Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 6. A FRENZY OF VALOR
When Hamilton, debilitated from illness, rejoined his comrades at Valley Forge in January 1778, he must have shuddered at the mud and log huts and the slovenly state of the men who shivered around the campfires. There was a dearth of gunpowder, tents, uniforms, and blankets. Hideous sights abounded: snow stained with blood from bare, bruised feet; the carcasses of hundreds of decomposing horses; troops gaunt from smallpox, typhus, and scurvy. Washington’s staff was not exempt from the misery and had to bolt down cornmeal mush for breakfast. “For some days past there has been little less than a famine in the camp,” Washington said in mid-February. Before winter’s end, some 2,500 men, almost a quarter of the army, perished from disease, famine, or the cold.1 To endure such suffering required stoicism reminiscent of the ancient Romans, so Washington had his favorite play, Addison’s Cato, the story of a self-sacrificing Roman statesman, staged at Valley Forge to buck up his weary men.
That winter, Hamilton worked alongside Washington in the stone house of Isaac Potts, whose iron forge gave the area its name. Snappish and depressed over the Conway Cabal and unsettled by the wretched state of his men, Washington was more temperamental than usual. “The General is well but much worn with fatigue and anxiety,” Martha Washington told a friend. “I never knew him to be so anxious as now.”2 Washington sometimes vented his rage at Hamilton, and tensions crept into their relationship. Hamilton yearned for a field command, but Washington could not afford to sacrifice his most valuable aide. It was Hamilton, after all, who wrote many of the pointed pleas to Congress asking for urgently needed provisions, and the young aide shared Washington’s frustration. “For God’s sake, my dear sir,” Hamilton wrote to one colonel when authorizing him to collect wagons, “exert yourself upon this occasion. Our distress is infinite.”3
Hamilton began to meditate on the deeper causes of the surrounding misery. Because the colonies had been forced to rely on England for textiles, the patriots lacked clothing. Because the colonies had relied on England for munitions, they lacked weapons. Hamilton also saw in graphic terms the inflationary dangers of printing too much paper money. Forced to accept at face value the depreciated paper issued by Congress and the states, farmers and merchants balked at selling food and clothing to the army and often ended up hawking their wares instead to the well-fed, well-clad redcoats carousing in Philadelphia. The situation at Valley Forge was scandalous: American soldiers were starving in the midst of fertile American farmland. Hamilton was also sickened by the bungling Commissary Department. He wrote to New York governor George Clinton in mid-February:
At this very day, there are complaints from the whole line of having been three or four days without provisions. Desertions have been immense and strong features of mutiny begin to show themselves. It is indeed to be wondered at that the soldiers have manifested so unparalleled a degree of patience as they have. If effectual measures are not speedily adopted, I know not how we shall keep the army together or make another campaign.4
Hamilton cast a critical eye on the whole revolutionary effort. However upset by profiteering, he knew that the central weakness of the continental cause was political in nature. In his letter to Clinton, he scoffed at the rank favoritism shown by Congress in showering promotions on “every petty rascal who comes armed with ostentatious pretensions of military merit and experience.”5 Unable to enforce its requests for money and troops, an impotent Congress was reduced to begging from the states, which selfishly hoarded soldiers for their own home guards. The only way the Continental Army could lure soldiers was through expensive cash bounties and promises of future land. The republican partiality for state militias in lieu of a strong central army threatened to undermine the entire Revolution.
The disillusioned Hamilton also struggled to fathom why a Congress that had once boasted such distinguished figures was now glutted with mediocrities. Where had the competent members gone? Hamilton concluded that the talent had been drained off by state governments. “However important it is to give form and efficiency to your interior [i.e., state] constitutions and police,” he told Clinton, “it is infinitely more important to have a wise general council…. You should not beggar the councils of the United States to enrich the administration of the several members.”6 Such statements presaged Hamilton’s later nationalism. Ironically, George Clinton became his bête noire, exemplifying the very parochial state power against which he inveighed.
Hamilton, just turned twenty-three, was already spouting civics lessons to state governors. His views were also solicited by his commander in chief. When Washington had to report to a congressional committee about a proposed army reorganization, he sought his aide’s advice, and Hamilton enumerated a long list of abuses to be curbed. He urged that officers who overstayed their furloughs by ten days be court-martialed, recommended surprise inspections to keep sentries alert, and even prescribed the manner in which they should sleep: “Every man must have his haversack under his head and, if the post is dangerous, his arms in his hand.” Hamilton also displayed an unbending sense of military discipline and seemed something of a martinet. Any dragoon who allowed another person to ride his horse without first notifying the inspector general should “receive one hundred lashes for such neglect.”7
That Hamilton already contemplated America’s political future was evident in March, when Washington assigned him to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the British. Having already questioned many British and Hessian deserters, Hamilton was a natural choice for the job and was joined by his former Elizabethtown mentor, Elias Boudinot, now the commissary general of prisoners. Some in Congress not only opposed negotiations but wanted them to fail so that Britain could be blamed. Shocked by this duplicity, Hamilton wrote to George Clinton, “It is thought to be bad policy to go into an exchange. But admitting this to be true, it is much worse policy to commit such frequent breaches of faith and ruin our national character.”8 Hamilton saw America’s essential nature being forged in the throes of battle, and that made honest action imperative.
