Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 7. THE LOVESICK COLONEL
The American Revolution unfolded in a leisurely enough manner to allow Hamilton a fairly rich social life amid the grim necessities of war. With a young man’s need for diversion, he continued to flirt with the fashionable ladies who stopped by army headquarters—not for nothing did Martha Washington nickname her large, lascivious tomcat “Hamilton”—and they warmed to his high spirits, savoir faire, and dancing ability. The Continental Army had a sizable following of “camp ladies,” and John Marshall was scandalized by the open debauchery that he encountered when visiting the army that September: “Never was I a witness to such a scene of lewdness,” he complained to a friend.1
Hamilton once told a friend that a soldier should have no wife other than the military, yet he began to contemplate marriage in the spring of 1779, following the growing alliance with France, which improved the prospects of American victory. He knew that once the war ended, he had no family. That April, Hamilton composed a long letter to John Laurens, outlining his requirements for a wife. Probably from childhood experience, he thought that most marriages were unhappy, and he dreaded making the wrong choice. Parts of his letter were sophomoric, with Hamilton making bawdy references to the size of his nose—jocular eighteenth-century shorthand for his penis—but much of it was thoughtful, showing that Hamilton had given serious consideration to the elements of a stable marriage.
She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape), sensible (a little learning will do), well-bred (but she must have an aversion to the word ton), chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness), of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist). In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of; I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion, a moderate streak will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention to this article in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to purgatory for my avarice, yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world—as I have not much of my own and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry—it must needs be that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.2
In describing his ideal wife, Hamilton sketches something of a self-portrait as he tries to strike a balance between worldliness and morality. He frankly admits to a desire for money yet is not a slave to greed. A believer in conventional morality and marital fidelity, he nevertheless hates a prig. He likes religion in moderation. Clearly, he dislikes fanaticism and sanctimony. And instead of a sex goddess or a nubile coquette—types that had always titillated him—he opts for a solid, sensible, reasonably attractive wife.
When Washington took his troops to winter headquarters at Morristown that December, Hamilton had extra time to dwell on his future plans. Washington and his staff occupied the mansion of the late Judge Jacob Ford, a stately white house with green trim. Hamilton worked in a log office annexed to the mansion and slept in an upstairs bedroom with Tench Tilghman and James McHenry. The elements conspired against the Continental Army that winter, said to be the most frigid of the century. In New York Bay, the ice froze so thick that the British Army was able to wheel heavy artillery across it. Twenty-eight snowstorms pounded the Morristown headquarters, including a January blizzard that lasted three days, piling snow in six-foot-high banks.
For Washington, it was the war’s nadir, a winter even more depressing than the one at Valley Forge. The snowstorms shut off roads and blocked provisions, leading to looting among troops freezing in log huts. Men mutinied and deserted in large numbers. On January 5, 1780, Washington sent Congress a dreary account: “Many of the [men] have been four or five days without meat entirely and short of bread and none but on very scanty supplies. Some for their preservation have been compelled to maraud and rob from the inhabitants and I have it not in my power to punish or repress the practice.”3 These problems were compounded by the structural inability of Congress to tax the states or establish public credit. The memories of Valley Forge and Morristown would powerfully affect the future political agendas of both Washington and Hamilton, who had to grapple with the defects of a weak central government.
In January, when Washington didn’t allow Hamilton to join Laurens for a combat command in the south, Hamilton tumbled into the darkness of depression. “I am chagrined and unhappy, but I submit,” he wrote to Laurens. “In short, Laurens, I am disgusted with everything in this world but yourself and very few more honest fellows and I have no other wish than as soon as possible to make a brilliant exit. ’Tis a weakness, but I feel I am not fit for this terrestrial country.”4 It was not the first time that Hamilton had glancingly alluded to suicide or emigration or suggested that he was miscast on the American scene.
Salvation, it turned out, was at hand, as the Morristown winter proved unexpectedly sociable. The marquis de Chastellux remembered one convivial dinner with George Washington at which the lively Hamilton doled out food, refilled glasses, and proposed gallant toasts. Sleighing parties full of pretty young women succeeded in crossing the snowdrifts to attend receptions. Hamilton subscribed to “dancing assemblies”—fancy-dress balls attended by chief officers—held at a nearby storehouse. Washington, in a black velvet suit, danced and cut a dashing figure with the ladies, while Steuben flashed with medals, and French officers glistened with gold braid and lace. In this anomalous setting, the women courted these revolutionaries in powdered hair and high heels. To the vast amusement of Washington’s family, Hamilton was infatuated that January with a young woman named Cornelia Lott. Colonel Samuel B. Webb even wrote a humorous verse, mocking how the young conqueror had himself been conquered: “Now [Hamilton] feels the inexorable dart / And yields Cornelia all his heart!”5 The fickle Hamilton soon moved on to a young woman named Polly.
On February 2, 1780, hard on the heels of Cornelia and Polly, Elizabeth Schuyler arrived in Morristown, accompanied by a military escort, to stay with relatives. She carried introductory letters to Washington and Steuben—“one of the most gallant men in the camp”—from her father, General Philip Schuyler.6 The general’s sister, Gertrude, had married a well-established physician, Dr. John Cochran, who had moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to have a safe, pleasant spot to inoculate people against smallpox. Not only was Cochran an excellent doctor—he also traveled with the army as Washington’s personal physician, and Lafayette had dubbed him “good doctor Bones”—but he was later appointed director general of the army’s medical department. During the winter encampment at Morristown, Cochran and his wife stayed at the neat white house of their friend Dr. Jabez Campfield, a quarter mile down the road from Washington’s headquarters. So Schuyler found herself in close proximity to her future husband.
Hamilton’s place on Washington’s staff enabled him to socialize with Eliza Schuyler on equal terms. He had already met her on his flying visit to Albany in 1777 when he coaxed General Horatio Gates into surrendering troops to Washington. Even without this prior meeting, Hamilton would have met Schuyler because she came with their mutual friend, Kitty Livingston, long a favorite object of flirtation with Hamilton. Hamilton, twenty-five, was instantly smitten with Schuyler, twenty-two. Fellow aide Tench Tilghman reported: “Hamilton is a gone man.”7 Pretty soon, Hamilton was a constant visitor at the two-story Campfield residence, spending every evening there. Everyone noticed that the young colonel was starry-eyed and distracted. Although a touch absentminded, Hamilton ordinarily had a faultless memory, but, returning from Schuyler one night, he forgot the password and was barred by the sentinel. “The soldier-lover was embarrassed,” recalled Gabriel Ford, then fourteen, the son of Judge Ford. “The sentinel knew him well, but was stern in the performance of his duty. Hamilton pressed his hand to his forehead and tried to summon the important words from their hiding-place, but, like the faithful sentinel, they were immovable.”8 Ford took pity on Hamilton and supplied the password.
By the time Hamilton left Morristown in early March to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the British in Amboy, New Jersey—scarcely more than a month after the courtship began—he and Schuyler had decided to wed. Hamilton must have been struck by the coincidence that his paternal grandfather, Alexander Hamilton, had also married an Elizabeth who was the daughter of a rich, illustrious man.
For Hamilton, Eliza formed part of a beautiful package labeled “the Schuyler Family,” and he spared no effort over time to ingratiate himself with the three sons (John Bradstreet, Philip Jeremiah, and Rensselaer) and five daughters (Angelica, Eliza, Margarita, Cornelia, and the as yet unborn Catherine). The daughters in particular—all smart, beautiful, gregarious, and rich—must have been the stuff of fantasy for Hamilton. Each played a different musical instrument, and they collectively charmed and delighted all visitors to the Schuyler mansion in Albany. After spending a week with the family in April 1776, Benjamin Franklin expressed pleasure “with the ease and affability with which we were treated and the lively behaviour of the young ladies.”9 Tench Tilghman was likewise captivated: “There is something in the behavior of the gen[eral], his lady, and daughters that makes one acquainted with them instantly. I feel easy and free from restraint at his seat.”10 The daughters had enough spunky independence that four of the five eventually eloped, Eliza being the significant exception. Cornelia enacted the most colorful escape, later stealing off with a young man named Washington Morton by climbing down a rope ladder from her bedroom and fleeing in a waiting coach.
