Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America
By Thomas Fleming
Chapter One: A General Nurses His Wounds
Alexander Hamilton welcomed the year 1804 at his country estate, The Grange, seven miles north of New York City, on the two-hundred-foot-high ridge known as Harlem Heights. Not long after he arose, a bone-chilling rain began sluicing out of a gray sky. The two-story house, with its high porches and four rectangular chimneys (two of them fakes, added for symmetry), had been designed by John McComb, creator of New York's City Hall and other distinguished buildings. From the front porch, which faced south, there was a magnificent view of New York City, its immense harbor, and the mighty Atlantic beyond Sandy Hook. Through the floor-to-ceiling bay windows of the elegant octagonal dining room there was an equally compelling view of the Harlem River valley, turbulent Hell Gate, and the swift-flowing East River. From similar windows on the other side of the parlor, Hamilton surveyed the broad Hudson River and its majestic western bluffs, the Palisades. Beyond stretched the vast American continent, peopled by a scant four million Americans and perhaps a million Indians.
These imperial views were not very entrancing on a rainy New Year's Day, of course. In fact, the stripped trees and the brown fields gave The Grange a forlorn, abandoned look. Someone with prophetic tendencies might have seen this gloom as a portent, but it is unlikely that Hamilton viewed it as anything more than a rainy winter morning. He did not know it was the last New Year's Day he would see.
Inside the house, which Hamilton had named after the ancestral estate of his Scottish grandfather, servants and perhaps Hamilton himself were soon busy keeping the numerous fireplaces blazing. Although The Grange's clapboard walls were lined with brick, the lofty site made it a target for icy winds. With seven children in the house, ranging in age from two to nineteen, it was impossible to warm only a few rooms. Since firewood was extremely expensive on Manhattan Island in 1804, each winter day Hamilton spent in The Grange literally burned a hole in his pocket.
The house and the surrounding thirty-two acres had cost him $22,220 (the equivalent in modern dollars of perhaps $300,000) and much of this remained borrowed money. Furnishing The Grange and living in the style that such a fine mansion required, with servants, a cook, and a gardener, were also expensive burdens for a man who depended entirely on the cash he earned as a lawyer. One of the many ironies about Alexander Hamilton was the parlous state of his personal finances. The man who had resuscitated the expiring economy of the new nation frequently ran short of funds.
Hamilton averaged about $11,000 a year ($150,000 modern dollars) as one of the leading attorneys of the New York Bar. But his expenses constantly outran his income. When The Grange was nearing completion in 1802, he wrote to one client that it "would be amazingly convenient to me to touch your money as soon as possible." Intermittently, Hamilton vowed to economize; at one point he considered leasing The Grange and reducing his expenses to $4,000 a year. But the house was linked too intimately with Hamilton's image of himself as a man of consequence. To abandon it would have been a psychic amputation he could never endure.
In 1804 everyone called Alexander Hamilton "General." He was even accorded the title in the New York City directory. A lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution, Hamilton had achieved this new rank in America's first undeclared war, the nasty brawl with revolutionary France that lasted from 1798 to 1800. All the shooting had been done at sea; General Hamilton's army never fought a battle. But he was extremely proud of achieving this rank and virtually insisted on preserving it as a civilian.
This fondness for a title, military or otherwise, was not unusual. Foreign visitors noted that Americans of the early 1800s, while claiming to despise aristocracy and its artificial distinctions, constantly addressed one another as "Colonel," "Major," "Judge" long after the terms had an immediate application. The national passion for equality, another trait visitors noticed, apparently had its limits. But Hamilton's fondness for "General" meant far more than a mild desire for distinction among his peers. Like The Grange, the title had deep links with his innermost psychology.
Red-haired, large-headed, with deep blue, almost violet eyes and ruddy cheeks, Hamilton was short by modern standardsabout five feet sevenbut this was an average height in his era, when growth was sapped by numerous childhood diseases for which there were no vaccines. Hamilton's slim, sinewy frame, his vigorous manner, his erect carriage inevitably drew the adjectives "soldierly" and "martial" from many men who commented on his appearance. Some admirers called him "the little lion"a tribute to his pugnacity.