Shortly after Hamilton penned his report on army reorganization, a Prussian soldier with a drooping face and ample double chin appeared at Valley Forge. He billed himself as a German baron and acted the part with almost comical pomposity. Although the baron and the honorific “von” were likely fictitious, Frederick William August von Steuben came from a military family and had served as an aide to Frederick the Great. He came to America at his own expense and waived all pay unless the patriots triumphed. Washington appointed him a provisional inspector general, with a mandate to instill discipline in the army. Since Steuben’s English was tentative at best, he relied on French as his lingua franca, bringing him into immediate contact with the bilingual Hamilton and John Laurens, who acted as interpreters. Though Steuben was forty-eight and Hamilton twenty-three, they became fast friends, united by French and their fondness for military lore and service.
Soon Steuben was strutting around Valley Forge, teaching the amateur troops to march in formation, load muskets, and fix bayonets and sprinkling his orders with colorful goddamns and plentiful polyglot expletives that endeared him to the troops. Wrote one young private: “Never before or since have I had such an impression of the ancient fabled god of war as when I looked on the baron. He seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.”9 Steuben overhauled the army’s drill manual or “Blue Book” and created a training guide for company commanders, with Hamilton often recruited as editor and translator. Hamilton eyed the drillmaster with wry affection. “The Baron is a gentleman for whom I have a particular esteem,” Hamilton said, though he chided his “fondness for power and importance.”10 He never doubted that Steuben had worked wonders for the élan of the Continental Army. “’Tis unquestionably [due] to his efforts [that] we are indebted for the introduction of discipline in the army,” he later told John Jay.11 On May 5, 1778, Steuben was recognized for his superlative efforts and awarded the rank of major general.
During the winter encampments, Hamilton constantly educated himself, as if equipping his mind for the larger tasks ahead. “Force of intellect and force of will were the sources of his success,” Henry Cabot Lodge later wrote.12From his days as an artillery captain, Hamilton had kept a pay book with blank pages in the back; while on Washington’s staff, he filled up 112 pages with notes from his extracurricular reading. Hamilton fit the type of the self-improving autodidact, employing all his spare time to better himself. He aspired to the eighteenth-century aristocratic ideal of the versatile man conversant in every area of knowledge. Thanks to his pay book we know that he read a considerable amount of philosophy, including Bacon, Hobbes, Montaigne, and Cicero. He also perused histories of Greece, Prussia, and France. This was hardly light fare after a day of demanding correspondence for Washington, yet he retained the information and applied it to profitable use. While other Americans dreamed of a brand-new society that would expunge all traces of effete European civilization, Hamilton humbly studied those societies for clues to the formation of a new government. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton never saw the creation of America as a magical leap across a chasm to an entirely new landscape, and he always thought the New World had much to learn from the Old.
Probably the first book that Hamilton absorbed was Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, a learned almanac of politics, economics, and geography that was crammed with articles about taxes, public debt, money, and banking. The dictionary took the form of two ponderous, folio-sized volumes, and it is touching to think of young Hamilton lugging them through the chaos of war. Hamilton would praise Postlethwayt as one of “the ablest masters of political arithmetic.”13 A proponent of manufacturing, Postlethwayt gave the aide-decamp a glimpse of a mixed economy in which government would both steer business activity and free individual energies. In the pay book one can see the future treasury wizard mastering the rudiments of finance. “When you can get more of foreign coin, [the] coin for your native exchange is said to be high and the reverse low,” Hamilton noted.14 He also stocked his mind with basic information about the world: “The continent of Europe is 2600 miles long and 2800 miles broad”;15 “Prague is the principal city of Bohemia, the principal part of the commerce of which is carried on by the Jews.”16 He recorded tables from Postlethwayt showing infant-mortality rates, population growth, foreign-exchange rates, trade balances, and the total economic output of assorted nations. Hamilton’s notes from Postlethwayt showcase his exemplary discipline in undertaking private courses of study.
Like the other founding fathers, Hamilton rummaged through the wisdom of antiquity for political precedents. From the First Philippic of Demosthenes, he plucked a passage that summed up his conception of a leader as someone who would not pander to popular whims. “As a general marches at the head of his troops,” so should wise politicians “march at the head of affairs, insomuch that they ought not to wait the event to know what measures to take, but the measures which they have taken ought to produce the event.”17 Nearly fifty-one pages of the pay book contain extracts from a six-volume set of Plutarch’s Lives. Thereafter, Hamilton always interpreted politics as an epic tale from Plutarch of lust and greed and people plotting for power. Since his political theory was rooted in his study of human nature, he took special delight in Plutarch’s biographical sketches. And he carefully noted the creation of senates, priesthoods, and other elite bodies that governed the lives of the people. Hamilton was already interested in the checks and balances that enabled a government to tread a middle path between despotism and anarchy. From the life of Lycurgus, he noted:
Among the many alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and most important was the establishment of the senate, which having a power equal to the kings in matters of consequence did…foster and qualify the imperious and fiery genius of monarchy by constantly restraining it within the bounds of equity and moderation. For the state before had no firm basis to stand upon, leaning sometimes towards an absolute monarchy and sometimes towards a pure democracy. But this establishment of the senate was to the commonwealth what the ballast is to a ship and preserved the whole in a just equilibrium.18
Hamilton was especially attentive to the amorous stories and strange sexual customs reported by Plutarch. He registered in the pay book how in ancient Rome two naked young noblemen whipped young married women during the celebration of Lupercalia and “how the young married women were glad of this kind of whipping as they imagined it helped conception.”19 Hamilton was also intrigued that Lycurgus allowed a worthy man to ask permission of another husband to impregnate his wife, so that “by planting in a good soil he might raise a generous progeny to possess all the valuable qualifications of their parents.”20 This same Lycurgus tried to make the married women “more robust and capable of vigorous offspring” by allowing selected virgins and young men to “go naked and dance in their presence at certain festive occasions.”21
For anyone studying Hamilton’s pay book, it would come as no surprise that he would someday emerge as a first-rate constitutional scholar, an unsurpassed treasury secretary, and the protagonist of the first great sex scandal in American political history.
