exchanged twice-weekly reports with a newly appointed body called the New York Committee of Correspondence, placing him in regular contact with leaders such as Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, and Robert R. Livingston. On April 20, 1777, when the New York State Constitution was approved, Hamilton expressed general satisfaction with it. In commenting to Morris, Hamilton foreshadowed his later views, arguing that the election for governor “requires the deliberate wisdom of a select assembly and cannot be safely lodged with the people at large.” On the other hand, he still showed the radical influence of his student days when he worried that a separate senate, elected solely by propertied voters, will “degenerate into a body purely aristocratical.”27 In fact, the state’s aristocratic landowners were hugely disappointed when General Philip Schuyler of Albany was defeated for governor by General George Clinton, the champion of the small farmers. Hamilton’s future father-in-law was stung by the defeat, and, while expressing admiration for Clinton, Schuyler complained that “his family and connections do not entitle him to so distinguished a predominance.”28 One day, Hamilton was to inherit this Schuyler-Clinton feud as his own.
Shortly after Hamilton joined Washington’s staff, Charles Willson Peale visited the New Jersey headquarters and executed the first portrait of Hamilton, a miniature on ivory. It shows him in a blue-and-buff uniform with gold epaulets and the green ribbon of an aide-de-camp. He has close-cropped hair and a long, sharp nose and fixes the viewer with an intense gaze. He had not yet acquired the urbane self-assurance that later marked his demeanor. There was something still lean and unformed about his face, which gradually widened with age and came to look almost too large for his trim, dapper body.
Quartered at Jacob Arnold’s tavern, Hamilton lived in cheek-by-jowl intimacy with his new military family. So that he could summon his aides at any hour, Washington preferred to have them shelter under one roof. Sometimes, on frosty nights, the general would wrap himself in a blanket and lie thinking on a couch until interrupted by a sudden messenger on horseback. “The dispatches being opened and read,” recalled his adopted grandson, “there would be heard in the calm deep tones of that voice…the command of the chief to his now watchful attendant, ‘Call Colonel Hamilton.’”29
The four to six young aides usually slept in one room, often two to a bed, then worked long days in a single room with chairs crowded around small wooden tables. Washington typically kept a small office off to the side. During busy periods, the aides sometimes wrote and copied one hundred letters per day, an exhausting grind relieved by occasional dances, parades, and reviews. At night, the aides pulled up camp stools to a dinner table and engaged in lively repartee. Hamilton, though the youngest family member, was nevertheless Washington’s “principal and most confidential aide,” as the general phrased it.30 Instead of resenting him, the other aides treated Hamilton affectionately and nicknamed him “Ham” or “Hammie.”31 For an orphaned boy from the Caribbean, what better fate than to become part of this elite family?
Once again, the young immigrant had been transported to another sphere. Though past horrors would always lurk somewhere in his psyche, he spent the rest of his life in the upper stratum of American society, a remarkable transformation for someone with his rootless past. Unlike tradition-bound European armies, top-heavy with aristocrats, Washington’s army allowed for upward mobility. Though not a perfect meritocracy, it probably valued talent and intelligence more highly than any previous army. This high-level service completed Hamilton’s rapid metamorphosis into a full-blooded American. The Continental Army was a national institution and helped to make Hamilton the optimal person to articulate a vision of American nationalism, his vision sharpened by the immigrant’s special love for his new country.
Hamilton won admirers for his sprightly personality as well as intelligence. General Nathanael Greene remembered his presence at headquarters as “a bright gleam of sunshine, ever growing brighter as the general darkness thickened.”32 Such comments were echoed by those who knew Hamilton in after years. Harrison Gray Otis, later a senator, wrote: “Frank, affable, intelligent and brave, young Hamilton became the favorite of his fellow soldiers.”33Lawyer William Sullivan likewise found Hamilton eloquent, high-minded, and openhearted but also noted that he always had his fair share of detractors: “He was capable of inspiring the most affectionate attachment, but he could make those whom he opposed fear and hate him cordially.”34 With a ready tongue and rapier wit, Hamilton could wound people more than he realized, and he was so nimble in debate that even bright people sometimes felt embarrassingly tongue-tied in his presence.