When Hamilton was building The Grange, he often came up from the city on weekends and lived with his three older sons in tents on the property. "He measured the distances as though marking the frontage of a (military) camp," his son John Church Hamilton later recalled. "When he walked along, his step seemed to fall naturally into the cadenced pace of practiced drill." John Church never forgot the way his father read the commentaries of Julius Caesar, translating the Latin as he went along: "With what emphasis and fervor did he read of battles ... it would seem as though Caesar were present; for as much as any man that ever lived, he had the soldier's temperament."
When he relaxed with his sons, Hamilton's favorite topic was stories from the American Revolution. The location of The Grange undoubtedly intensified these recollections. It was on Harlem Heights that nineteen-year-old Captain Alexander Hamilton first won the attention of the American army's high command. His artillery company was one of the few units in the ragtag assemblage of Continental regulars and state militia that retained its discipline and esprit de corps in the dolorous fall of 1776, when the Americans lost battle after battle to a resurgent British army. Early in the following year, Captain Hamilton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became one of George Washington's aides, beginning his ascent to power and renown.
Later in the morning of New Year's Day, General Hamilton gathered his wife and seven children around him and read something very different from Caesar's commentariesthe Episcopal Church service. In his teens Hamilton had been intensely religious. Robert Troup, his roommate at New York's Kings College (which had changed its name to Columbia after the War for Independence), recalled that he had knelt to say his prayers every night and morning. A Presbyterian minister had been responsible for rescuing the illegitimate son of bankrupt James Hamilton and tempestuous Rachel Faucett Lavien from the West Indian backwater of St. Croix and sending him to America for an education. But Hamilton's adolescent piety had soon faded into the stoic creed that the leaders of the Revolution preferred to the complex theology of Christianity, with its belief in a crucified God and redemption through suffering.
Sometimes called Deism, the faith of the founding fathers replaced a personal God with an opaque Providence, whom George Washington once referred to as "it." Although the father of the country attended the Episcopal Church, Washington usually left before the communion service, pointedly if silently stating his disbelief in this central ceremony of the Christian faith. When Thomas Jefferson inveighed against "every form of tyranny over the mind of man," he was talking about organized Christianity. During the Constitutional Convention, when the delegates seemed deadlocked, Benjamin Franklin had suggested starting the day with a prayer to seek the help of divine wisdom. Hamilton had risen to oppose the idea, claiming it would be a confession of political disunity. He blithely added that he saw no need to seek "foreign aid."
Deism had apparently seemed sufficient to the mature Hamilton, especially in the 1790s, when he had been President George Washington's secretary of the treasury, the young nation's most influential politician. Hamilton had taken a country floundering in a morass of $80 million in state and federal war debts (40 percent of the gross national product) and in a series of brilliant state papers, persuaded Congress to transform this demoralizing legacy of the Revolution into a national asset. Following England's example, Hamilton saw the debt could become "a blessing" if it was converted into liquid capital bonds backed by the full credit of the new federal government, which had the power to raise money by taxes and tariffs. To stabilize the new system and prime the national financial pump, Hamilton persuaded Congress to create the semipublic Bank of the United States. In five years, the United States had the highest credit rating in the world and a reliable money supply was fueling prosperity from Boston to Savannah.
In those heady days, Alexander Hamilton believed human intelligence was enough to shape a man's and a nation's destiny. But bitter personal and political experiences had altered this opinion. In recent years, intelligence seemed a frail safeguard against the onrush and inrush of passion, both personal and political. His view of mankind, never optimistic, had veered toward a belief in human depravity that could best be explained by another basic Christian concept, original sin.
General Hamilton read the Episcopal service with the sonorous sincerity of a man who genuinely wanted to inculcate religion in his seven children. Although he was something of an absentee father because of the demands of politics and the legal profession, Hamilton did his best to provide them with the happy family life he had seldom experienced as a boy in the West Indies. His dark-haired, attractive mother had never bothered to legitimize her common-law marriage to his financially inept father, James Hamilton, and she finally kicked him out of her bed to send him wandering through the islands like a pathetic, possibly alcoholic castaway. Before Hamilton was born, the headstrong Rachel had ended a legal marriage to John Michael Lavien (or Levine) by sleeping with other men so blatantly that her outraged husband had her jailed for "whoring with everyone." Although Hamilton sometimes mentioned "our dear father" in letters to his brother, James, there is no record of him ever having spoken or written affectionately of his mother.