Restless at his desk, Hamilton longed to spring into combat, and he found a dramatic chance to do so in June 1778. The direction of the war had shifted in February when the French, heartened by the victory at Saratoga, decided to recognize American independence and signed military and commercial treaties with the fledgling nation. An ebullient John Adams spoke for many Americans when he exulted that Great Britain “is no longer mistress of the ocean.”22
As part of their response to French entry into the war, the British replaced General Howe with Sir Henry Clinton as commander of their forces. Hamilton had been unimpressed by Howe’s leadership. “All that the English need to have done was to blockade our ports with twenty-five frigates and ten ships of the line,” Hamilton told a French visitor. “But, thank God, they did nothing of the sort.”23 If anything, he was even less dazzled by General Clinton. One day, Henry Lee broached to Washington an ingenious plan for kidnapping Clinton, who was quartered in a house on Broadway in New York. He had a large garden out back, overlooking the Hudson River, where he napped in a small pavilion each afternoon. Lee wanted to sneak men across the Hudson at low tide and snatch Clinton as he dozed. Hamilton spiked the plan with a cogent objection, telling Washington that if Clinton was taken prisoner “it would be our misfortune, since the British government could not find another commander so incompetent to send in his place.”24
When General Clinton learned in mid-June that a French fleet had sailed for America, he feared that it might team up with the Continental Army and entrap his occupation force in Philadelphia. To avert this, he decided to evacuate the city and concentrate his troops in the more easily defensible New York. This meant that a huge British army of nine thousand men, laden with provisions filling fifteen hundred wagons—the baggage train stretched for twelve miles—would need to troop across New Jersey with perilous slowness. With supply lines stretched dangerously thin, these lumbering British forces would be exposed to the fire of the Continental Army. Washington saw an opportunity to score a telling blow against a vulnerable adversary and highlight the gains made by his men at Valley Forge under Steuben’s vigorous stewardship.
Washington had survived the Conway Cabal only to have his authority challenged by General Charles Lee, an experienced officer who had been captured by the British in a tavern in late 1776 and had only recently been released after a fifteen-month captivity. Lee was a thin, quarrelsome, eccentric bachelor who spoke four foreign languages, had lost two fingers in an Italian duel, and traveled everywhere with his pack of dogs at his heels. He had briefly married an Indian woman, leading the Mohawks to nickname him, with good reason, Boiling Water. He was a talented but impossibly temperamental man who believed devoutly in his own military genius. Arrogant and indiscreet, he told Elias Boudinot that “General Washington was not fit to command a sergeant’s guard.”25 He also ridiculed efforts made by Steuben and Hamilton to bring professional order to the army.
On June 24, 1778, Washington convened a council of war to debate whether to pounce on the retreating British Army. Hamilton took minutes. The opinionated Lee immediately poured scorn on Washington’s plan, saying the Americans would be trounced by the superior Europeans and that it was foolhardy to court trouble when the French were soon to arrive. Hamilton—who dismissed Lee as “a driveler in the business of soldiership or something much worse”—writhed quietly.26 To his astonishment, the officers agreed with Lee’s views and in a manner, scoffed Hamilton, that “would have done honor to the most honorable society of midwives.”27 Washington preferred to operate by consensus, but he decided to override this vote and give orders to strike at the enemy “if fair opportunity offered.”28 Lee refused to serve as second in command for what he deemed a misguided maneuver. Only after Washington called his bluff and assigned the position to Lafayette did Lee back down and consent to ride out and take command of the advancing forces.
For the next few days, Hamilton, as a liaison officer to Lafayette, was constantly in motion, riding through muggy nights to reconnoiter enemy lines and convey intelligence among the officers. By the night of June 27, the British were encamped near Monmouth Court House in Freehold, New Jersey, with Lee and his soldiers lying only six miles away. Washington ordered Lee to attack in the early morning “unless there should be very powerful reasons to the contrary.”29 Washington, three miles farther back, would then bring up the rear with the army’s main contingent. Hamilton drafted Washington’s directive to Lee that night, telling the latter to “skirmish with [the enemy] so as to produce some delay and give time for the rest of the troops to come up.”30
June 28, 1778, was to be an unforgettable day because of, among other things, the stifling heat. The thermometer reached the high nineties, and some soldiers rode naked from the waist up. During this day, horses and riders alike expired from heat prostration. The battle was supposed to start with Lee taking on the British rear guard. After hearing small-arms fire that morning, Hamilton was sent ahead by Washington to scout Lee’s movements, and he was stunned by the tumult he found: far from engaging the enemy, as directed, Lee’s men were in a full-blown retreat. Not a word of this had been communicated to Washington. Hamilton rode up to Lee and shouted, “I will stay here with you, my dear general, and die with you! Let us all die rather than retreat!”31 Once again the young aide did not hesitate to talk to a general as a peer. Hamilton also spotted a threatening movement by a British cavalry unit and prevailed upon Lee to order Lafayette to charge them.