Hamilton was surrounded by a congenial group of young aides for whom he felt a familial warmth. He shared correspondence with Robert H. Harrison of Alexandria, Virginia, a respected lawyer and a neighbor of Washington. Ten years older than Hamilton, Harrison treated him fondly and nicknamed him “the little Lion.”35 Another early comrade was Tench Tilghman, who started out with a light-infantry company in Philadelphia. For nearly five years, Washington said, Tilghman was his “faithful assistant,” and he later applauded him as “a zealous servant and slave to the public” and as a man of “modesty and love of concord.”36 Richard Kidder Meade joined the staff around the same time as Hamilton and elicited warm praise from him: “I know few men estimable, fewer amiable and when I meet with one of the last description it is not in my power to withhold affection.”37
The following year, James McHenry became an aide to Washington. Born and educated in Ireland, McHenry had studied medicine with Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. He was able to minister to Hamilton’s various maladies, including a malarial infection that recurred every summer, probably a legacy of his tropical boyhood. To correct Hamilton’s constipation, McHenry instructed him to skip milk and go easy on the wine. “When you indulge in wine let [it] be sparingly—never go beyond three glasses—but by no means every day.”38 (That three glasses of wine was considered abstemious says much about the immoderate consumption of the day.) Warmhearted, with a touch of the poet, McHenry wrote heroic verse and often accompanied Hamilton in entertaining Washington’s family with songs. Hamilton referred to “those fine sounds with which he and I are accustomed to regale the ears of the fraternity.”39
From McHenry’s diary, we can see that many of Washington’s aides sneaked in romantic flings during inactive intervals that spring. In February, many wives of high-ranking officers—Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Knox, and Mrs. Greene, as well as Lady Stirling and her daughter, Lady Kitty—arrived and organized dainty little tea parties in the evening. One visitor, Martha Bland of Virginia, cast admiring eyes on the handsome young aides, finding them “all polite, sociable gentlemen who make the day pass with a great deal of satisfaction to the visitors.”40 One day, she joined a riding party headed by George and Martha Washington and was clearly taken with Hamilton, “a sensible genteel polite young fellow, a West Indian.”41 In this socially fluid situation, Hamilton could meet and court well-bred young women as social equals. Colonel Alexander Graydon recalled a self-possessed Hamilton surrounded by several adoring ladies at dinner, saying that he “acquitted himself with an ease, propriety and vivacity, which gave me the most favorable impression of his talents and accomplishments,” as he displayed “a brilliancy which might adorn the most polished circles of society.”42
One thing grew crystal clear at Morristown: Hamilton was girl crazy and brimming with libido. Throughout his career, at unlikely moments, he tended to grow flirtatious, almost giddy, with women. No sooner had he joined Washington’s staff than he began to woo his old friend Catherine Livingston, daughter of his former patron, William Livingston, now the first governor of an independent New Jersey. In an April 11 letter to Kitty, Hamilton struck the note of badinage favored by young rakes of the day:
After knowing exactly your taste and whether you are of a romantic or discreet temper as to love affairs, I will endeavour to regulate myself by it. If you would choose to be a goddess and to be worshipped as such, I will torture my imagination for the best arguments the nature of the case will admit to prove you so…. But if…you are content with being a mere mortal, and require no other license than is justly due to you, I will talk to you like one [in] his sober senses.
That Hamilton was being more than playful with Kitty Livingston is shown in his declaration in the letter that the end of the Revolution would “remove those obstacles which now lie in the way of that most delectable thing called matrimony.”43
When Hamilton received Livingston’s belated reply to his rather forward letter, he passed it around among the other aides. “Hamilton!” one confided. “When you write to this divine girl, it must be in the style of adoration. None but a goddess, I am sure, could have penned so fine a letter!” In his response to Livingston, Hamilton made clear that some family members thought he was excessively preoccupied by the opposite sex. “I exercise [my pen] at the [risk] of being anathematized by grave censors for dedicating so much of my time to so trifling and insignificant a toy as—woman.” Though Livingston, apparently, had spurned his advances—he chides her apathy—he concludes philosophically that “I shall probably be in a fine way” and tells her that “ALL FOR LOVE is my motto.”44 We can discern Hamilton’s ambivalence toward fashionable young women as he alternately flatters and belittles Kitty. As in his first boyish love poems in St. Croix, Hamilton could fancy young women as chaste goddesses or naughty little vixens. Which type he ultimately preferred, he still may not have known.
In the late spring of 1777, Hamilton began the most intimate friendship of his life, with an elegant, blue-eyed young officer named John Laurens, who formally joined Washington’s family in October. One portrait of Laurens shows a short, commanding figure in a pose of supreme assurance, with one arm akimbo and the other resting on the hilt of a long, curved sword. He was the son of one of South Carolina’s most influential planters, Henry Laurens, who succeeded John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress that November. Hamilton and Laurens, both French Huguenot on one side of their families and English on the other, seemed like kindred spirits, spiritual twins. Both were bookish and ambitious, bold and enterprising, and hungered for military honor. Both were imbued with a quixotic sense that it was noble to die in a worthy cause. Like Hamilton, Laurens was so sure of himself that he could seem brusquely overbearing to those who disagreed with him. More than any friend Hamilton ever had, Laurens was his peer, and the two were long paired in the fond memories of many who fought in the Revolution.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, a few months before Hamilton was born in Nevis, Laurens had a privileged upbringing on one of the state’s biggest slave plantations. In 1771, while Hamilton toiled away as a clerk in St. Croix, Laurens’s father enrolled him in a cosmopolitan school in Geneva, Switzerland. He was a versatile, accomplished student, who excelled in the classics, fenced, drew, and rode. While breathing in the republican atmosphere of Geneva, he prepared to become a barrister. In 1774, he studied law at the Middle Temple in London. This was a time of antislavery ferment, spurred by Lord Mansfield’s legal decision that a slave became free by being brought to England. Laurens became a passionate convert to abolitionism, which was to create a strong ideological bond with Hamilton.