With fairy-tale suddenness, the orphaned Hamilton had annexed a gigantic and prosperous clan. After seeing pictures of Eliza’s younger sister Margarita (always called Peggy), he sent her a long, rambling letter in which he poured out his love for her older sister:
I venture to tell you in confidence that by some odd contrivance or other your sister has found out the secret of interesting me in everything that concerns her…. She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty. Her good sense is destitute of that happy mixture of vanity and ostentation which would make it conspicuous to the whole tribe of fools and foplings…. She has good nature, affability, and vivacity unembellished with that charming frivolousness which is justly deemed one of the principal accomplishments of a belle. In short, she is so strange a creature that she possesses all the beauties, virtues, and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects which…are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman.11
In this letter, Hamilton endows Schuyler with traits exactly consistent with the list he had prepared for John Laurens ten months earlier: she was handsome, sensible, good-natured, and free from vanity or affectation. And since she was the daughter of one of New York’s wealthiest, most powerful men, Hamilton would not have to choose between love and money.
Born on August 9, 1757, Elizabeth Schuyler—whom Hamilton called either Eliza or Betsey—remains invisible in most biographies of her husband and was certainly the most self-effacing “founding mother,” doing everything in her power to focus the spotlight exclusively on her husband. Her absence from the pantheon of early American figures is unfortunate, since she was a woman of sterling character. Beneath an animated, engaging facade, she was loyal, generous, compassionate, strong willed, funny, and courageous. Short and pretty, she was utterly devoid of conceit and was to prove an ideal companion for Hamilton, lending a strong home foundation to his turbulent life. His letters to her reflected not a single moment of pique, irritation, or disappointment.
Everybody sang Eliza’s praises. “A brunette with the most good-natured, lively dark eyes that I ever saw, which threw a beam of good temper and benevolence over her whole countenance,” Tench Tilghman wrote in his journal.12She was no pampered heiress. An athletic woman and a stout walker, she moved with a determined spring in her step. On one picnic excursion, Tilghman watched her laughingly clamber up a steep hillside while less plucky girls required male assistance. The marquis de Chastellux liked her “mild agreeable countenance,” while Brissot de Warville credited her with being “a delightful woman who combines both the charms and attractions and the candor and simplicity typical of American womanhood.”13 Like others, James McHenry sensed intense passion throbbing beneath her restraint; she could be impulsive. “Hers was a strong character with its depth and warmth, whether of feeling or temper controlled, but glowing underneath, bursting through at times in some emphatic expression.”14
In 1787, Ralph Earl painted a perceptive portrait of Eliza Hamilton. It shows her with strikingly alert black eyes—the feature that most attracted Hamilton—that glowed with inner strength. She flaunts one of the powdered bouffant hairdos so popular among society women at the time—what one of her friends called her “Marie Antoinette coiffure.”15 Her gaze is frank and open, as if she were ready to chat amiably with the viewer. Beneath her white silk taffeta dress, she has a shapely body but not a delicate femininity. Her makeup is so understated as to be scarcely noticeable. She seems robust and energetic, and one can imagine her having been a tomboy. All in all, she seems a cheerful, modest soul, blessed with gumption.
Schuyler’s unassuming character is plain in her own admiring description of Martha Washington, whom she met at Morristown that winter:
She received us so kindly, kissing us both, for the general and papa were very warm friends. She was then nearly fifty years old, but was still handsome. She was quite short: a plump little woman with dark brown eyes, her hair a little frosty, and very plainly dressed for such a grand lady as I considered her. She wore a plain, brown gown of homespun stuff, a large white handkerchief, a neat cap, and her plain gold wedding ring, which she had worn for more than twenty years. She was always my ideal of a true woman.16
As soon as Schuyler arrived in Morristown, she gave Martha Washington a pair of cuffs as a gift, and the latter reciprocated with some powder. In time, the relationship between Schuyler and the older woman ripened into something akin to a mother-daughter bond.
Schuyler had received some tutoring but little formal schooling. Her spelling was poor, and she didn’t write with the fluency of other Schuylers. One doesn’t imagine her dipping into Hume or Hobbes or the weighty philosophers regularly consulted by her husband. On the other hand, as the daughter of a soldier and statesman, she was well versed in public affairs and had been exposed to many political luminaries. At thirteen, she accompanied her father to a conclave of chiefs of the Six Nations at Saratoga and received an Indian name meaning “One-of-us.”17 She had been taught backgammon by none other than Ben Franklin in April 1776 when he visited General Schuyler en route to his diplomatic mission to Canada. Like Hamilton, Eliza was avidly interested in the world around her.
One intriguing question about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton concerns their religious beliefs. An active member of the Dutch Reformed Church, Schuyler was a woman of such indomitable Christian faith that Tench Tilghman called her “the little saint” in one letter. Washington’s staff was slightly taken aback that the rakish Hamilton chose this pious wife.18 Hamilton had been devout when younger, but he seemed more skeptical about organized religion during the Revolution. Soon after meeting Schuyler, he wrote a letter of recommendation for a military parson, Dr. Mendy. “He is just what I should like for a military parson except that he does not whore or drink,” Hamilton said. “He will fight and he will not insist upon your going to heaven, whether you will or not.”19 Eliza never doubted her husband’s faith and always treasured his sonnet “The Soul Ascending into Bliss,” written on St. Croix. On the other hand, Hamilton refrained from a formal church affiliation despite his wife’s steadfast religiosity.
Hamilton wooed Schuyler that winter with all the verbal resources at his disposal. He even composed a romantic sonnet entitled “Answer to the Inquiry Why I Sighed.” Its couplets included these lines: “Before no mortal ever knew / A love like mine so tender, true…No joy unmixed my bosom warms / But when my angel’s in my arms.”20 Though Schuyler knew that Hamilton was a figure of awesome intelligence, he won her more with his kindly nature than with his intellect. She was to recollect fondly one of his favorite sayings: “My dear Eliza[,]…I have a good head, but thank God he has given me a good heart.”21 In later years, when harvesting anecdotes about her husband, Eliza Hamilton gave correspondents a list of his qualities that she wanted to illustrate, and it sums up her view of his multiple talents: “Elasticity of his mind. Variety of his knowledge. Playfulness of his wit. Excellence of his heart. His immense forbearance [and] virtues.”22
When he wrote to John Laurens on March 30, 1780, Hamilton neglected to mention either Schuyler or his abrupt decision to marry her—a curious lack of candor. Then, on June 30, he broke down and confessed all to his friend: “I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good-hearted girl who, I am sure, will never play the termagant. Though not a genius, she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes, is rather handsome, and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy.” Hamilton knew that he sounded less than enraptured and that Laurens might suspect him of marrying Schuyler for her money, so he continued, “And believe me, I am [a] lover in earnest, though I do not speak of the perfections of my mistress in the enthusiasm of chivalry.”23 Lest Laurens experience a jealous pang, Hamilton added a few months later: “In spite of Schuyler’s black eyes, I have still a part for the public and another for you,” and he promised he would be no less devoted to his friend after marriage than before.24
Hamilton delighted in the company of all the Schuyler sisters. Eliza’s younger sister Peggy was very beautiful but vain and supercilious. She married Stephen Van Rensselaer, six years her junior, the eighth patroon of Rensselaerswyck and the largest landowner in New York State. Starting with that first winter in Morristown, Hamilton was drawn almost magnetically to Eliza’s married older sister, Angelica, and spent the rest of his life beguiled by both Eliza and Angelica, calling them “my dear brunettes.”25 Together, the two eldest sisters formed a composite portrait of Hamilton’s ideal woman, each appealing to a different facet of his personality. Eliza reflected Hamilton’s earnest sense of purpose, determination, and moral rectitude, while Angelica exhibited his worldly side—the wit, charm, and vivacity that so delighted people in social intercourse.