When Washington got wind of the chaotic flight of his troops, he galloped up to Lee, glowered at him, and demanded, “What is the meaning of this, sir? I desire to know the meaning of this disorder and confusion!”
Lee took umbrage at the peremptory tone. “The American troops would not stand the British bayonets,” he replied.
To which Washington retorted, “You damned poltroon, you never tried them!”32 Washington did not ordinarily use profanities, but, faced with Lee’s insubordination that morning, he swore “till the leaves shook on the trees,” said one general.33
America’s idolatry of George Washington may have truly begun at the battle of Monmouth. One of America’s most accomplished horsemen, Washington at first rode a white charger, given to him by William Livingston, now governor of New Jersey, in honor of his recrossing of the Delaware. This beautiful horse dropped dead from the heat, and Washington instantly switched to a chestnut mare. By sheer force of will, he stopped the retreating soldiers, rallied them, then reversed them. “Stand fast, my boys, and receive your enemy,” he shouted. “The southern troops are advancing to support you.”34 Washington’s steady presence had a sedative effect on the flying men. He summarily ordered Lee to the rear and goaded the troops into driving the British from the field. As he watched this legendary performance, Lafayette thought to himself, “Never had I beheld so superb a man.”35
Hamilton, not prone to hero worship, was awed by Washington’s unflinching courage and incomparable self-command. “I never saw the general to so much advantage,” he told Elias Boudinot. “His coolness and firmness were admirable. He instantly took maneuvers for checking the enemy’s advance and giving time for the army, which was very near, to form and make a proper disposition…. By his own good sense and fortitude he turned the fate of the day…. [H]e directed the whole with the skill of a master workman.”36
Hamilton’s bravery likewise left an enduring image. Famished for combat, he was in “a sort of frenzy of valor,” Lee contended.37 He seemed ubiquitous on the battlefield. When Hamilton found one brigade in retreat and feared the loss of its artillery, he ordered them to line up along a fence and then charge with fixed bayonets. Riding hatless in the sunny field, Hamilton was exhausted from the heat by the time his horse was shot out from under him. He toppled over, badly injured, and had to retire from the field. Aaron Burr and John Laurens also had horses shot from under them that day. So severe was Burr’s sunstroke that it rendered him effectively unfit for further combat duty in the Revolution. Suffering from violent headaches, nausea, and exhaustion and probably irked by his lack of promotion under Washington, Burr took a temporary leave of absence in October.
Many people were struck by Hamilton’s behavior at Monmouth, which showed more than mere courage. There was an element of ecstatic defiance, an indifference toward danger, that reflected his youthful fantasies of an illustrious death in battle. One aide said that Hamilton had shown “singular proofs of bravery” and appeared “to court death under our doubtful circumstances and triumphed over it.”38 John Adams later said that General Henry Knox told him stories of Hamilton’s “heat and effervescence” at Monmouth.39 At moments of supreme stress, Hamilton could screw himself up to an emotional pitch that was nearly feverish in intensity.
The battle of Monmouth was not an outright victory for the patriots, and the British Army escaped intact the next day. Most observers termed it a draw. Still, the ragtag continentals had killed or wounded more than one thousand troops—four times the number of American casualties—proving to naysayers that they could perform admirably against tip-top European soldiers. “Our troops, after the first impulse from mismanagement, behaved with more spirit and moved with greater order than the British troops,” Hamilton rejoiced. “I assure you I never was pleased with them before this day.”40 Enraged that Lee had fumbled a tremendous opportunity, Hamilton applauded Washington when he arrested Lee for disobeying orders and making a shameful retreat. Hamilton was an eager witness against Lee during a court-martial that took place at New Brunswick in July under Lord Stirling’s supervision. “Whatever a court-martial may decide,” Hamilton warned Elias Boudinot, “I shall continue to believe and say his conduct was monstrous and unpardonable.”41 Among Charles Lee’s sympathizers was Aaron Burr, who missed no chance to belittle Washington’s military talents.
On July 4 and 13, Hamilton gave damaging testimony at the court-martial, recalling that Lee had taken no measures to stop the enemy’s advance, even after being told to do so by Washington. He told of troops fleeing in wild disorder and of Lee’s failure to notify Washington of this retreat. In a dramatic finale, Lee cross-examined Hamilton and accused him of having expressed in the field a contrary opinion of his conduct. “I did not,” rejoined Hamilton. “I said something to you in the field expressive of an opinion that there appeared in you no want of that degree of self-possession, which proceeds from a want of personal intrepidity.” Hamilton further informed the general that there had appeared in him “a certain hurry of spirits, which may proceed from a temper not so calm and steady as is necessary to support a man in such critical circumstances.”42 It was a curious clash indeed: the youthful aide pontificating to a veteran general on the ideal mental state of a field commander.