How seriously Hamilton regarded the sacred words of the Sunday service as food for his own soul is debatable. On January 11, 1804, he would be forty-seven, a fairly old age in an era when only a few people lived into their sixties and seventies. It would not be implausible to find him thinking about death and considering a return to the faith of his youth. Moreover, General Hamilton had experienced several varieties of suffering in the previous three years.
From the summit of political power on which he had stood in 1800, as the leader of the triumphant Federalist Party, he had been pitched into the pit of impotence when Thomas Jefferson won the presidency and Aaron Burr the vice presidency on the Republican ticket in November of that fateful year. In 1801 Hamilton's political humiliation was completed when he failed to elect his sister-in-law's husband, wealthy Stephen Van Rensselaer, governor of New York in a savage struggle with the state leader of the Republicans, a man the General detested, George Clinton.
In that contest, General Hamilton's political enemies had showered him with abuse. Robert Troup reported that at one polling place, Hamilton was "repeatedly called a thief; and at another ... called a rascal, villain, and every thing else that is in famous [sic] in society." For a man who saw himself as a patriot who had spent the previous fifteen years struggling selflessly for the good of his country, these insults were especially bitter.
In the circle of trusting faces around Hamilton there was evidence of another blow. His beautiful nineteen-year-old daughter Angelica listened to the stately prose of the Episcopal service with blank uncomprehending eyes. For the past two and one-half years, Angelica, who used to delight her father with her skill on the harp and pianoforte, had been insane. Her mental breakdown had been triggered by a tragedy that had almost driven General Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth, berserk.
On November 20, 1801, the Hamiltons' handsome oldest son, nineteen-year-old Philip, recently graduated from Columbia College, had gotten into a quarrel with one of President Thomas Jefferson's supporters, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer named George I. Eacker. Philip and his friend Richard Price had invaded Eacker's box at the Park Theater and taunted him about a speech he had made on July 4, 1801. Eacker had hailed President Thomas Jefferson as the rescuer of the Constitution and implied that General Hamilton was not averse to seizing power with a coup d'etat. Philip's hooliganish conduct suggests he and his friend Price were drunk. Realistic Robert Troup, belying his fond parents' view of Philip's talents and promise, described him as a "sad rake."
The infuriated Eacker called both young men "damned rascals"an expression of contempt that left them with only one response, if they hoped to retain their standing in the masculine world of the time. They promptly challenged him to a duel.
This ritualized conflict was based on the assumption that a gentleman had to be prepared to defend his honor at all times. Inherited from the days of chivalry, in the sixteenth century dueling became popular among European aristocrats, army and naval officers, and politicians. It took root in America during the Revolution, when the officer corps of the Continental army strove to establish their status as gentlemen.
During the 1790s, the American duel became a way to intimidate or humiliate a political opponentand demonstrate a man's readiness to verify the sincerity of his opinions by risking his life. Frequently condemned by churchmen and banned by legislatures, it persisted because it was a way of acting out the fratricidal passions that the politics of the 1790s had evoked. Also, it was a chance for a man to display his courage without extreme risk, unless his opponent was a crack shot. In one study of dueling, fatalities were less than 20 percent. Another study found only one duelist in fourteen died. Most duelists escaped unscathed, or with minor wounds, at worst. It had become fashionable among some writers to portray these affairs as more farcical than fatal.
Eacker and Richard Price met first. Because dueling was illegal in New York, they journeyed to Weehawken, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The encounter seemed to confirm the impression that amateur duelists were not a serious threat to life or limb. Four shots were exchanged without a hit.
A Hamilton friend urged Philip to apologize to Eacker for his bad manners at the theater. That minimal courtesy might have persuaded Eacker to retract the insult, "rascal." Perhaps emboldened by Price's description of Eacker's poor aim, Philip declined, and insisted on an immediate "interview," as these affairs of honor were called.
General Hamilton, learning about the duel, advised Philip to fire his pistol into the air. Whether this advice was based on religious or tactical grounds is unclear. "Throwing away" one's fireknown as a delope by those who preferred French dueling terminologywas an accepted way of aborting a duel. The deloper had to let the other man fire at him first, giving no hint of what he was planning to do. If the other man insisted on another shot, he could be accused of bloodthirsty, even murderous intentionsa slur no gentleman wanted to incur. Often the duelists' seconds would declare that honor had been satisfied and ban another shot.