The attraction between Hamilton and Angelica was so potent and obvious that many people assumed they were lovers. At the very least, theirs was a friendship of unusual ardor, and it seems plausible that Hamilton would have proposed to Angelica, not Eliza, if the older sister had been eligible. Angelica was more Hamilton’s counterpart than Eliza. James McHenry once wrote to Hamilton that Angelica “charms in all companies. No one has seen her, of either sex, who has not been pleased with her and she pleased everyone, chiefly by means of those qualities which made you the husband of her sister.”26
John Trumbull’s portrait of Angelica shows a fetching woman with a long, pale face, dark eyes, and a pretty, full-lipped mouth who is voguishly dressed and looks more sophisticated than Eliza. Angelica had a more mysterious femininity than her sister, the kind that often exerts a powerful hold on the male imagination. A playful seductress, she loved to engage in repartee, discuss books, strum the guitar, and talk about current affairs. She was to serve as muse to some of the smartest politicians of her day, including Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and, most of all, Hamilton. Angelica was one of the few American women of her generation as comfortable in a European drawing room as in a Hudson River parlor, and there was a gossipy irreverence about her that seemed very European. Unlike Eliza, she learned to speak perfect French. Where Eliza bowed reluctantly to the social demands of Hamilton’s career, Angelica applauded his ambitions and was always famished for news of his latest political exploits.
For the next twenty-four years, Angelica expressed open fondness for Hamilton in virtually every letter that she sent to her sister or to Hamilton himself. Hamilton always wrote to her in a buoyant, flirtatious tone. Especially as his mind grew burdened with affairs of state, Angelica provided an outlet for his boyish side. To Eliza he wrote tenderly and lovingly, but seldom in the arch voice of gallantry. It is hard to escape the impression that Hamilton’s married life was sometimes a curious ménage à trois with two sisters who were only one year apart. Angelica must have sensed that her incessant adoration of Hamilton, far from annoying or threatening her beloved younger sister, filled her with ecstatic pride. Their shared love for Hamilton seemed to deepen their sisterly bond. Ironically, Eliza’s special attachment to Angelica gave Hamilton a cover for expressing affection for Angelica that would certainly have been forbidden with other women.
For a daring woman drawn to intellectual men, Angelica made a strange choice in marrying John Barker Church, a short man with shining eyes and thick lips who only grew fatter with the years. In 1776, he had been sent to Albany by Congress to audit the books of the army’s Northern Department, then commanded by General Schuyler. While there, he managed both to woo Angelica and antagonize her father. John B. Church was then using the pseudonym of John B. Carter, and Schuyler scented something suspicious. Schuyler’s instincts proved correct: Church had changed his name and fled to America, possibly after a duel with a Tory politician in London; some accounts have him on the lam from creditors after a bankruptcy brought on by gambling and stock speculation. Knowing that he would be denied parental consent, Church eloped with Angelica in 1777, and the Schuylers were predictably incensed.
Church amassed fantastic wealth during the Revolution. “Mr. Carter is the mere man of business,” James McHenry told Hamilton, “and I am informed has riches enough, with common management, to make the longest life comfortable.”27 He and his business partner, Jeremiah Wadsworth, negotiated lucrative contracts to sell supplies to the French and American forces. Hamilton spoke highly of Church as “a man of fortune and integrity, of strong mind, very exact, very active, and very much a man of business.”28 Yet Church’s letters present a cold businessman, devoid of warmth or humor. Very involved in politics, he could be tactless in expressing his opinions. One observer remembered him as “revengeful and false” after General Howe burned several American villages and towns. Church said he wanted to cut off the heads of the British generals and to “pickle them and to put them in small barrels, and as often as the English should again burn a village, to send them one [of] these barrels.”29 He lacked the intellectual breadth and civic commitment that made Hamilton so compelling to Angelica. On the other hand, he provided Angelica with the opulent, high-society life that she apparently craved.
Hamilton’s relationship with his father-in-law was to be an especially happy part of his marriage to Eliza Schuyler. Tall and slim, with a raspy voice and bulbous nose, Philip Schuyler, forty-six, was already hobbled by rheumatic gout when he arrived in Morristown that April to investigate army reform as chairman of a congressional committee. It is testimony to Hamilton’s gifts that he was readily embraced by someone with Schuyler’s rigid sense of social hierarchy. “Be indulgent, my child, to your inferiors,” Schuyler once advised his son John, “affable and courteous to your equals, respectful not cringing to your superiors, whether they are so by superior mental abilities or those necessary distinctions which society has established.”30 Yet this same status-conscious man enjoyed an instant rapport with the illegitimate young West Indian. Both Hamilton and Schuyler spoke French, were well-read, appreciated military discipline, and had a common interest in business and internal-development schemes, such as canals. They also shared a common loyalty to Washington and impatience with congressional incompetence, even though Schuyler was a member of the Continental Congress.
Descended from an early Dutch settler who arrived in New York in 1650 (the surname may have been German), Schuyler was counted among those Hudson River squires who presided over huge tracts of land and ruled state politics. The Schuylers had intermarried with the families of many patroons or manor lords. Philip Schuyler’s mother was a Van Cortlandt. His elegant Georgian brick mansion, the Pastures, sat on an Albany hilltop, surrounded by eighty acres dotted with barns, slave quarters, and a smokehouse. The enterprising Schuyler also built a two-story house on the fringe of the Saratoga wilderness, where he created an industrial village with four water-power mills, a smithy, and storehouses that employed hundreds of people. (It evolved into the village of Schuylerville.) In all, this Schuyler estate extended for three miles along the Hudson, encompassing somewhere between ten and twenty thousand acres. As if this were not enough, Philip Schuyler had married Catherine Van Rensselaer, an heiress to the 120,000-acre Claverack estate in Columbia County.
The image of Philip Schuyler varied drastically depending upon the observer. His enemies viewed him as cold, arrogant, and petulant when people crossed him or when his pride was offended. Alexander Graydon left this unpleasant vignette of a Schuyler dinner during the Revolution: “A New England captain came in upon some business with that abject servility of manner which belongs to persons of the meanest rank. He was neither asked to sit or take a glass of wine, and after announcing his wants, was dismissed with that peevishness of tone we apply to a low and vexatious intruder.”31 Graydon admitted, however, that the man might have forced his way into Schuyler’s presence.
Schuyler’s friends, in contrast, found him courteous and debonair, a model of etiquette, and very amiable in mixed company. He could behave magnanimously toward his social peers. During the battle of Saratoga, General Burgoyne burned Schuyler’s house and most other buildings on his property for military reasons. When, after the surrender, Burgoyne apologized, Schuyler replied graciously that his conduct had been justified by the rules of war and that he would have done the same in his place. Baroness Riedesel, the wife of the Hessian commander Major General Friedrich von Riedesel, also recalled Schuyler’s chivalry after the Saratoga debacle: “When I drew near the tents, a good looking man advanced towards me and helped the children from the calash and kissed and caressed them. He then offered me his arm and tears trembled in his eyes.”32 Schuyler invited the baroness, the defeated Burgoyne, and his twenty-member entourage to stay in his Albany mansion and furnished them with excellent dinners for days. At the time, Schuyler did not yet realize that Burgoyne’s destruction of his Saratoga estate had dealt a crippling blow to his finances.