In the end, Charles Lee was found guilty on all counts but given a relatively lenient sentence: suspension from the army for one year. In October, the disgraced general assured Burr that he planned “to resign my commission, retire to Virginia, and learn to hoe tobacco.”43 But he did not let matters drop there, and he and his minions continued to vilify Washington and even Hamilton for having testified in the court-martial. In late November, Hamilton encountered Major John Skey Eustace, a worshipful young aide-de-camp to Lee and almost his adopted son. Hamilton tried to approach him in a conciliatory manner, even though Eustace was telling people that Hamilton had perjured himself in the court-martial. Eustace later described to General Lee his encounter with Hamilton:
[Hamilton] advanced towards me, on my entering the room, with presented hand—I took no notice of his polite intention, but sat down without bowing to him…. He then asked me if I was come from camp—I said, shortly, no,without the usual application of Sir, rose from my chair—left the room and him standing before the chair. I could not treat him much more rudely—I’ve reported my suspicions of his veracity on the trial so often that I expect the son of a bitch will challenge me when he comes.44
In early December, Lee heaped further abuse upon Washington in print, and John Laurens urged Hamilton to rebut it. “The pen of Junius is in your hand and I think you will, without difficulty, expose…such a tissue of falsehood and inconsistency as will satisfy the world and put him forever to silence.”45 Perhaps because he was a party to the dispute, Hamilton, in a rare act of reticence, declined to lift his pen. Instead, Laurens challenged Lee to a duel to avenge the slurs against Washington. Hamilton agreed to serve as his second, the first of many such “affairs of honor” in which he participated.
Dueling was so prevalent in the Continental Army that one French visitor declared, “The rage for dueling here has reached an incredible and scandalous point.”46 It was a way that gentlemen could defend their sense of honor: instead of resorting to courts if insulted, they repaired to the dueling ground. This anachronistic practice expressed a craving for rank and distinction that lurked beneath the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution. Always insecure about his status in the world, Hamilton was a natural adherent to dueling, with its patrician overtones. Lacking a fortune or family connections, he guarded his reputation jealously throughout his life, and affairs of honor were often his preferred method for doing so. The man born without honor placed a premium on maintaining his.
Late in the wintry afternoon of December 23, 1778, Hamilton accompanied John Laurens to the duel in a wood outside Philadelphia. Lee chose for his second Major Evan Edwards. By prearranged rules, Laurens and Lee strode toward each other and fired their pistols when they stood five or six paces apart. After Laurens shot Lee in the right side, Laurens, Hamilton, and Edwards rushed toward the general, who waved them away and requested a second round of fire. Neither Hamilton nor Edwards wanted Lee to continue, as they made clear in a joint account they issued the next day. “Col. Hamilton observed that unless the General was influenced by motives of personal enmity, he did not think the affair ought to be pursued any further. But as General Lee seemed to persist in desiring it, he was too tender of his friend’s honor to persist in opposing it.”47 But no second round ensued. The duel ended with Lee declaring that he “esteemed General Washington” as a man and had never spoken of him in the abusive manner alleged.48 For Laurens, this made sufficient amends, and the four men quit the woods. In their summary, Hamilton and Edwards praised the conduct of the two principals as “strongly marked with all the politeness, generosity, coolness, and firmness that ought to characterize a transaction of this nature.”49
How was Hamilton affected by his first duel? He saw two gentlemen who had exhibited exemplary behavior and fought for ideals rather than just personal animosity. The object had not been to kill the other person so much as to resolve honorably a lingering dispute. Both Laurens and Lee walked away with their dignity more or less intact. Dueling may well have struck the young Hamilton less as a barbaric relic of a feudal age than as a noble affirmation of high honor. It was the last act of Charles Lee’s military career. He withdrew from the scene and lived in seclusion with his beloved dogs, first in Virginia and then in Philadelphia, where he died of tuberculosis in October 1782.
One possible reason that Hamilton refrained from attacking Charles Lee in print that autumn was that he had just administered a stern rebuke to Maryland congressman Samuel Chase. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and later a Supreme Court justice, Chase was a tall, ungainly man with a resemblance to Dr. Samuel Johnson and a face so broad and ruddy that he was dubbed “Bacon Face.” He could be overbearing and blustered his way into controversies throughout his career.
Hamilton had published anonymous diatribes against Chase after noticing that the price of flour needed by the newly arrived French fleet had more than doubled. He claimed that Chase had leaked knowledge of a secret congressional plan to buy up flour for the French to his associates, who then cornered the market. To expose Chase, Hamilton resumed his acquaintance with New-York Journal publisher John Holt, who now printed a newspaper from Poughkeepsie during the British occupation of New York.