After Lexington and Concord, Laurens clamored to return home but was deterred by his fretful father, who worried about his son’s youthful lust for combat. Henry Laurens always had a strange foreboding that his impetuous son would die in battle. After reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in 1776, John Laurens grew ever more impatient to recross the Atlantic but remained trapped in England by an unexpected circumstance. He had impregnated a young woman, Martha Manning, whose wealthy father, William Manning, was a close friend of Henry Laurens. With his chivalric sense of honor, John Laurens married Manning in a clandestine ceremony in October 1776. Four months later, after Martha gave birth to a daughter, Laurens immediately boarded a ship back to Charleston. Not long after he returned, he signed on with the Continental Army and won the absolute trust of Washington, who invited him to join his family and gave him confidential missions “which neither time nor propriety would suffer me to commit to paper,” Washington wrote.45
Hamilton and Laurens took an instant liking to each other and became inseparable. Hamilton later lauded his friend’s “zeal, intelligence, enterprise.”46 As the war progressed, Hamilton wrote to Laurens with such unbridled affection that one Hamilton biographer, James T. Flexner, has detected homoerotic overtones in their relationship. Because the style of eighteenth-century letters could be quite florid, even between men, one must tread gingerly in approaching this matter, especially since Laurens’s letters to Hamilton were warm but proper. It is worth noting here, however, how frequently people used the word feminine to describe Hamilton—the more surprising given his military bearing and virile exploits. When John C. Hamilton was preparing his father’s authorized biography, he omitted a loose sheet that has survived in his papers and that describes the relationship between Hamilton and Laurens thus: “In the intercourse of these martial youths, who have been styled ‘the Knights of the Revolution,’ there was a deep fondness of friendship, which approached the tenderness of feminine attachment.”47 Hamilton had certainly been exposed to homosexuality as a boy, since many “sodomites” were transported to the Caribbean along with thieves, pickpockets, and others deemed undesirable. In all thirteen colonies, sodomy had been a capital offense, so if Hamilton and Laurens did become lovers—and it is impossible to say this with any certainty—they would have taken extraordinary precautions. At the very least, we can say that Hamilton developed something like an adolescent crush on his friend.
Hamilton and Laurens formed a colorful trio with a young French nobleman who was appointed an honorary major general in the Continental Army on July 31,1777. The marquis de Lafayette, nineteen, was a stylish, ebullient young aristocrat inflamed by republican ideals and eager to serve the revolutionary cause. “The gay trio to which Hamilton and Laurens belonged was made complete by Lafayette,” Hamilton’s grandson later wrote. “On the whole, there was something about them rather suggestive of the three famous heroes of Dumas.”48 Lafayette always spoke of his two American friends in the most affectionate terms. Of Laurens, he wrote that “his openness, integrity, patriotism, and splendid gallantry have made me his devoted friend.”49 In describing Hamilton, Lafayette was still more effusive, calling him “my beloved friend in whose brotherly affection I felt equally proud and happy.”50 Eliza Hamilton confirmed that “the marquis loved Mr. Hamilton as a brother; their love was mutual.”51
Portraits of Lafayette show a slender, handsome youth in a powdered wig with a long face, rosy lips, and delicately arched eyebrows. Like Hamilton’s, his life was shadowed by early sorrow: his father had died when he was two, his mother when he was thirteen, making him an orphan at the same age as Hamilton. At sixteen, he had married the fourteen-year-old Adrienne de Noailles, the daughter of one of France’s most august families, and he offered America invaluable contacts with the snobbish court of Louis XVI. His meteoric ascent in the Continental Army owed much to a letter that Benjamin Franklin wrote to George Washington from Paris, urging the political expediency of welcoming this well-connected young man. Lafayette agreed to serve without pay, brought a ship to America outfitted at his own expense, and spent lavishly from his own purse to clothe and arm the patriots.
Many people warmed to Lafayette, finding him full of poetry and fire and fine liberal sentiments. Franklin implored Washington to befriend “that amiable young nobleman” and expressed fear that people would take advantage of his goodness.52 Franklin need not have worried about Washington’s affections. When the young Frenchman was wounded in battle, Washington instructed the surgeon, “Treat him as though he were my son.” For Lafayette, Washington became a revered paternal presence, and he named his only son George Washington Lafayette. Lafayette always had his quota of critics, who regarded him as vain, suspicious, and self-seeking. Thomas Jefferson pinpointed one especially flagrant fault: “His foible is a canine appetite for popularity and fame.”53 For all his love of Lafayette, even Hamilton mocked the “thousand little whims” to which the marquis was prey.54 Whatever his flaws, however, Lafayette proved to be a valiant officer of surprisingly mature judgment and more than rewarded the faith of his admirers.