Hamilton knew that Schuyler could be a strict father to his sometimes rambunctious daughters and that John Barker Church had been ostracized for not obeying protocol in marrying Angelica. So while Hamilton negotiated a prisoner exchange, he patiently awaited the Schuylers’ consent for their daughter’s hand. In the meantime, he relished Eliza’s letters. “I cannot tell you what ecstasy I felt in casting my eye over the sweet effusions of tenderness it contains,” he said of one mid-March letter. “My Betsey’s soul speaks in every line and bids me be the happiest of mortals. I am so and will be so.”33
On April 8, 1780, Philip Schuyler sent Hamilton a businesslike letter, saying he had discussed the marriage proposal with Mrs. Schuyler, and they had accepted it. Hamilton was overjoyed. A few days later, he wrote to Mrs. Schuyler and thanked her for accepting his proposal, making sure to lay on the flattery with a trowel: “May I hope, madam, you will not consider it as a mere profession when I add that, though I have not the happiness of a personal acquaintance with you, I am no stranger to the qualities which distinguish your character and these make the relation in which I stand to you not one of the least pleasing circumstances of my union with your daughter.”34
General Schuyler had taken a temporary house in Morristown and brought down Mrs. Schuyler from Albany. They stayed until the Continental Army decamped in June. Hamilton visited the Schuylers each evening, and the mutual affection between him and the family waxed steadily. In the end, the Schuylers felt flattered that the ex-clerk from the West Indies had chosen them. Two years later, Philip Schuyler sent Eliza a delighted report on her amazing husband:
Participate afresh in the satisfaction I experience from the connection you have made with my beloved Hamilton. He affords me happiness too exquisite for expression. I daily experience the pleasure of hearing encomiums on his virtue and abilities from those who are capable of distinguishing between real and pretended merit. He is considered, as he certainly is, the ornament of his country.35
The marriage to Eliza Schuyler was another dreamlike turn in the improbable odyssey of Alexander Hamilton, giving him the political support of one of New York’s blue-ribbon families.
Thoughts of both love and money coursed through Hamilton’s brain during that arctic winter in Morristown. The paper currency issued by the Continental Congress continued to sink precipitously in value, as inflation undercut the patriotic cause. During one ghastly period in 1779, the continental dollar shed half its value in three weeks. Silver coins disappeared, driven out by nearly worthless paper money, and state governments were also going broke. In March 1780, Congress tried to restore monetary order by issuing one new dollar in exchange for forty old ones, a move that wiped out the savings of many Americans. The need for financial reform had grown urgent. James Madison worried in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Believe me, sir, as things now stand, if the states do not vigorously proceed in collecting the old money and establishing funds for the credit of the new…we are undone.”36
In his spare time, Hamilton pored over financial treatises. As Washington’s aide, he was not at liberty to issue controversial plans that might jeopardize congressional relations, so he drafted a clandestine letter to an unidentified congressman and outlined a new currency regime. “The present plan,” he started humbly, “is the product of some reading on the subjects of commerce and finance[,]…but a want of leisure has prevented its being examined in so many lights and digested so maturely as its importance requires.”37 If the recipient wished further explanation, Hamilton indicated that “a letter directed to James Montague Esqr., lodged in the post office at Morristown, will be a safe channel for any communications you may think proper to make and an immediate answer will be given.”38 “James Montague” may have been a name devised by Hamilton to cloak his own identity.
Hamilton’s six-thousand-word letter attests to staggering precocity. He saw that inflation had originated with wartime shortages, which had led, in turn, to the waning value of money. Over time, the inflation had acquired a self-reinforcing momentum. Economic fundamentals alone could not account for this inflation, Hamilton noted, detecting a critical psychological factor at work. People were “governed more by passion and prejudice than by an enlightened sense of their interests,” he wrote. “The quantity of money in circulation is certainly a chief cause of its decline. But we find it is depreciated more than five times as much as it ought to be…. The excess is derived from opinion, a want of confidence.”39
How to remedy this want of confidence? Hamilton submitted a twelve-point program, a fully realized vision of a financial system that reflected sustained thinking. Congress should create a central bank, owned half by the government and half by private individuals, that could issue money and make public and private loans. Drawing on European precedents, Hamilton cited the Bank of England and the French Council of Commerce as possible models. Taxes and domestic loans could not finance the war alone, he argued, and he pressed for a foreign loan of two million pounds as the centerpiece of his program: “The necessity of a foreign loan is now greater than ever. Nothing else will retrieve our affairs.”40 He recognized that French and British political power stemmed from those countries’ ability to raise foreign loans in wartime, and this inextricable linkage between military and financial strength informed all of his subsequent thinking.
For Hamilton the American Revolution was a practical workshop of economic and political theory, providing critical object lessons and cautionary tales that charted the course for his career. In May 1780, he had fresh cause to meditate on the failings of Congress when news came of a calamitous defeat: the British had taken Charleston, capturing an American garrison of 5,400 soldiers, including John Laurens. The year 1780 was to be a dismal one for the patriots. In August, Cornwallis inflicted a stinging loss on General Horatio Gates in Camden, South Carolina, killing nine hundred Americans and taking one thousand prisoners. For Hamilton, the terrible drubbings at Charleston and Camden drove home the need for longer enlistment periods and an end to reliance on state militias. He found some consolation in the fact that Gates had fled from Camden in terror, barely containing his glee at this sign of cowardice. “Was there ever an instance of a general running away, as Gates has done, from his whole army?” he gloated to New York congressman James Duane. “One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life.”41 By October, General Nathanael Greene had replaced the disgraced Gates as commander of the Southern Army.
To the setbacks in South Carolina, Hamilton reacted with stoic resignation as well as schadenfreude. “This misfortune affects me less than others,” he told Eliza Schuyler, “because it is not in my temper to repine at evils that are past but to endeavour to draw good out of them, and because I think our safety depends on a total change of system. And this change of system will only be produced by misfortune.”42 He did not mention that he had just rushed off a seven-thousand-word letter to James Duane that showed that the future American government was already fermenting in his hyperactive brain. He now subjected the Articles of Confederation to a searching critique. He thought the sovereignty of the states only enfeebled the union. “The fundamental defect is a want of power in Congress,” he declared. He favored granting Congress supreme power in war, peace, trade, finance, and foreign affairs.43 Instead of bickering congressional boards, he wanted strong executives and endorsed single ministers for war, foreign affairs, finance, and the navy: “There is always more decision, more dispatch, more secrecy, more responsibility where single men than when bodies are concerned. By a plan of this kind, we should blend the advantages of a monarchy and of a republic in a happy and beneficial union.”44 Hamilton was especially intent upon subjecting all military forces to centralized congressional control: “Without a speedy change, the army must dissolve. It is now a mob, rather than an army, without clothing, without pay, without provision, without morals, without discipline.”45 Then, in the most startling, visionary leap of all, Hamilton recommended that a convention be summoned to revise the Articles of Confederation. Seven years before the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton became the first person to propose such a plenary gathering. Where other minds groped in the fog of war, the twenty-five-year-old Hamilton seemed to perceive everything in a sudden flash.
At the end of the letter, Hamilton apologized to Duane for having written down his ideas so hastily. The wonder, of course, is that he had recorded them at all. In mid-July, a French fleet had arrived off Newport, Rhode Island, with an army of 5,500 men commanded by the short, stocky comte de Rochambeau. This was the French army that Hamilton had suggested to Lafayette as necessary to the war effort and that Lafayette had successfully urged at Versailles. As soon as the French arrived, Hamilton was worn down with tremendous duties. Before meeting with Rochambeau at Hartford in late September, Washington asked his aide-de-camp to draw up three scenarios for joint military operations with the French. Hamilton must have been exhausted as he scratched out his long letter to Duane by candelight at day’s end.