Using the pen name “Publius”—a lifelong favorite—Hamilton castigated Chase in three long letters in Holt’s paper between October and November 1778. Chase didn’t know the author was an adjutant to Washington. These essays belie the later caricature of Hamilton as a reflexive apologist for business, an uncritical exponent of the profit motive. After pointing to the punishment inflicted on traitors to the patriotic cause, he noted that “the conduct of another class, equally criminal, and, if possible, more mischievous has hitherto passed with that impunity…. I mean that tribe who…have carried the spirit of monopoly and extortion to an excess which scarcely admits of a parallel. When avarice takes the lead in a state, it is commonly the forerunner of its fall. How shocking is it to discover among ourselves, even at this early period, the strongest symptoms of this fatal disease?”50
The first “Publius” letter pointed out that greed can corrupt a state and that a public official who betrays his trust “ought to feel the utmost rigor of public resentment and be detested as a traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind.”51 In the second letter, Hamilton lapsed into gratuitous calumny against Chase. “Had you not struck out a new line of prostitution for yourself, you might still have remained unnoticed and contemptible,” he hectored Chase. “It is your lot to have the peculiar privilege of being universally despised.”52 In the third letter, Hamilton gave a possible clue to his overwrought style: he was already thinking ahead. “The station of a member of C[ongre]ss is the most illustrious and important of any I am able to conceive. He is to be regarded not only as a legislator but as the founder of an empire.”53 Hamilton expected that someday the struggling confederation of states would be welded into a mighty nation, and he believed that every step now taken by politicians would reverberate by example far into the future.
It was fitting that Hamilton should have mused about America’s future greatness in the fall of 1778, for the struggle with the British had expanded into a sweeping transatlantic conflict. Spain had entered the war on the colonial side after failing to regain control of Gibraltar from England. France had also decided to wage war on Britain for reasons having to do less with ideological solidarity with America—it scarcely behooved Louis XVI to encourage revolts against royal authority—than with a desire to subvert Britain and even the score after losing the French and Indian War. The French also sought better access to Caribbean sugar islands and North American ports. This early lesson in Realpolitik—that countries follow their interests, not their sympathies—was engraved in Hamilton’s memory, and he often reminded Jeffersonians later on that the French had fought for their own selfish purposes. “The primary motives of France for the assistance which she gave us was obviously to enfeeble a hated and powerful rival by breaking in pieces the British Empire,” he wrote nearly two decades later. “He must be a fool who can be credulous enough to believe that a despotic court aided a popular revolution from regard to liberty or friendship to the principles of such a revolution.”54
According to his King’s College classmate Nicholas Fish, Hamilton had a direct hand in prodding Lafayette to advocate bringing a French army to America. Before Admiral Jean Baptiste d’Estaing came with his fleet in July 1778, Hamilton played on Lafayette’s vanity by touting the merits of having a French ground force with Lafayette as its commander. “The United States are under infinite obligations to [Lafayette] beyond what is known,” Hamilton told Fish later, “not only for his valour and good conduct as major general of our army, but for his good offices and influence in our behalf with the court of France. The French army now here…would not have been in this country but through his means.”55
Hamilton was posted to greet Admiral d’Estaing aboard his majestic flagship and became a frequent emissary to the French. He often served as interpreter for Washington, who did not speak the language and considered himself too old to learn. Hamilton also provided impeccable translations of diplomatic correspondence into French, with just the right dash of high-flown language. In this manner, the alliance with France further enhanced Hamilton’s stature in the Continental Army.
Many French radicals who flocked to the Revolution were descended from nobility and were enchanted by Hamilton’s social grace, ready humor, and erudition. J. P. Brissot de Warville recalled Hamilton as “firm and…decided[,]…frank and martial” and later had him named an honorary member of the French National Assembly.56 The marquis de Chastellux marveled that such a young man “by a prudence and secrecy still more beyond his age than his information justified the confidence with which he was honored” by Washington.57 The duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt observed of Hamilton, “He united with dignity and feeling, and much force and decision, delightful manners, great sweetness, and was infinitely agreeable.”58 At the same time, the duke noticed that some things were so blindingly self-evident to Hamilton that he was baffled when others didn’t grasp them quickly—an intellectual agility that could breed intolerance for less quick-witted mortals.
Though Hamilton was adored by the French officers in their royal blue-and-scarlet uniforms, he also nursed grievances against them. Familiarity bred contempt along with affection. Hamilton deplored many French aristocrats as vainglorious self-promoters who wanted to snatch a particle of fame from the Revolution and parlay it into a superior rank at home. He had to endure in silence insults from them about incompetent continentals. “The French volunteers, generally speaking, were men of ordinary talents and skills in the military arts,” remarked Robert Troup, “and yet most of them were so conceited as to suppose themselves Caesars or Hannibals in comparison with the American officers.”59
The self-made Hamilton was offended by favoritism shown toward the French, a situation that demoralized many in the continental ranks who fought at considerable personal sacrifice. “Congress in the beginning went upon a very injudicious plan with respect to Frenchmen,” he informed one friend. “To every adventurer that came without even the shadow of credentials they gave the rank of field officers.”60 It often fell to Hamilton to smooth ruffled feelings between the allies, as when he arbitrated an early dispute between General John Sullivan and Admiral d’Estaing.
It was the bane of Hamilton’s service that he had to draft numerous letters to Congress, requesting promotions for undeserving Frenchmen. If Congress spurned these requests, then he had to apply balm to the wounded suitors through oily compliments. Hamilton once told John Jay that he wrote these letters to shield Washington from the inevitable resentment of rejected Frenchmen. In private, nobody railed more against the preferential treatment of French aristocrats than Hamilton, who was later so freely branded an “aristocrat” by rivals. At the same time, he saw that an aristocratic class could contain progressive members and that republican wisdom wasn’t a monopoly held by mechanics and tradesmen.