Hamilton may have been reluctant to see Philip wound or kill Eacker over a quarrel the young man had starteda motive that might have involved religious feelings, or simple common sense. Firing in the air was also a way to express a certain contempt for one's opponent, or a moral superiority. William Pitt, until recently prime minister of England, had chosen the delope when taunted into a duel by a parliamentary critic.
Eacker and Philip Hamilton met on November 23, 1801. For a full minute, neither fired at the word "present." Eacker probably did not want to hurt Philip for a variety of reasons: the difference in their ages, the triviality of the quarrel, his father's influence and prestige. If Philip had offered an apology at this point, the dispute still could have been settled with a handshake.
Instead, Philip leveled his pistol. Perhaps the young man simply wanted to share bragging rights with his friend Price about hearing a bullet whistle. Or like most nineteen-year-olds, he considered himself indestructible. Eacker leveled and fired. His bullet struck Philip just above the hip, ripped through his body, and lodged in his arm. Philip's return shot went wild.
The young man died in agony twenty-four hours later, with his tormented mother and father beside him on the bed, frantically clutching him in their arms. At the funeral, General Hamilton almost collapsed. "Never did I see a man so completely overwhelmed with grief," wrote Robert Troup. Not long after the funeral, Angelica Hamilton drifted into a miasma of confusion and fear from which she never emerged for the rest of her long life. Over and over again she played on her piano and harp the songs of 1800-01 that had pleased her fatherand presumably Philipso much.
Those who have wanted to believe Alexander Hamilton experienced a profound change of heart as a result of these political disappointments and personal tragedies have combed his letters to find evidence of such a transformation. They have portrayed The Grange as a place where "his religious feelings grew with his growing intimacy with the marvellous works of nature. But General Hamilton planned The Grange in 1798, when he was at the height of his political power. What he wanted was a country estate similar to those owned by other notable New Yorkers, such as Vice President Aaron Burr's elegant Richmond Hill, on the Hudson below present-day Fourteenth Street. Only in such a house could the General receive important visitors in a style that befitted a man who saw himself as the arbiter of the destiny of North America.
As for his growing intimacy with the works of nature, the General was a disaster as a farmer. Several times, he remarked wryly in letters that a garden was a "usual refuge of a disappointed politician." But he added late in 1802 that he was "as little fitted" to be a farmer "as Jefferson to guide the helm of the United States. When he was planning The Grange, there was some heady talk of profits from the farm produce that could be raised on thirty-two acres. But that was just Hamilton's way of convincing himself that he could afford the house. In December of 1802, as they were moving in, Hamilton confided to a friend that "the greatest part of my little farm will be dedicated to grass." Whereupon he solicited advice on how to grow that plant successfully. Since they moved in, the Hamiltons' total profits from The Grange were $18.00 from the sale of some garden strawberries, cabbages, and asparagus.
Further reason to doubt General Hamilton's conversion from politics to religion and domesticity was a letter to James A. Bayard, the influential Federalist congressman from Delaware, written not long after Philip Hamilton's death. The General proposed the creation of a "Christian Constitutional Society," which would be organized into local clubs, state councils, and a national council, consisting of a president and twelve members. Its purpose would be the defense of the Christian religion and the Constitution against the assaults of the Republicans, led by their purportedly atheistic leader, President Thomas Jefferson.
Hamilton told Bayard he feared the Federalist party was doomed unless it could "contrive to take hold of & carry along with us some strong feelings of the mind." In fact, he had begun to doubt whether it was possible for them to succeed "without in some degree employing the weapons which have been employed against us." By this he meant newspapers like Philadelphia's Aurora and New York's American Citizen, crammed with the sort of billingsgate the Republicans had used to demonize General Hamilton and the Federalists. At the same time Hamilton admitted he shuddered at "corrupting public opinion" until it became "fit for nothing but mischief."
The Christian Constitutional Society was his answer to this dilemma. Bayard rejected the idea, commenting that the notion was better suited to the Republicans. "We have the greater number of political Calculators and they of political fanaticks," he wrote.
Manipulating religion for public purposes was not a new idea for General Hamilton. Ever since the French Revolution revealed its hatred of Christianity in the early 1790s, Hamilton had used piety to summon the Federalist faithful to the hustings. When he was preparing the country for war with France in 1797, he urged Congress to mobilize "the religious ideas of America." In 1798, excoriating Thomas Jefferson and other admirers of France, he accused them of "a conspiracy to establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity." But for all his private and public displays of devotion to Christianity, General Hamilton had yet to join a church.