One might have thought that Hamilton, despite all the military uncertainty, would feel hopeful about his life. He was effectively Washington’s chief of staff, was soon to be married to Elizabeth Schuyler, and was drafting high-level strategy papers and comprehensive blueprints for government. Yet, underneath his high spirits still lurked the pessimism from his West Indian boyhood, and he sometimes viewed the world with a jaundiced, even misanthropic, eye. Perhaps too much had happened too soon and it had all been disorienting. He was critical of his compatriots. “My dear Laurens,” he had written to his friend that spring, “our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep in their compositions.”46 As he became more outspoken in his views, he discovered his own capacity for making enemies. On September 12, he told Laurens that everybody was angry with him. Some people thought he was “a friend to military pretensions, however exorbitant,” while others chided him for not being militant enough in defending army power: “The truth is I am an unlucky honest man that speaks my sentiments to all and with emphasis. I say this to you because you know it and will not charge me with vanity. I hate congress—I hate the army—I hate the world—I hate myself. The whole is a mass of fools and knaves. I could almost except you and [Richard Kidder] Meade. Adieu. A. Hamilton.”47
Throughout his career, Hamilton had a knack for being present at historic moments; in September 1780, he was eyewitness to the treachery of General Benedict Arnold. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Arnold had started out as a druggist and bookseller and expanded into speculative business ventures. A brave soldier and a student of military history, Arnold had distinguished himself in numerous clashes with the British and was wounded by a musket ball in the winter assault on Quebec. He fought so lustily at Saratoga, where he was injured again, that Hamilton and others had hailed him as the true, unacknowledged hero of the victory. As military governor of Philadelphia during the patriot occupation, however, Arnold was harried by charges of corruption, which he indignantly dismissed as “false, malicious, and scandalous.”48 He was exonerated of all but two minor charges by a court-martial and got off with a reprimand from Washington. Yet by this point, the embittered Arnold, increasingly dubious about American prospects, had decided to engage in treason, relaying secret information about troop movements to the British. After being named the new commandant of West Point, he colluded to deliver plans of the fortifications to the British, making the stronghold vulnerable to attack. In exchange, Arnold was promised money and a high-level appointment in the British Army.
Arnold took up his West Point command during the summer of 1780 and let its defenses fall into disrepair. On the morning of September 25, Washington and a retinue that included Hamilton and Lafayette were passing through the Hudson Valley as they returned from the conference in Hartford with the comte de Rochambeau. They planned to see Arnold and inspect West Point. Hamilton and James McHenry were sent ahead to prepare for Washington’s reception at Arnold’s headquarters in the Beverley Robinson house, a couple of miles downriver from West Point, on the east bank of the Hudson. During breakfast with the two aides, a flustered Arnold received a message indicating that a spy known as “John Anderson” had been seized north of New York City with descriptions of West Point’s defenses tucked into his boot. Hamilton and McHenry were perplexed by Arnold’s sudden agitation. Aghast that his plot had been foiled, Arnold raced upstairs to say good-bye to his wife, then slipped out of the house, hopped onto a barge, and fled downriver toward the British warship Vulture. Not long after, Washington showed up with his officers, noted Arnold’s absence with puzzlement, had breakfast, then rowed across the Hudson for his West Point tour.
Hamilton stayed behind to sort through dispatches and was unnerved by intermittent shrieks from Mrs. Arnold upstairs. When Arnold’s aide, Richard Varick, went up to investigate, he found her in a gauzy morning gown with disheveled hair. “Colonel Varick,” the distraught woman demanded, “have you ordered my child to be killed?”49 She then babbled on incoherently about hot irons being placed on her head. Twenty years younger than her husband, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen came from a Tory family in Philadelphia and had married Benedict Arnold at age eighteen the year before. She was a petite, ringleted blonde with small features and large social ambitions. When Hamilton went upstairs, he found her clutching her baby and accusing everyone in sight of wanting to murder her child.
Late in the afternoon, Washington returned to the house, befuddled by Arnold’s absence from West Point and its negligent defenses. Hamilton gave Washington a thick packet of dispatches, including papers discovered on the captured “John Anderson.” Hamilton then went off to confer with Lafayette. When the two young men returned, they found their usually composed commander fighting back tears. “Arnold has betrayed us.” Washington said with profound emotion. “Whom can we trust now.” 50 He sent Hamilton and McHenry off on horseback, careering down the Hudson for a dozen miles, in the futile hope that they could overtake Arnold before he reached the safety of British lines. They arrived too late: Arnold was already aboard the Vulture and had been whisked off to New York City.
On the spot, Hamilton displayed uncommon self-reliance. Aware that West Point lay in imminent peril, he sent directions to the Sixth Connecticut Regiment to reinforce the fortress. Once again, he did not seem bashful about bossing around generals. “There has been unfolded at this place a scene of the blackest treason,” he wrote to General Nathanael Greene. “I advise you putting the army under marching orders and detaching a brigade immediately this way.”51
Hamilton hurried to Washington a letter just received from Arnold in which he blamed American ingratitude for his betrayal and sought to exonerate his wife: “She is as good and as innocent as an angel and is incapable of doing wrong.”52 Mrs. Arnold was still behaving bizarrely. After Varick ushered Washington into the room, the sobbing woman refused to believe it was the general: “No, that is not General Washington. That is the man who was a-going to assist Colonel Varick in killing my child.”53 Washington sat by the bedside and tried to console the hysterical woman. Washington, Hamilton, and Lafayette were all duped by Peggy Arnold’s command performance. They attributed her sudden raving to grief over her husband’s traitorous behavior. To their gullible minds, this behavior was proof that she must be a blameless victim of Arnold’s perfidy. In fact, she had been privy to the plot, having acted as conduit for some of her husband’s correspondence with the British, and she played her mad scene to perfection.
For all his supposed sophistication about womanly wiles, Hamilton was completely hoodwinked by Mrs. Arnold’s brazen charade. As always, he was hypersensitive to female charms, and well-bred ladies in distress especially brought out his chivalry. In a letter to Eliza that day, one can see how taken Hamilton was with Peggy Arnold:
It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to. She for a considerable time entirely lost her senses…. One moment she raved, another she melted into tears. Sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate, occasioned by the imprudence of its father, in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. All the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her appearance and conduct…. She received us in bed with every circumstance that could interest our sympathy. Her sufferings were so eloquent that I wished myself her brother to have a right to become her defender.54
Hamilton was totally credulous in the face of this designing woman. Instead of being wary in a wartime situation, he converted Peggy Arnold’s situation into a stage romance. His tenderness for an abandoned wife may have owed something to his boyhood sympathy for his mother, and this episode prefigured a still more damaging event in which he evinced misplaced compassion for a seemingly abandoned woman.
Washington issued a passport to Mrs. Arnold that allowed her to return home to Philadelphia. She made a stop in Paramus, New Jersey, where she stayed at the Hermitage, the home of Mrs. Theodosia Prevost, whose husband was a British colonel sent to the West Indies. Once the two women were alone, Mrs. Arnold told her friend how she had made fools of Washington, Hamilton, and the others and that she was tired of the theatrics she had been forced to affect. She expressed disgust with the patriotic cause and told of prodding her husband into the scheme to surrender West Point. The source of this story, printed many years later, was the man who was to be Theodosia Prevost’s next husband: Aaron Burr.
That Hamilton adhered to a code of gentlemanly honor was confirmed in yet another sideshow of the Benedict Arnold affair: the arrest of Major John André, adjutant general of the British Army and Arnold’s contact, traveling under the nom de guerre John Anderson. As he awaited a hearing to decide his fate, he was confined at a tavern in Tappan, New York. Though seven years younger than André, Hamilton developed a sympathy for the prisoner born of admiration and visited him several times. A letter that Hamilton later wrote to Laurens reveals his nearly worshipful attitude toward the elegant, cultured André, who was conversant with poetry, music, and painting. Hamilton identified with André’s misfortune in a personal manner, as if he saw his own worst nightmare embodied in his fate:
To an excellent understanding, well improved by education and travel, [André] united a peculiar elegance of mind and manners and the advantage of a pleasing person…. By his merit, he had acquired the unlimited confidence of his general and was making a rapid progress in military rank and reputation. But in the height of his career, flushed with new hopes from the execution of a project the most beneficial to his party that could be devised, he was at once precipitated from the summit of prosperity and saw all the expectations of his ambition blasted and himself ruined.55
Did Hamilton think that he, too, having attained such eminence, would suddenly plunge headlong back to earth?