Though Hamilton often regarded the French allies as a royal nuisance, he never denied the decisive nature of their intervention. From the start, they had smuggled weapons and supplies to the patriots. Many were also fine soldiers, and Hamilton later paid tribute to the “ardent, impetuous, and military genius of the French.”61 By the spring of 1779, he could say categorically of these sometimes trying allies, “Their friendship is the pillar of our security.”62
The status-conscious Hamilton was also sensitive to perceived inequities among Washington’s staff, even when it pertained to his closest friend, John Laurens. In November 1778, just before Henry Laurens stepped down as its president, Congress tried to promote John Laurens to lieutenant colonel as a reward for valorous conduct. Laurens declined but accepted the offer when it was renewed in March 1779.
Hamilton didn’t urge Laurens to reject the commission, but he was dismayed nonetheless. “The only thing I see wrong in the affair is this,” Hamilton wrote to his friend. “Congress by their conduct…appear to have intended to confer a privilege, an honor, a mark of distinction…which they withhold from other gentlemen in the [military] family. This carries with it an air of preference, which, though we can all truly say we love your character and admire your military merit, cannot fail to give some of us uneasy sensations.”63
Hamilton and Laurens shared an idealism about the Revolution that yoked them tightly together. They were both unwavering abolitionists who saw emancipation of the slaves as an inseparable part of the struggle for freedom as well as a source of badly needed manpower. “I think that we Americans, at least in the Southern col[onie]s, cannot contend with a good grace for liberty until we shall have enfranchised our slaves,” Laurens told a friend right before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.64 This represented a courageous stand for the son of a very significant South Carolina slaveholder. From the time he joined Washington’s family, Laurens unabashedly championed a plan in which slaves would earn their freedom by joining the Continental Army. (About five thousand blacks eventually did serve alongside the patriots, though they were frequently relegated to noncombat situations; short of soldiers, Rhode Island raised a black regiment in 1778 by promising slaves their freedom.) Laurens offered more than lip service to his scheme, telling his father that he was willing to take his inheritance in the form of a black battalion, freed and equipped to defend South Carolina.
At the end of the year, Laurens’s proposal acquired increased urgency as the British redirected their military operations southward, hoping to rouse Loyalist sympathies. By January 1779, they had captured both Savannah and Augusta and threatened South Carolina. Laurens resigned from Washington’s family and returned to defend his home state, stopping in Philadelphia to solicit congressional approval for two to four black battalions for the Continental Army. Hamilton drafted an eloquent, supportive letter for his friend to deliver to John Jay, who had succeeded Henry Laurens as president of Congress. In the letter, Hamilton plainly revealed what he thought of the slave system that had surrounded him since birth: “I have not the least doubt that the negroes will make very excellent soldiers with proper management and I will venture to pronounce that they cannot be put in bettter hands than those of Mr. Laurens.” Hamilton brushed aside the fallacies that slaves were not smart enough to turn into soldiers and were genetically inferior: “This is so far from appearing to me a valid objection that I think their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours) joined to that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life of servitude will make them sooner become soldiers than our white inhabitants.”
In a typical Hamiltonian manner, he placed political realism at the service of a larger ethical framework, stressing that both humanity and self-interest argued for the Laurens proposal:
The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain by opening a door to their emancipation.65
Unfortunately, despite a supportive congressional resolution, Laurens’s battle in the South Carolina legislature to enact his program proved futile. South Carolina had a special stake in the slave trade, with Charleston acting as the largest port of entry for slaves arriving in North America. As in many places, planters lived in dread of slave insurrections, constantly inspected slave quarters for concealed weapons, and sometimes themselves refused to serve in the Continental Army out of fear that in their absence their slaves might rise up and massacre their families.
The northern states were not about to override their southern brethren on the slavery issue. All along, the American Revolution had been premised on a tacit bargain that regional conflicts would be subordinated to the need for unity among the states. This understanding dictated that slavery would remain a taboo subject. There was also the ticklish matter that many slave owners had joined the Revolution precisely to retain slavery. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves willing to defend the Crown—an action that sent many panicky slaveholders stampeding into the patriot camp. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Samuel Johnson protested from London.66 Horace Walpole echoed this sentiment: “I should think the souls of the Africans would sit heavily on the swords of the Americans.”67
Many on the patriot side recognized the hypocrisy of the American position. Even before the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams had bewailed the situation: “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me—to fight for ourselves for what we are robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”68 And yet, to the everlasting disgrace of the rebel colonists, it was General Sir Henry Clinton in June 1779 who promised freedom to runaway slaves defecting to the British side. The defeat of the Laurens plan left Hamilton utterly dejected. “I wish its success,” he wrote to Laurens later in the year, “but my hopes are very feeble. Prejudice and private interest will be antagonists too powerful for public spirit and public good.”69
After Laurens despaired of securing legislative action on his proposal, he turned to military service in South Carolina under Brigadier General William Moultrie. He was so fearless yet foolhardy in one rearguard action—without authority, he led his men across an exposed river position and suffered heavy casualties—that Moultrie later called Laurens “a young man of great merit and a brave soldier, but an imprudent officer. He was too rash and impetuous.”70 A story, perhaps apocryphal, says that when the British subsequently besieged Moultrie and his men at Charleston, Laurens vowed to run his sword through the first civilian who proposed surrendering the city and further refused to carry terms of capitulation to the enemy.