The bilingual Hamilton befriended Lafayette with the almost instantaneous speed of all his early friendships and was soon assigned to him as a liaison officer. As in the case of John Laurens, there was such unabashed ardor in Hamilton’s relationship with the marquis that James T. Flexner has wondered whether it progressed beyond mere friendship. Did Hamilton’s grandson mean much or little when he wrote, “There is a note of romance in their friendship, quite unusual even in those days, and Lafayette, especially during his early sojourn in this country, was on the closest terms with Hamilton”?55 Late in the war, Lafayette wrote to his wife, “Among the general’s aides-de-camp is a (young) man whom I love very much and about whom I have occasionally spoken to you. That man is Colonel Hamilton.”56 Where Hamilton was the more extravagant partner in corresponding with Laurens, Lafayette outshone Hamilton when it came to rapturous prose. “Before this campaign, I was your friend and very intimate friend agreeable to the ideas of the world,” Lafayette wrote to him in 1780. But since returning from France, “my sentiment has increased to such a point the world knows nothing about.”57 Was this just a specimen of flowery French writing, voguish at the time, or something more? As with John Laurens, we will never know. But the breathless tone of the letters that Hamilton exchanged with Laurens and Lafayette is unlike anything in his later letters. This may simply have been a by-product of youth and wartime camaraderie. The broader point is that Alexander Hamilton, the outsider from the West Indies, had a rare capacity for friendship and was already attracting a circle of devoted, well-placed people who were to help to propel him to the highest political plateau.
In early July 1777, Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York fell to the British, prompting King George III to clap his hands and exclaim, “I have beat them! Beat all the Americans.”58 It was a potential calamity for the patriots, since it opened a corridor for General John Burgoyne and his invading army from Canada to push south to New York City, slicing the rebel army in half and isolating New England—an overarching objective of British war policy. Livid at this defeat, Hamilton was unsparing in his censure of the commander held responsible, Philip Schuyler. “I have always been a very partial judge of General Schuyler’s conduct and vindicated it frequently from the charges brought against it,” he wrote to Robert R. Livingston, “but I am at last forced to suppose him inadequate.”59 Historians have proved more charitable toward Schuyler, who was weakened by desertions and the settled malice that his New England troops bore against him as a New York leader and a tough disciplinarian. The British had also pulled off a masterful plan by scaling the steep mountain that overlooked Ticonderoga, permitting its unlikely capture. After suffering many slurs, Schuyler was replaced as head of the army’s Northern Department by Horatio Gates, whom he jeered at as the “idol” of the New Englanders.60 Even though he was exonerated for the loss of Ticonderoga in a subsequent court-martial that he himself demanded, Schuyler never completely recuperated from the wounding debacle.
In Hamilton’s upset over Ticonderoga one can see that this stateless young man had developed proprietary feelings toward New York. He told Livingston that he was disturbed by the threat to “a state which I consider, in a great measure, as my political parent…. I agree with you that the loss of your state would be a more affecting blow to America than any that could be struck by Mr. Howe to the southward.”61 The reference to “your state” suggests, however, that if Hamilton already identified with New York, he still had not committed himself irrevocably to any allegiance to it.
Hamilton already showed a solid grasp of military strategy. As he surveyed the British forces that summer, he hazarded several predictions that later sounded clairvoyant. First, he thought Burgoyne would be tempted to move down the Hudson toward New York—“The enterprising spirit he has credit for, I suspect, may easily be fanned by his vanity into rashness”—and that this would prove ruinous for him unless Sir William Howe rushed redcoats north from New York City to beef up his forces.62 He didn’t think Howe would be that smart, however, the British having “generally acted like fools.” Instead, he prophesied, again with startling accuracy, that Howe would undertake “a bold effort against our main army” and rashly try to seize Philadelphia.63
In an era of primitive communications, even a massive armada could vanish at sea for long stretches. When General Howe departed from New York harbor in late July, commanding 267 ships and eighteen thousand soldiers, he dropped out of sight, materialized in Delaware Bay a week later, disappeared again, then resurfaced in the bay in late August. Hamilton was spoiling for a fight to thwart Howe’s entrance into Philadelphia and told Gouverneur Morris in rousing tones, “Our army is in high health and spirits…. I would not only fight them, but I would attack them, for I hold it an established maxim that there is three to one in favour of the party attacking.”64 That Hamilton was much too sanguine became woefully evident on September 11 during a bloody clash between British and American troops at Brandywine Creek, outside of Philadelphia. Despite stouthearted resistance by the patriots, the savage fighting ended in a panic-stricken rout and terrible slaughter, with a final tally of 1,300 Americans killed, wounded, or captured—twice the losses inflicted on the British.