The fate of Major André became the subject of a heated dispute between Hamilton and Washington over whether he had acted as a spy or as a liaison officer between the British command and Arnold. This semantic debate had practical significance. If André was a spy, he would hang from the gallows like a common criminal; whereas if he was merely an unlucky officer, he would be shot like a gentleman. Such distinctions mattered both to André and to Hamilton. Hamilton argued that André wasn’t a spy, since he had planned to meet Arnold on neutral territory and was lured by Arnold behind patriotic lines against his intentions. A board of general officers convened by Washington disagreed, ruling that because André had come ashore secretly, assuming a fake name and civilian costume, he had functioned as a spy and should die like one. Washington certified the board’s decision. He was adamant that André’s mission could have doomed the patriotic cause and feared that anything less than summary execution would imply some lack of conviction about his guilt.
It may have been Hamilton who sent a secret letter to Sir Henry Clinton on September 30, proposing a swap of André for Arnold. The author tried to disguise his handwriting and signed the letter “A.B.” (coincidentally, Aaron Burr’s initials). But Clinton had no doubt of its provenance and scrawled across it, “Hamilton, W[ashington] aide de camp, received after A[ndré] death.”56 Clinton refused to consider a trade, which would have meant instant death for Arnold at the hands of vengeful patriots.
The decision to execute Major André was not the only time Hamilton regretted a choice by Washington, yet it was one time when he disagreed openly and consistently. “The death of André could not have been dispensed with,” Hamilton conceded to Major General Henry Knox nearly two years later, “but it must still be viewed at a distance as an act of rigid justice.”57 Hamilton’s dissent betrayed growing frustration with Washington’s inflexibility, frustration that was presently to flare into open rebellion.
Major André faced his end with grace and valor. At five o’clock in the afternoon on the day after the board’s decision, he was led to a hilltop gibbet outside of Tappan. When he saw the gallows, he reeled slightly. “I am reconciled to my death,” he said, “though I detest the mode.”58 Unaided, he mounted a coffin that lay in a wagon drawn up under the scaffold. With great dignity, he tightened the rope around his own neck and blindfolded himself with his own handkerchief. Then the wagon bolted away, leaving André swinging from the rope. He was buried on the spot. Hamilton left a moving if romanticized description of his death:
In going to the place of execution, he bowed familiarly as he went along to all those with whom he had been acquainted in his confinement. A smile of complacency expressed the serene fortitude of his mind…. Upon being told the final moment was at hand and asked if he had anything to say, he answered, “Nothing but to request you will witness to the world that I die like a brave man.”59
Hamilton’s description shows his abiding fascination with a beautiful, noble death. “I am aware that a man of real merit is never seen in so favourable a light as seen through the medium of adversity,” he concluded in his letter to Laurens. “The clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities.”60
Major John André represented some beau ideal for Hamilton. The reverse side of this adulation, however, was a lacerating sense of personal inadequacy that the world seldom saw. However loaded with superabundant talent, Hamilton was a mass of insecurities that he usually kept well hidden. He always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man, the unspoken melancholy of the prodigy, the wounds left by his accursed boyhood. Only to John Laurens and Eliza Schuyler did he confide his fears. Right after André’s death, Hamilton wrote to Schuyler that he wished he had André’s accomplishments.
I do not, my love, affect modesty. I am conscious of [the] advantages I possess. I know I have talents and a good heart, but why am I not handsome? Why have I not every acquirement that can embellish human nature? Why have I not fortune, that I might hereafter have more leisure than I shall have to cultivate those improvements for which I am not entirely unfit?61
It was a peculiar outburst: Hamilton was expressing envy for a man who had just been executed. Only in such passages do we see that Hamilton, for all his phenomenal success in the Continental Army, still felt unlucky and unlovely, still cursed by his past.
During the summer and fall preceding Hamilton’s wedding in December 1780, he sometimes mooned about in a romantic haze, very much the lovesick swain. “Love is a sort of insanity,” he told Schuyler, “and every thing I write savors strongly of it.”62 In frequent letters to “his saucy little charmer,” he reassured her that he thought about her constantly.63 “’Tis a pretty story indeed that I am to be thus monopolized by a little nut brown maid like you and [am] from a soldier metamorphosed into a puny lover.”64 He would steal away from crowds, he told her, and stroll down solitary lanes to swoon over her image. “You are certainly a little sorceress and have bewitched me, for you have made me disrelish everything that used to please me.”65
As the wedding approached, Hamilton succumbed to anxieties about the future, and he sent Schuyler the most candid letters of his life. He was now optimistic about the war and thought the Continental Army, backed by French naval power, might yet snatch victory by year’s end. Should the patriots lose, however, Hamilton suggested that they live in “some other clime more favourable to human rights” and suggested Geneva as a possibility. He then made a confession: “I was once determined to let my existence and American liberty end together. My Betsey has given me a motive to outlive my pride.”66 The sweet, retiring Schuyler would rescue him from the self-destructive fantasies that had long held sway over his imagination.
At the same time, the jittery Hamilton was beset by serious doubts about the wedding. All along, he had saluted Schuyler’s beauty, frankness, tender heart, and good sense. Now he wanted more. “I entreat you, my charmer, not to neglect the charges I gave you, particularly that of taking care of yourself and that of employing all your leisure in reading. Nature has been very kind to you. Do not neglect to cultivate her gifts and to enable yourself to make the distinguished figure in all respects to which you are entitled to aspire.”67 As he tutored Schuyler in self-improvement, there was a Pygmalion dimension to his wishes, but he also worried that her love might cool and scuttle the wedding. In one letter, he related to her a dream he’d had of arriving in Albany and finding her asleep on the grass, with a strange gentleman holding her hand. “As you may imagine,” he wrote, “I reproached him with his presumption and asserted my claim.”68 To his relief, Schuyler in the dream awoke, flew into his arms, and allayed his fears with a convincing kiss.
Those who saw Hamilton as shrewdly marrying into a great fortune would have been surprised that he did not count on the Schuyler money and beseeched Eliza to consider whether she could endure a more austere life. Referring to the subscription fund set up by his St. Croix sponsors, he lamented the “knavery” of those managing his money. “They have already filed down what was in their hands more than one half, and I am told they go on diminishing it.” Thus, Schuyler should be prepared for anything: “Your future rank in life is a perfect lottery. You may move in an exalted, you may move in a very humble sphere. The last is most probable. Examine well your heart.” Pressing the matter further, he then asked her:
Tell me, my pretty damsel, have you made up your mind upon the subject of housekeeping? Do you soberly relish the pleasure of being a poor man’s wife? Have you learned to think a homespun preferable to a brocade and the rumbling of a wagon wheel to the musical rattling of a coach and six? Will you be able to see with perfect composure your old acquaintances, flaunting it in gay life, tripping it along in elegance and splendor, while you hold a humble station and have no other enjoyments than the sober comforts of a good wife?…If you cannot, my dear, we are playing a comedy of all in the wrong and you should correct the mistake before we begin to act the tragedy of the unhappy couple.69
There is no hint here that Eliza was the daughter of a man whom Hamilton described as a gentleman of “large fortune and no less personal and public consequences.”70 Hamilton was too proud to sponge off the Schuylers—who would turn out, in any event, to be less affluent than legend held.