During Laurens’s southern sojourn, Hamilton wrote to him some of the most personally revealing letters of his life. He knew the south was endangered by the British and that atrocities were being committed on both sides. Perhaps he wondered whether he would ever see his friend again. In one April 1779 letter, Hamilton expressed such open affection for Laurens that an early editor, presumably Hamilton’s son, crossed out some of the words and scrawled across the top, “I must not publish the whole of this.” Besides fondness for Laurens, the letter shows how much Hamilton, scarred by his past, was afraid to entrust his emotional security to anyone:
Cold in my professions, warm in friendships, I wish, my dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power by action rather than words [to] convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that till you bade us adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You s[hould] not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste[al] into my affections without my consent.71
Other letters that Hamilton wrote to Laurens betray the tone of a jealous, lovesick young man who was quick to chide his friend for failing to write frequently enough. “I have written you five or six letters since you left Philadelphia and I should have written you more had you made proper return,” Hamilton wrote to Laurens in September. “But, like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued.”72
Many things beyond the absence of Laurens troubled Hamilton that summer, especially the shortsighted failure of the states to grant mandatory taxing power to Congress in the Articles of Confederation, which had been approved as the new nation’s governing charter on November 15, 1777, and submitted to the states for ratification. As a result, Congress had resorted to flimsy financial expedients—borrowing and printing reams of paper money—that were fast destroying America’s credit. The paper currency was depreciating rapidly. Hence, for the first time, Hamilton began to fiddle with ideas for creating a national bank, through a mixture of foreign loans and private subscriptions.
Hamilton may have been more vocal in his criticism of Congress than he realized. In early July, he received a letter from a Lieutenant Colonel John Brooks, who reported derogatory comments that Congressman Francis Dana made about Hamilton at a Philadelphia coffeehouse. According to Brooks, Dana quoted Hamilton as saying “that it was high time for the people to rise, join General Washington, and turn Congress out of doors. To render this account in the highest degree improbable, he further observed that Mr. Hamilton could be no ways interested in the defence of this country and, therefore, was most likely to pursue such a line of conduct as his great ambition dictated.”73 These charges set an early pattern for future Hamilton controversies. People would assume that Hamilton, as an “outsider” or “foreigner,” could not possibly be motivated by patriotic impulses. Hence, he must be power mad and governed by a secret agenda. In response, Hamilton would display a deep insecurity that he normally kept well hidden behind his confident demeanor. If struck, he tended to hit back hard.
Within days, Hamilton wrote to Dana and demanded either a retraction of the story or disclosure of its source. He intimated that he would demand a duel if the charges had actually been made, noting that “they are [of] so personal and illiberal a complexion as will oblige me to make them the subject of a very different kind of discussion from the present at some convenient season.”74 After a lengthy correspondence, Hamilton traced the rumor back to a critic of Washington named William Gordon, a Congregational minister in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts. At first, Gordon pretended that he was merely repeating the story. He would name the source, he said, if Hamilton promised not to challenge him to a duel, a practice Gordon said he opposed on religious grounds. Even though Hamilton had served as a second for Laurens in the Charles Lee duel and had hinted at his own readiness to duel in the current matter, he told Gordon:
It often happens that our zeal is at variance with our understanding. Had it not been for this, you might have recollected that we do not now live in the days of chivalry and you would have judged your precautions, on the subject of duelling at least, useless. The good sense of the present times has happily found out that to prove your own innocence, or the malice of an accuser, the worst method you can take is to run him through the body or shoot him through the head. And permit me to add, that while you felt an aversion to duelling, on the principles of religion, you ought, in charity, to have supposed others possessed of the same scruples—of whose impiety you had no proofs.75
Aware that it clashed with his religious beliefs, Hamilton always retained some nagging reservations about dueling, which became more pronounced in later years. Hamilton never met Gordon on the field of honor, even though he did finally identify him as the source of the libel. Throughout the fall, he plied Gordon with combative letters, saying that he could not possibly have made the statements about Congress attributed to him. Yet Hamilton had been sniping at congressional ineptitude all year, and he may well have said something critical of Congress that was either misconstrued by his enemies or reported faithfully.
That September, Hamilton sent Laurens a letter that showed him steeped in inconsolable gloom. He told Laurens that he still yearned for the success of his virtuous scheme for black battalions but worried that private greed, indolence, and public corruption would undermine this good work. “Every [hope] of this kind my friend is an idle dream,” he warned Laurens in a despairing tone that was to crop up throughout his life. He added, “There is no virtue [in] America. That commerce which preside[d over] the birth and education of these states has [fitted] their inhabitants for the chain and…the only condition they sincerely desire is that it may be a golden one.”76
What a dark, weary view for a twenty-four-year-old fighting for glorious ideals. It was to be a recurring paradox of Hamilton’s career that he grew enraged when accused of being an outsider and then sounded, in response, very much like the outsider evoked by his critics. The virulent charges made against him sometimes alienated him from his adopted country, leaving him feeling that perhaps his critics had a point after all.