The reason for this hesitation was probably political. Hamilton was strongly attracted to the Episcopal church. But Episcopalians were not in good repute among most voters in New York, because so many of them had been loyalists during the Revolution. As members of the Church of England, they had tended to support their titular head, His Majesty, George III. Although the Episcopalians had redefined themselves as an American church and pledged their allegiance to the new nation, in the overheated politics of 1804, Hamilton's enemies were not above suggesting that joining them was further proof of his treasonous pro-British leanings.
Instead of scrutinizing General Hamilton's words and actions to indict him for religious hypocrisy or exonerate him as a genuine Christian, it might be wiser to regard him as a man in the middle of a spiritual journey, carrying with him all the baggage he had acquired from the previous forty-seven years of a crowded and tumultuous life. The ideas and ideals of Christianity had recently begun mingling with other core beliefs. But a man who toiled on dozens of complex cases in maritime and commercial law and simultaneously attempted to keep abreast of national and international politics did not have the time or the inclination to sort out the contradictions and inconsistencies.
There is some evidence that General Hamilton took more interest in his wife and family after his fall from power. "It will be more and more my endeavor to abstract myself from all pursuits which interfere with those of affection," he wrote. But this statement was only a promise of future performance, about as convincing as his resolutions to economize. To Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, pregnant with their last child, the General wrote in 1801: "Indeed my Eliza, you are very essential to me. Your virtues more and more endear you to me and experience more and more convinces me that true happiness is only to be found in the bosom of one's own family."
This is a curious statement for a husband to make to a wife of twenty years. It suggests that only recently had Hamilton found Eliza endearing. Heretofore had he sought happiness in other bosoms? Or was there some other transformative experience that had captured the general's soul? The answer to both questions would seem to be: yes.
The words, and the realities behind them, explain the uncertainty that mars Elizabeth Hamilton's mouth in her 1787 portrait by Ralph Earl, the only likeness painted during her husband's lifetime. The mouth contributes to an overall impression of timidity, insecurity, even melancholy. She is a fairly attractive woman, with deep-set dark eyes beneath thick brows. But there is not an iota of the fire, the dash, the self-confidence that emanates from almost every portrait of her dynamic husband.
To be fair, Hamilton was not entirely to blame for inflicting these feelings of inadequacy on Elizabeth Hamilton. She grew up the daughter of Hudson River lord Philip Schuyler, owner of vast upstate acreage, a major general in the Revolution, confidante of Washington. Schuyler's overbearing parental style goaded Elizabeth's four sisters into selecting husbands of whom their father disapprovedand three of them eloped. Only Elizabeth remained docile, choosing a man whose closeness to Washington guaranteed General Schuyler's blessing.
Another person who may have sown uncertainty in Elizabeth Hamilton's soul was her attractive oldest sister, Angelica. Witty, intelligent, rambunctious, in 1777 she eloped with John Barker Church, a wealthy Englishman who had fled to America under an assumed name, probably to escape jail for his gambling debts. Church eventually persuaded General Schuyler to help him obtain the post of commissary to the French army that came to America in 1780. The Englishman made a fortune, which he multiplied with shrewd investments in England and America. He spent it freely to give Angelica every imaginable luxury and let her roam high society in London, Paris, and New York as a flirtatious woman of fashion, while he concentrated on the one thing that seemed to interest himmaking more money in business and at gaming tables.
Betsy Hamilton seems to have worshiped Angelica almost as much as she adored her brilliant husband. But in 1804, many New Yorkers, including that constant Hamilton watcher, Robert Troup, suspected that Angelica and General Hamilton had resumed a torrid affair, suspended, with exquisite regret on both sides, in 1789, when she returned to England after a lengthy visit to New York without her husband. If Elizabeth Hamilton suspected anything about the General and Angelica, she suffered in silence. In their tormented letters to each other, the lovers constantly made it a point to include Betsy in their protestations of undying affection.
It need hardly be added that this affair, for which circumstantial evidence is strong but absolute confirmation is elusive, did not exactly jibe with General Hamilton's newly discovered Christian inclinations. It is one more piece of evidence that the General's life had become very complicatedperhaps too complicated for him to comprehend.