Hamilton’s prenuptial letters to Schuyler hint at a young man exposed to deprivation at an early age. He had seen too much discontent to approach marriage optimistically. In one letter, he delivered a cynical view of both sexes and asked whether she could endure a hard life:
But be assured, my angel, it is not a diffidence of my Betsey’s heart but of a female heart that dictated the questions. I am ready to believe everything in favour of yours, but am restrained by the experience I have had of human nature and the softer part of it. Some of your sex possess every requisite to please, delight, and inspire esteem, friendship, and affection. But there are too few of this description. We are full of vices. They are full of weaknesses[,]…and though I am satisfied whenever I trust my senses and my judgment that you are one of the exceptions, I cannot forbear having moments when I feel a disposition to make a more perfect discovery of your temper and character…. Do not, however, I entreat you, suppose that I entertain an ill opinion of all your sex. I have a much worse [opinion] of my own.71
Throughout this correspondence, George Washington’s exacting presence hovered in the background. “I would go on, but the General summons me to ride,” Hamilton ended one letter.72 Since both he and Washington frowned on laxity during military campaigns, he refused to take a leave of absence to visit Schuyler. When Hamilton rode off to Albany in late November 1780 for the wedding, it was the first vacation he had taken in nearly five years of warfare.
Situated on a bluff above the Hudson River, Albany was still a rough-hewn town of four thousand inhabitants, about one-tenth of them slaves, and was enclosed by stands of virgin pine. Even as English influence overtook New York City, Albany retained its early Dutch character, reflected in the gabled houses. Dutch remained the chief language, and the Schuylers sat through long Dutch sermons at the Reformed Church every Sunday. In many respects, Eliza, who loved to sew and garden, was typical of the young Dutch women of her generation who were domestic and self-effacing, thrifty in managing households, and eager to raise large broods of children.
We have little sense of what Hamilton truly thought of his mother-in-law, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. Not long after marrying Philip Schuyler during the French and Indian War, she sat for a portrait that shows a striking, dark-eyed woman with a long, elegant neck and broad bosom. One contemporary described her as a “lady of great beauty, shape, and gentility.”73 By the time of Hamilton’s wedding, however, she had settled into being a stout Dutch housewife. When the marquis de Chastellux visited the Schuylers that snowy December, he left with an indelible impression of Mrs. Schuyler as a dragoness who governed the house, intimidating her husband. The wary Frenchman decided that it was “best not to treat her in too cavalier a fashion” and concluded that General Schuyler was “more amiable when he is absent from his wife.”74 If Mrs. Schuyler, forty-seven, was less than hospitable, it may have been because she was seven months pregnant with her youngest daughter, Catherine, the last of twelve times she endured childbirth. She was visibly pregnant at the time of her daughter’s wedding.
Hamilton had few people to invite to the wedding. His brother, James, was still alive, probably on St. Thomas, but he didn’t come. Hamilton contacted his father, who was on Bequia in the Grenadines, but he didn’t show up either, possibly because of problems posed by wartime travel for British subjects. Before the wedding, Alexander told Eliza:
I wrote you, my dear, in one of my letters that I have written to our father but had not heard of him since…. I had pressed him to come to America after the peace. A gentleman going to the island where he is will in a few days afford me a safe opportunity to write again. I shall again present him with his black-eyed daughter and tell him how much her attention deserves his affection and will make the blessing of his gray hairs.75
Whether from shame, illness, or poverty, James Hamilton never met Eliza, the Schuylers, or his grandchildren, despite Alexander’s sincere entreaties that he come to America.
At noon on December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton, twenty-five, wed Elizabeth Schuyler, twenty-three, in the southeast parlor of the Schuyler mansion. The interior of the two-story brick residence was light and airy and had a magnificent curving staircase with beautifully carved balusters. During the ceremony, the parlor was likely radiant with sunshine reflected from the snow outside. The ceremony followed the Dutch custom of a small family wedding in the bride’s home. At the local Dutch Reformed Church, the clerk recorded simply: “Colonel Hamilton & Elisabeth [sic] Schuyler.”76 After the ceremony, the guests probably adjourned to the entrance hall, which was nearly fifty feet long and twenty feet wide and flanked by tall, graceful windows. Except for James McHenry, Hamilton’s friends on Washington’s staff were too busy with wartime duties to attend. For all the merriment and high spirits, few guests could have overlooked the mortifying contrast between the enormous Schuyler clan, with their Van Cortlandt and Van Rensselaer relatives, and the lonely groom, who didn’t have a single family member in attendance.
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon at the Pastures and stayed through the Christmas holidays. They were joined by four French officers from Rochambeau’s army who crossed the ice-encrusted Hudson and arrived in sleighs. Even the fussy French officers complimented the food, the Madeira, and the engaging company. Nothing marred the perfection of the experience for Hamilton. A few weeks later, he wrote to Eliza’s younger sister Peggy, “Because your sister has the talent of growing more amiable every day, or because I am a fanatic in love, or both…she fancies herself the happiest woman in the world.”77
Hamilton probably felt, for the moment, that he was the happiest man in the world. The wedding to Eliza Schuyler ended his nomadic existence and embedded him in the Anglo-Dutch aristocracy of New York. His upbringing, instead of making him resent the rich, had perhaps made him wish to reclaim his father’s lost nobility. Through marriage, he acquired an important base in a state in which politics revolved around the dynastic ambitions of the foremost Hudson River families. For the first time in his life, Alexander Hamilton must have had a true sense of belonging.
His friendship with Philip Schuyler was to prove of inestimable value to Hamilton’s career. At one point, when asking for Eliza’s hand, Hamilton evidently told the general of his illegitimacy. “I am pleased with every instance of delicacy in those who are dear to me,” Schuyler wrote in response, “and I think I read your soul on that occasion you mention.”78 Having come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the two men had arrived at similar political conclusions and proved steadfast allies. Like Hamilton, Schuyler chafed at the impotence of Congress and the Articles of Confederation and wanted to invest George Washington with “dictatorial powers,” if necessary, to win the war.79 He distrusted the yeomen and artisans who had elected the populist George Clinton as New York’s first governor instead of him. Having felt scapegoated for the fall of Fort Ticonderoga, Schuyler urged Hamilton to respond emphatically to personal attacks. “A man’s character ought not to be sported with,” he once wrote, “and he that suffers stains to lay on it with impunity really deserves none nor will he long enjoy one.”80 Such a man was not likely to curb Hamilton’s predilection for feuds and duels.
Hamilton’s wedding may have heightened the frustrations that he was quietly experiencing with Washington. The general could be a tetchy boss, and Hamilton witnessed the anger he choked down in public. One observer remarked, “The hardships of the revolutionary struggle…had shaken the masterly control Washington had gained over his passions, and the officers of his staff…had to suffer, not un-frequently, from the irritable temper and punctilious susceptibility of their commander.”81 Hamilton was too proud and gifted, too eager to advance in rank, to subordinate himself happily to anyone for four years, even to the renowned Washington.
Hamilton still hungered for a field command. He wanted fluttering flags, booming cannon, and bayonet charges, not a desk job. That October, as Lafayette prepared to mount a raid on Staten Island, he had asked Washington if Hamilton could lead a battalion. Washington vetoed the idea, saying he could not afford to give up Hamilton. Right before the wedding, Hamilton applied to lead a charge against British posts in northern Manhattan. “Sometime last fall when I spoke to your Excellency about going to the southward,” he reminded Washington, “I explained to you candidly my feelings with respect to military reputation and how much it was my object to act a conspicuous part in some enterprise that might perhaps raise my character as a soldier above mediocrity.”82 Again, Washington spurned Hamilton.
Then Alexander Scammell tendered his resignation as adjutant general. Two generals—Nathanael Greene and the marquis de Lafayette—lobbied to have Hamilton replace him. Washington again balked, saying that he could not promote the young lieutenant colonel over full colonels. Washington’s predicament was clear. He had plenty of combat officers, but nobody could match Hamilton’s French or his ability to draft subtle, nuanced letters. After almost hourly contact with Washington for four years, Hamilton had become his alter ego, able to capture his tone on paper or in person, and was a casualty of his own success.