It now seemed futile to try to halt a British advance upon the capital. Washington dispatched Hamilton, Captain Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), and eight cavalrymen to burn flour mills on the Schuylkill River before they fell into enemy hands. While Hamilton and others were destroying flour at Daviser’s (or Daverser’s) Ferry, their sentinels fired a warning shot indicating the approach of British dragoons. To guarantee an escape route, Hamilton had moored a flat-bottomed boat at the river’s edge. He and three comrades now leaped into the craft and pushed off from shore, while Lee and others took off on horseback. Lee recalled the British raking Hamilton’s boat with repeated volleys from their carbines, killing one of Hamilton’s men and wounding another. All the while, the intrepid Hamilton was “struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains.”65Hamilton and his men finally dove from the boat into the swirling waters and swam to safety. Scarcely stopping for breath, Hamilton dashed off a message to John Hancock that urged the immediate evacuation of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia. Just before Hamilton returned to headquarters, Washington received a letter from Captain Lee announcing Hamilton’s death in the Schuylkill. There were tears of jubilation, as well as considerable laughter, when the sodden corpse himself sauntered through the door.
After the Continental Congress adjourned that night, John Hancock read Hamilton’s letter predicting that the enemy might pounce on Philadelphia by daybreak. Many members decided to abandon the city and exited posthaste after midnight. In his diary, John Adams told of being awakened at 3:00 A.M. and informed of Hamilton’s dire forecast. Adams grabbed his belongings, mounted his horse, and sped away with other congressmen before dawn. “Congress was chased like a covey of partridges from Philadelphia to Trenton, from Trenton to Lancaster,” Adams wrote with his usual gift for evocative language.66
It turned out that Hamilton’s warning had been premature, as the British stalled for more than a week before entering the city. Washington took advantage of this interlude to resupply his troops, who were desperately short of blankets, clothing, and horses. With reluctance, he invested Hamilton with tyrannical powers and placed one hundred men at his disposal, authorizing him to requisition supplies from Philadelphia residents. It was an assignment of the utmost gravity, and Washington feared that if it miscarried it would “involve the ruin of the army, and perhaps the ruin of America.” As his orders to Hamilton specified:
Painful as it is to me to order and as it will be to you to execute the measure, I am compelled to desire you immediately to proceed to Philadelphia and there procure from the inhabitants contributions of blankets and clothing and materials to answer the purposes of both…. This you will do with as much delicacy and discretion as the nature of the business demands.67
This extraordinary grant of power to his twenty-two-year-old aide demanded of him both exquisite tact and unyielding firmness. In a war being fought for democracy, the preservation of popular support was all-important. Hamilton had to impose discipline and importune citizens with sufficient tact to arouse sympathy instead of resentment. His training as a clerk helped him to keep careful accounts and issue receipts to residents. Washington wanted him to evacuate any horses that could be commandeered by the British, and Hamilton drew up a sensible list of the people who should be exempt from the edict: the poor, the transient, those about to leave the city, and those dependent on horses for their livelihood. Working at a nonstop pace for two days, Hamilton loaded up so many vessels with military stores and sent them up the Delaware “with so much vigilance, that very little public property fell with the city into the hands of the British general,” wrote John Marshall, later chief justice of the Supreme Court.68 Aided by these supplies, Washington engaged the British at Germantown on October 4. Although another thousand patriots were killed, wounded, or captured, General Howe was at least pinned down in Philadelphia and prevented from moving north to reinforce General Burgoyne.
In many ways, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne—a dissolute, vainglorious man who was fond of mistresses and champagne and craved a knighthood—was more suited for the pleasures of peace than the arts of war. The renowned British actor David Garrick had starred in his play The Maid of the Oaks in Drury Lane. Burgoyne and his army marched down the Hudson Valley in early October 1777 with all the cumbersome pomp of royalty. As if proceeding to a coronation, not a battle, Burgoyne loaded up no fewer than thirty carts with his personal belongings, dragged by horses through fly-ridden bogs and swamps. Burgoyne epitomized the snobbery rife among the British officers. If anything, he believed that the British had shown too much clemency toward the American upstarts. “I look upon America as our child,” he had said in 1774, “which we have already spoiled by too much indulgence.”69
The original British battle plan for severing New England from other rebel colonies had envisioned Burgoyne’s force from the north converging with those of Lieutenant Colonel Barrimore St. Leger from the west and General Howe from the south. Instead, with Howe in Philadelphia, Burgoyne found himself fighting alone, isolated in the upper Hudson Valley against patriot troops led by General Horatio Gates. Burgoyne’s surrender of his entire army of 5,700 men at Saratoga in mid-October was the pivotal moment of the war: a victory so large, so thrilling, and so decisive that it emboldened the wavering France to enter the conflict on the patriotic side.