Compounding Elizabeth Hamilton's wifely melancholy in the years after Ralph Earl painted her portrait was Maria Reynolds, a dark-haired passionate woman-about-Philadelphia, with whom Hamilton became involved in 1791, when the Quaker City was the national capital. Although he was riding high as secretary of the treasury with President George Washington's firm backing for his determination to transform a mostly rural America into a financial and industrial powerhouse, Hamilton had recently experienced his first political defeat.
His father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler, had been serving as one of New York's senators in the new federal government. Hamilton had engineered his election by the state's legislature in 1789, cavalierly ignoring the expectations of the powerful Livingston family, who owned at least as much acreage in the Hudson River valley as Schuyler. In 1788, the eloquent leader of that family, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, had warmly supported Hamilton in the ferocious struggle to persuade New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution in spite of Governor George Clinton's stubborn opposition. Underscoring his arrogance, Hamilton had vetoed the election of a Livingston in-law, New York Mayor James Duane, for the state's second senate seat and insisted on choosing Massachusetts-born Rufus King, who had only recently become a New York resident. This moment of hubris led to a Livingston alliance with Governor Clinton, with repercussions that still afflicted Hamilton.
When General Schuyler's name was placed in nomination for a second term in the U.S. Senate, the new allies flexed their political muscles. Another nominee came from nowhere to displace Schuyler: Aaron Burr. A fellow lawyer and veteran of the Revolution, Burr too had been a Hamilton ally against George Clinton for a while. But the short, affable New Jersey native had grown disillusioned with Hamilton's domineering leadership. Burr had been particularly irked by the way Hamilton had crammed Rufus King down New Yorkers' throats because the secretary of the treasury wanted to have this devoted follower in the U.S. Senate to support his financial program.
Hamilton's failure to deliver a coveted post for his father-in-law may have complicated his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyleror his affair with Angelica Schuyler Church. The latter seems more likely. It is hard to imagine Betsy rebuking Hamilton for a political lapse. Angelica, on the other hand, savored mixing power and passion. Hamilton frequently wrote to her about his political travails and triumphs, and she seems to have been extremely disappointed by her father's humiliation. A rebuke from her could well have made Hamilton susceptible to Maria Reynolds, another woman of fashion who had no association with his defeat and who appealed to him as a man of power, capable of rescuing her from the grip of an abusive, unfaithful husband.
In no time Maria Reynold's husband, James, appeared, ready and eager to play the pimp, if Hamilton came through with enough cash. The bewitched Hamilton paid him over $1,000 for continuing access to Maria. Soon Reynolds was going around Philadelphia claiming that the secretary of the treasury was giving him inside tips to speculate in government securities. Accused of corruption by a delegation of congressmen led by Thomas Jefferson's close friend, Senator James Monroe of Virginia, Hamilton gave them copies of his love letters from Maria to prove his financial, if not his marital, integrity.
Five years later, in 1797, the letters surfaced in a pamphlet by a muckraking Scottish-born newspaperman, James Thomson Callender. The Scotsman accused Hamilton of faking the affair to cover up immense speculations based on his insider's knowledge of U.S. Treasury policies, enabling him and his friends to pocket millions of dollars. Hamilton responded by confessing the affair in a pamphlet that reaffirmed his financial integrityand left the nation gasping with disbelief at his sexual candor.
In this confession, Hamilton displayed an almost breathtaking ability to see himself as blameless, even though he was admitting something that would make most men squirm. He claimed the entire scandal was a "conspiracy of vice against virtue"the vice being all on the side of his political enemiesand even asserted he should be flattered to be the object of persecution by such a despicable faction. Seldom if ever, he declaimed, had any man been pursued with such rancor and venom for so little cause. Yet he was buoyed by his "proud consciousness of innocence" because he had not sullied his financial integrity, no matter how often he had sullied Maria Reynolds.
Entwined as the statement was with politics, only a few biographers have noted that it included a passage in which Hamilton revealed an anguished, profoundly personal regret for his infidelity: "This confession is not made without a blush ... I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love." Unquestionably he was referring to Elizabeth Hamilton here.