It would be a time rich in political disappointments for Hamilton. Right before his wedding, Congress decided to send an envoy extraordinary to the court of Versailles to join Benjamin Franklin in raising a substantial loan and expediting supply shipments. General John Sullivan nominated Hamilton, who had been a proponent of such a loan; Lafayette also took up the cudgels for him. Three days before Hamilton’s wedding, John Laurens was unanimously chosen instead, even though he stubbornly maintained that Hamilton was better qualified. Laurens thought Hamilton’s nomination faltered only because he was insufficiently known in Congress. Earlier in the year, when Laurens had tried to secure Hamilton a post as secretary to the American minister in France, Hamilton had analyzed his own rejection thus: “I am a stranger in this country. I have no property here, no connections. If I have talents and integrity…these are justly deemed very spurious titles in these enlightened days.”83 These disappointments only buttressed his belief in meritocracy, not aristocracy, as the best system for government appointments.
The day after Hamilton’s wedding, Congressman John Mathews of South Carolina nominated him as minister to Russia. Again, he was passed over. Hamilton now feared that he would be shackled to his desk for the duration of the conflict—for him, a degrading form of drudgery. He wanted one last chance for battlefield honor, which would be a useful credential in the postwar political world. Perhaps the marriage to Eliza Schuyler emboldened Hamilton to challenge Washington and assert his independence. After all, he was no longer a penniless young immigrant, lacking in property and connections.
After Hamilton returned to military service in early January 1781, he hired a guide to lead him south through the narrow mountain passes to Washington’s headquarters, now located at a Dutch farmhouse on the Hudson River at New Windsor. Eliza soon joined him, and they shared lodgings in the nearby village. The young bride often assisted Martha Washington in entertaining officers, and she observed George Washington in a vignette of domestic heroism that remained engraved on her memory. A fire broke out in a shed adjoining his headquarters, and Washington instantly bounded down the stairs from his second-floor office, grabbed a washtub full of suds from the farmer’s wife, dumped the suds on the blaze, then dashed back and forth with other tubs until the fire was extinguished. Meanwhile, Eliza’s new husband felt less than enamored of Washington. He had been snubbed over too many appointments and meditated an open break. He resolved that “if there should ever happen [to be] a breach between us,” he was determined “never to consent to an accommodation.”84
It was an inauspicious moment for Hamilton to clash with Washington. The Continental Army was experiencing another abominable winter. That January, mutinies erupted among Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops, who had not been paid for more than a year and protested the eternal shortages of clothing, shoes, horses, wagons, meat, flour, and gunpowder. Many wanted to return home at the expiration of their three-year enlistments but were prevented from doing so by their officers. So demoralized were these troops that some officers feared they might even defect to the British. Hamilton applauded when Washington took draconian steps to suppress the mutineers and refused to negotiate until they had laid down their weapons. On February 4, Hamilton wrote to Laurens that “we uncivilly compelled them to an unconditional surrender and hanged their most incendiary leaders.”85
With this uprising quelled, Hamilton was now ready for a showdown with Washington, who remained edgy after the uprising of his men. On February 15, the two men worked till midnight as they readied dispatches for the French officers at Newport. The next day, a frazzled Hamilton was going downstairs in the New Windsor farmhouse as the general mounted the steps. Washington said curtly that he wanted to speak to Hamilton. Hamilton nodded, then delivered a letter to Tench Tilghman and paused to converse briefly with Lafayette on business before heading back upstairs. In a letter written to Philip Schuyler two days later, Hamilton narrated the confrontation that ensued:
Instead of finding the General as usual in his room, I met him at the head of the stairs, where accosting me in a very angry tone, “Col[onel] Hamilton,” (said he), “you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you, sir, you treat me with disrespect.” I replied without petulancy, but with decision “I am not conscious of it, sir, but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part.” “Very well, sir,” (said he), “if it be your choice,” or something to this effect and we separated. I sincerely believe my absence, which gave so much umbrage, did not last two minutes.86
Remarkably enough, it was Washington who made the largehearted, conciliatory gesture after this altercation and within an hour sent Tilghman to see Hamilton. Tilghman said that Washington regretted his fleeting temper and encouraged Hamilton to come and patch things up. Hamilton, now twenty-six, had the colossal courage, or colossal cheek, to turn down cold the commander in chief. Where others were awed by the godlike Washington, Hamilton knew too well his mortal foibles. “I requested Mr. Tilghman to tell him that I had taken my resolution in a manner not to be revoked; that as a conversation could serve no other purpose than to produce explanations mutually disagreeable, though I certainly would not refuse an interview if he desired it, yet I should be happy [if] he would permit me to decline it.”87 Washington reluctantly honored Hamilton’s decision to leave his staff.
Hamilton knew these events would shock Philip Schuyler, Washington’s warm friend, who had been thrilled to have the general’s aide-de-camp as his son-in-law. Hamilton told Schuyler that he wanted to command artillery or light infantry, but he knew a fuller explanation was required. He had not acted rashly, he insisted. He had long hated the personal dependence that accompanied his position and had found Washington to be much more temperamental than his exalted reputation allowed. Their working relationship had done “violence to my feelings.”88 Then Hamilton made a stunning revelation: Washington had wanted to be closer all along. It was Hamilton who had rebuffed him:
For three years past, I have felt no friendship for him and have professed none. The truth is our own dispositions are the opposites of each other and the pride of my temper would not suffer me to profess what I did not feel. Indeed when advances of this kind [have been made] to me on his part, they were rec[eived in a manner] that showed at least I had no inclination [to court them, and that] I wished to stand rather upon a footing of m[ilitary confidence than] of private attachment. You are too good a judge of human nature not to be sensible how this conduct in me must have operated on a man to whom all the world is offering incense.89
The same day, Hamilton wrote to James McHenry in a more vindictive tone, showing that he was severely disillusioned with Washington and tired of feeling browbeaten. “The great man and I have come to an open rupture…. He shall, for once at least, repent his ill-humour. Without a shadow of reason and on the slightest ground, he charged me in the most affrontive manner with treating him with disrespect.”90 Hamilton acknowledged that Washington’s popularity was necessary to the patriots, and he promised to keep their rift a secret, but he had no intention of revising his decision.
The rupture with Washington highlights Hamilton’s egotism, outsize pride, and quick temper and is perhaps the first of many curious lapses of judgment and timing that detracted from an otherwise stellar career. Washington had generously offered to make amends, but the hypersensitive young man was determined to teach the commander in chief a stern lesson in the midst of the American Revolution. Hamilton exhibited the recklessness of youth and a disquieting touch of folie de grandeur. On the other hand, Hamilton believed that he had been asked to sacrifice his military ambitions for too long and that he had waited patiently for four years to make his mark. And he was only asking to risk his life for his country. If Hamilton were simply the brazen opportunist later portrayed by his enemies, he would never have risked this breach with the one man who would almost certainly lead the country if the Revolution succeeded.
Fortunately, Washington and Hamilton recognized that each had a vital role to play in the war and that this was too important to be threatened by petty annoyances. Despite their often conflicted feelings for each other, Washington remained unwaveringly loyal toward Hamilton, whom he saw as exceptionally able and intelligent, if sometimes errant; one senses a buried affection toward the younger man that he could seldom manifest openly. Where Hamilton had reservations about Washington as a general, he never underestimated his prudence, character, patriotism, and leadership qualities. In the last analysis, the durable bond formed between Hamilton and Washington during the Revolution was based less on personal intimacy than on shared experiences of danger and despair and common hopes for America’s future. From the same situation, they had drawn the same conclusions: the need for a national army, for centralized power over the states, for a strong executive, and for national unity. Their political views, forged in the crucible of war, were to survive many subsequent attempts to drive them apart.