The victory meant that Washington could siphon off some of Gates’s troops to strengthen his own shaky position to the south. The continental ranks had been thinned by the expiration of one-year enlistments—a recurring problem. Not long after receiving the wonderful news from Saratoga, Washington summoned a war council of five major generals and ten brigadiers, with Hamilton drafting the minutes. Word had begun to make the rounds that this young aide was far more than some docile clerk. Benjamin Rush, the radical Pennsylvania congressman, grumbled that Washington had allowed himself to be “governed by General Greene, General Knox, and Colonel Hamilton, one of his aides, a young man of twenty-one years.”70 At the meeting, the generals agreed that Gates must transfer a hefty chunk of his troops to Washington, since the Saratoga victory had drastically curtailed the British threat in New York. The emissary chosen to impart this most unwelcome piece of news to Gates was Alexander Hamilton.
It is remarkable that Washington would have drafted his young aide for such a tough assignment. After Saratoga, Horatio Gates was the hero of the day, the darling of New England politicians, and this only deepened the mutual antipathy between him and Washington. Gates had even snubbed Washington by refusing to inform him directly of his victory. Thus, Hamilton’s mission was fraught with a multitude of perils. From a general at the zenith of his popularity, he had to pry loose a sizable number of troops and to do so, if possible, without issuing any orders. Hamilton would have to ride three hundred miles and then bargain with Gates without any further opportunity to consult with Washington. Clearly, the imperious Gates would feel demeaned by having to negotiate with a diminutive twenty-two-year-old. Hamilton would need to tap all the cunning and diplomacy in his nature.
To invest Hamilton with a suitable aura of power, Washington drafted a letter to Gates in which he introduced his aide and defined his mission: “to lay before you a full state of our situation and that of the enemy in this quarter. He is well informed…and will deliver my sentiments upon the plan of operations…now necessary.”71 The discretion delegated to Hamilton was impressive. If Hamilton found Gates using the requested troops in a manner that benefited the patriotic cause, “it is not my wish to give any interruption,” Washington wrote. If that was not the case, however, “it is my desire that the reinforcements before mentioned…be immediately put in motion to join this army.”72 If there was a single moment during the Revolution when its outcome hinged on spontaneous decisions made by Alexander Hamilton, this was it.
Instructions in hand, Hamilton rode off to Albany at a furious pace, covering sixty miles a day for five consecutive days, riding like a man possessed. En route, he stopped on the eastern shore of the Hudson at Fishkill and lectured General Israel Putnam on the need for him to shift two brigades southward to help Washington. Hamilton did not shrink from exercising his own judgment. Acting on his own initiative, he induced Putnam to promise an additional seven hundred members of a New Jersey militia. He explained to Washington that “I concluded you would not disapprove of a measure calculated to strengthen you, though but for a small time, and have ventured to adopt it on that presumption.” Eager to move on, he told Washington that a quartermaster was “pressing some fresh horses for me. The moment they are ready I shall recross the [Hudson] River in order to fall in with the troops on the other side and make all the haste I can to Albany to get the three brigades there sent forward.”73
The instant Hamilton arrived in Albany on November 5, 1777, he arranged a hasty meeting with Horatio Gates. For Hamilton, it was Benedict Arnold, not Gates, who had merited the real laurels at Saratoga. He regarded Gates as a vain, cowardly, inept general, and subsequent events were to bear out his scathing judgment. With gray hair and spectacles set low on his long, pointed nose—he was later derided by his men as “Granny Gates”—the heavyset Gates was a much less imposing presence than Washington. The illegitimate son of a duke’s housekeeper, he had studied at British military academies and fought in the French and Indian War. Now swollen with pride from his victory, Gates was reluctant to cede any of the brigades under his command. Instead of listening meekly, Hamilton spoke to Gates in a firm tone and told him how many troops he should spare. Gates retorted that Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York, might still march up the Hudson and endanger New England. As a sop, Gates finally agreed to send Washington a single brigade, commanded by a General Patterson, instead of the three Hamilton had stipulated. After the meeting, Hamilton snooped about and discovered that Patterson’s six-hundred-man brigade was “by far the weakest of the three now here,” as he then wrote candidly to General Gates. “Under these circumstances, I cannot consider it either as compatible with the good of the service or my instructions from His Excellency, General Washington, to consent that that brigade be selected from the three to go to him.”74 Hamilton was careful to be neither too forward nor too deferential as he skillfully blended his own opinions with those of Washington. “I used every argument in my power to convince him of the propriety” of sending troops, an exasperated Hamilton told Washington, “but he was inflexible in the opinion that two brigades at least of Continental troops should remain in and near this place.”75 Hamilton later reproached Gates for “his impudence, his folly and his rascality.”76
It irked Gates that he had to negotiate with this cocksure, headstrong aide. In a draft letter to Washington, Gates crossed out an allusion to Hamilton that showed just how much he seethed over the situation: “Although it is customary and even absolutely necessary to direct implicit obedience to be paid to the verbal orders of aides-de-camp in action, or while upon the spot, yet I believe it is never practiced to delegate that dictatorial power to one aide-de-camp sent to an army 300 miles distant.”77 In the end, Hamilton extracted a promise from Gates to surrender two of the brigades he wanted. It was a bravura performance by Hamilton, who had shown consummate political skill.