Back in 1780, when Hamilton proposed to Betsy, his fellow aides on George Washington's staff called her "the little saint" and expressed amazement that Hamilton would select someone so devout for his wife. At army headquarters, Martha Washington, in one of her droller moments, had nicknamed the house pet, a bigheaded, extremely amorous tomcat, "Hamilton"a glimpse of his reputation as a ladies man in those days.
Marrying Betsy did not turn Hamilton into a saint. In the heyday of his power, rumors swirled that he was constantly on the prowl for attractive women. One Federalist congressman from New England wrote home indignantly, telling a friend that he resented the way the secretary of the treasury, at a recent dinner in Philadelphia, had spent the evening casting "liquorish looks at my cara sposa."
Betsy's sisters seemed to have had no illusions about their brother-in-law. At another Philadelphia dinner party, Angelica Church lost a bow from her shoe. Her younger sister, Peggy Schuyler, described by one of the dinner guests as a "wild flirt," put the bow in the buttonhole of Hamilton's coat.
"There brother, I have made you a knight," she said.
"But of what order?" Angelica asked. "He can't be a knight of the garter in this country."
"True sister," replied Peggy Schuyler, "but he would be if you would let him."
Was Hamilton as financially pure as he claimed to be? The answer would seem to be yes. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the wily thoroughly corrupt politician who served a half dozen French regimes, became a Hamilton admirer during the two years he spent in America to escape the guillotines of France's revolutionary wild men. In later years Talleyrand listed Hamilton with England's William Pitt and Napoléon Bonaparte as the three greatest men he had met in his lifetime. If he had to choose between the three, Talleyrand said he would have given Hamilton first place.
One night in 1795, Talleyrand passed Hamilton's law office on his way to a party. He saw the former secretary of the treasury toiling over a brief by candlelight. At the party, the astounded Frenchman told everyone that he had just seen "a man who made the fortune of his country, but who is working all night in order to support his family." In France or England, a grateful government would have permitted a politician who handled millions in public funds with Hamilton's genius to get rich.
An examination of Hamilton's account books reveals that he earned his $11,000 a year the hard way, handling scores of cases for mostly modest fees. Robert Troup often reproached Hamilton for his low fees, warning him that his friends would have to bury him at their expense. At one point, Troup got his own annual income up to $11,500 by working from dawn to midnight, seven days a week. The toll on the overweight attorney's health was horrendous. By 1804 he was suffering from recurrent asthma attacks and heart palpitations.
In 1796, one of the big land speculators of the era, New York merchant James Greenleaf, asked Hamilton to help extricate him from a tangle of debt amounting to $1.2 million that he had accrued while buying some $5 million in land and stock. If Hamilton rescued him, his fee would be a third of Greenleaf's net worth. It was a chance to make perhaps a million dollars, but Hamilton turned him down. He feared Greenleaf was trying to trade on his influence as ex-secretary of the treasury.
Around the same time, Robert Troup, already weary of the legal grind, tried to inveigle Hamilton into joining him and another champion land speculator, ex-British army Captain Charles Williamson, in buying millions of acres of upstate New York for English investors. Williamson had become an American citizen, a legal fiction that would enable them to evade the state law against foreigners buying land. Hamilton and Troup would draw up covert agreements that would protect the English investors against fraud. Their reward would be a handsome slice of the action.
Troup offered to keep Hamilton's name secret, swearing on his honor that he would never reveal it. Hamilton turned down this deal too, because he was acutely sensitive to accusations by his political enemies that he was pro-British. "There must be some public fools who sacrifice private to public interest," Hamilton told Troup. It was his way of keeping himself "in a situation the best calculated to render service."
Render service. By that phrase Hamilton meant public service. Underlying this seemingly mundane term was a far more powerful word that explained much of Hamilton's life: fame. This was the invisible mistress that he had pursued for two decades, repeatedly sacrificing the happiness offered to him by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton's bosom. In a letter to a Scottish uncle, written not long before he published the confession of his affair with Maria Reynolds, Hamilton discussed the "love of fame" as a "passion" that was the "spring of action." The pistol metaphor adds a heavy irony to these words.
In the era of the American Revolution, fame had a very special meaning, which had little to do with being famous in the current celebrity sense of the word. For Hamilton and the other founders, fame was inextricably linked with honor and a special kind of achievement. Sir Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and organizer of knowledge, had popularized the concept. Bacon dismissed the praise of the common people as irrelevant to seekers after true fame. They had "no sense at all" of the higher virtues. Winning fame, Bacon maintained, meant winning the praise of persons of judgment and quality.