During the tense impasse with Gates, Hamilton tarried long enough in Albany to see his old friend Robert Troup and dine at the mansion of Philip Schuyler. Having preceded Gates as head of the Northern Department, General Schuyler felt cheated of the Saratoga triumph for which he had laid the groundwork. General Nathanael Greene seconded this appraisal, calling Gates “a mere child of fortune” and asserting that the “foundation of all the northern success was laid before his arrival there.”78 During this visit to Schuyler’s mansion, Hamilton met for the first time the general’s second daughter, twenty-year-old Eliza, a relationship that was to resume more than two years later.
After his exhausting talks with Gates, Hamilton headed back down the Hudson, only to discover that his mission was not over. Having stopped at the home of New York governor George Clinton in New Windsor, he was taken aback to find that two of the brigades promised by General Israel Putnam had been withheld. A bluff, jowly farmer and former tavern keeper from Connecticut, Putnam was much beloved by his aide, Aaron Burr, who referred to him as “My good old general.”79 It was Putnam who supposedly told his men at Bunker Hill, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. Then, fire low.”80 When Hamilton saw that Putnam had reneged on his promise, he sent him a letter throbbing with anger. Hamilton cast aside the usual caution of an aide-de-camp and delivered a tongue-lashing to a veteran officer more than twice his age:
Sir, I cannot forbear confessing that I am astonished. And alarmed beyond measure to find that all his Excellency’s views have been hitherto frustrated and that no single step of those I mentioned to you has been taken to afford him the aid he absolutely stands in need of and by delaying which the cause of America is put to the utmost conceivable hazard…. My expressions may perhaps have more warmth than is altogether proper. But they proceed from the overflowing of my heart in a matter where I conceive this continent essentially interested.81
Hamilton had to issue direct orders to Putnam to send all of his Continental Army troops (that is, minus state militias) to Washington immediately. The fault was not entirely Putnam’s, however, for the two brigades had not been paid in months and, mutinously, refused to march.
Having gone out on a limb, Hamilton expressed great trepidation in his reports to Washington that he might have exceeded his authority. It was therefore deeply gratifying when Washington sent him an unqualified endorsement of his work: “I approve entirely of all the steps you have taken and have only to wish that the exertions of those you have had to deal with had kept pace with your zeal and good intentions.”82 As in Philadelphia in September, Washington had given his wunderkind huge autonomy, and the gamble had paid off handsomely. The young aide-decamp was revealed as a forceful personality in his own right, not just a proxy for the general. For Hamilton, his encounters with the two obdurate generals strengthened his preference for strict hierarchy and centralized command as the only way to accomplish things—a view that was to find its political equivalent in his preference for concentrated federal power instead of authority dispersed among the states.
The frantic rides up and down the Hudson damaged Hamilton’s always fragile health. On November 12, he wrote to Washington from New Windsor to explain his delay in returning: “I have been detained here these two days by a fever and violent rheumatic pains throughout my body.”83 Despite his illness, Hamilton continued to direct the movement of troops slated to join Washington and went downriver to Peekskill to apply maximum pressure on Putnam’s brigades. There, in late November, a haggard Hamilton climbed into bed at the home of Dennis Kennedy. It seemed uncertain whether he would recover. In a letter to Governor Clinton, CaptainI. Gibbs wrote that he feared that the combined fevers and chills might prove mortal. On November 25, he reported that Hamilton “seemed to have all the appearance of drawing nigh his last, being seized with a coldness in his extremities, and he remained so for a space of two hours, then survived.” On November 27, when the chill again invaded his legs from feet to knees, the attending physician thought he wouldn’t last. However, “he remained in this situation for near four hours, after which the fever abated very much and from that time he has been getting much better.” Hamilton had been so blistering in dealing with General Gates that not everyone welcomed his recovery. On December 5, Colonel Hugh Hughes wrote to his friend General Gates, “Colonel Hamilton, who has been very ill of a nervous disorder at Peekskill, is out of danger, unless it be from his own sweet temper.”84
Right before Christmas, Hamilton set out to rejoin Washington, only to collapse again near Morristown. He was taken back in a hired coach for further rest in Peekskill, where he was nourished on a hearty diet of mutton, oranges, potatoes, quail, and partridge. Not until January 20, 1778, did Hamilton rejoin his colleagues at winter quarters in Valley Forge, near Philadelphia—a bleak place that could scarcely have elevated the spirits of the convalescing colonel.
Such was the inimitable luster of Horatio Gates after Saratoga that it was whispered in certain quarters that he ought to supplant Washington as commander in chief. The unhappiness with Washington was understandable. His military performance in New York and Philadelphia had been lackluster, and his setbacks at Brandywine and Germantown were fresher in people’s memories than his spirited raids at Trenton and Princeton. The rivalry between Washington and Gates mirrored a political split in Congress. John and Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and others who wanted tighter congressional control over the war were sympathetic to Gates. In his diary that fall, John Adams had expressed dismay over Washington’s generalship: “Oh, Heaven! grant us one great soul!…One active, masterly capacity would bring order out of this confusion and save this country.”85 Though he did not endorse Gates outright, Adams fretted that idolatry of Washington might end in military rule, and he was glad when the Saratoga victory cast something of a cloud over the commander in chief. Meanwhile, John Jay, Robert R. Livingston, Robert Morris, and other conservatives wanted to invest great executive power in the commander in chief and stood solidly arrayed behind Washington.
One of Gates’s avid partisans was a moody Irishman named Thomas Conway, who had been educated in France, had served in the French Army, and had joined the Continental Army that spring. Hamilton made no secret of his contempt for the new brigadier general: “There does not exist a more villainous calumniator or incendiary,” he wrote.86 Conway aired freely to Gates his low opinion of General Washington’s military talents and wrote to him after Saratoga, “Heaven has been determined to save your country or a weak general and bad counsellors would have ruined it.”87 Gates did not muzzle such treacherous talk. When a copy of this letter came into Washington’s possession in November, he sent Gates a terse, angry note, quoting the line that referred to him and demanding an explanation.
Caught red-handed, Gates tried to deflect attention from his own disloyalty by searching out the culprit who had leaked the letter to Washington. His colleague Major James Wilkinson floated the idea that the conduit had been Robert Troup. Gates, recalling his testy exchanges with Hamilton, decided that Washington’s young aide was the blackguard. “Colonel Hamilton was left alone an hour in this room,” he told Wilkinson “during which time he took Conway’s letter out of that closet and copied it and the copy has been furnished to Washington.” Gates now embarked on a vendetta against Hamilton, still at this time recuperating in Peekskill. Gates said that he had adopted a plan “which would compel General Washington to give [Hamilton] up” so that “the receiver and the thief would be alike disgraced.”88
On December 8, Gates wrote a tactless letter to Washington with a thinly veiled accusation against Hamilton. “I conjure your excellency to give me all the assistance you can in tracing out the author of the infidelity which put extracts from General Conway’s letters to me into your hands. Those letters have been stealingly copied,” Gates informed Washington, stating that it was in his power to “do me and the United States a very important service by detecting a wretch who may betray me and capitally injure the very operations under your immediate direction.”89
It turned out that Hamilton was blameless and that the source of the disclosure was the raffish James Wilkinson, who had fingered Troup and Hamilton. While carrying dispatches to Congress, Wilkinson—a flamboyant character with an incurable weakness for liquor, intrigue, and bombast—had paused for alcoholic refreshment in Reading, Pennsylvania, and told an aide to Lord Stirling about the Conway letter to Gates. Lord Stirling then relayed the news to his friend Washington. Hamilton never forgot Gates’s attempt to blacken his reputation: “I am his enemy personally,” he wrote two years later, “for unjust and unprovoked attacks upon my character.”90
Whether an actual conspiracy—the so-called Conway Cabal—ever existed with an explicit intention to displace Washington has long been fodder for historians. There was clearly some movement afoot, a loose network of critics, who wanted to replace Washington with Gates, even if they never entered into a formal pact. At first, it looked as if the cabal might succeed. In late November, Congress had appointed Horatio Gates president of the Board of War, which acquired new powers to supervise Washington. In mid-December, over Washington’s protest, Conway was promoted to inspector general. Hamilton now believed that malevolent conspirators menaced Washington. “Since I saw you,” he wrote to George Clinton, “I have discovered such convincing traits of the monster that I cannot doubt its reality in the most extensive sense.”91
Countervailing forces had already begun to rein in the Conway conspirators. In early January 1778, Hamilton’s dear friend John Laurens alerted his father to a design against Washington. Henry Laurens, now president of Congress, assured his son, “I will attend to all their movements and have set my face against every wicked attempt, however specious.”92 In the last analysis, Washington’s popularity was unassailable, and the blatant scheming of his foes only solidified his reputation for integrity. By April 1778, Congress gladly accepted Conway’s resignation as inspector general; Horatio Gates gradually lost his reputation on the battlefield. In the aftermath of the cabal, both Conway and Gates faced challenges to duels. James Wilkinson turned on his mentor and challenged Gates, but when the latter broke down and cried apologetically, the duel was called off. Because Conway persisted in maligning Washington, he was summoned to the dueling ground by General John Cadwalader, who fired a ball through Conway’s mouth that came out the back of his head. Cadwalader showed no regret. “I have stopped the damned rascal’s lying tongue at any rate,” he observed as his opponent lay in agony on the ground.93 Somehow, Conway managed to survive, but his career in the Continental Army was definitely over.