In Bacon's Essays, a book which the young Hamilton studied assiduously (as did Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Aaron Burr, and many others), there is a five-stage classification of fame. On the bottom rung were fathers of the country, who "reign justly and make the times good wherein they live." Next came champions of empire, leaders who enlarge their country through conquest or defend her against invaders. Next came saviors of empire, who deliver their country from the miseries of tyrants or the chaos of civil wars. Next came the great lawgivers, such as Solon, Lycurgus, Justinian. Finally, at the summit, were founders of empires, such as Cyrus of Persia and Julius Caesar of Rome. These stellar heroes were both great generals and wise legislators.
This passion for fame had deep roots in Hamilton's life. In 1778, as America's revolutionary fervor ebbed, he wrote a pamphlet attacking congressmen who were using their political power to get rich while the Continental army starved. Hamilton expressed amazement that a man could do such a thing, when he had a chance to be "THE FOUNDER OF AN EMPIRE." [These are Hamilton's capitals.] Such a man had an opportunity to "do good to all mankind." From such a "commanding eminence" he should look down "with contempt on every mean or interested pursuit."
The imperatives of fame underlay Hamilton's decision to confess his sexual adventure with Maria Reynolds to prove his political and financial integrity. He was ready to sacrifice his marital happiness to keep his honorand his eligibility as a candidate for fameinviolate. Fame also explains why Hamilton's legal fees were notoriously low and he was still in debt. Making a lot of money was "a mean and interested pursuit"unworthy of a pursuer of fame.
Hamilton's passion for fame was complicated by his rediscovery of his religious feelings. Christianity preached meekness, humility, almost a contempt for reputation, power, founding empires, and the other glories of this world. By 1804, General Hamilton was carrying more psychological baggage than even the most gifted man could handle without spiritual confusion.
In another revealing comment in his letter to Robert Troup, rejecting a chance to make big money with Charles Williamson, Hamilton told his old friend they were playing a great game for the highest stakes: "nothing less than true liberty, property, order, religion and of course heads." The bloody excesses of the French Revolution had entwined death and politics to an unparalleled degree in many minds. The pugnacious Hamilton often demonstrated his readiness to put his life on the line in the swirling controversies that the French upheaval ignited in America, especially after war exploded between England and France in 1793.
In 1795, angry Republican mobs took to the streets protesting John Jay's commercial treaty with England, which defused a potential clash with the former mother country over their wholesale seizures of American ships trading with the French. Jay persuaded the British to pay for the seizures and also won most-favored-nation status for American ships carrying imports to Englandan exemption that meant millions in profit for American merchants. But the Jeffersonian Republicans saw the agreement as a corrupt compromise that betrayed France, whose money and soldiers had supported America in her revolutionary struggle against England.
In New York, Hamilton defended Jay's treaty vigorously in the newspapers and met the protestors face to face in the streets. The mob was led by prominent Republicans such as Commodore James Nicholson, a veteran of the Revolutionary navy. A shouting match ensued in which Hamilton offered to fight "the whole Detestable faction" one by one. He emerged from the confrontation with two proffered duels, one with Nicholson and another with a member of the Livingston clan. Cooler heads intervened and both challenges were resolved short of gunfire.
In the course of the Reynolds imbroglio, Hamilton came even closer to fighting a duel with ex-Senator James Monroe, who admitted he had kept copies of the incriminating letters and documents. Monroe had left the copies with one of Jefferson's most devoted followers, John Beckley, former clerk of the House of Representatives, who leaked them to James Thomson Callender. An infuriated Hamilton called Monroe a liar to his face when he denied any role in the revelations. This confrontation was followed by a stream of menacing letters from both men. Only the good offices of Aaron Burr, who served as Monroe's second in the affair, prevented immediate gunfire. Having read all the pertinent letters and documents, Burr said he was sure Monroe believed "as I do ... that H. is innocent of the charge of any concern in speculation with Reynolds" and recommended saying so in a joint statement as "an act of magnanimity and justice."
Monroe declined to make this gesture but Hamilton decided the confessional pamphlet was a better way to defend his honor. There was little visible evidence that it accomplished this goal. He was mocked unmercifully in the Republicans' newspapers for making his home "the rendezvous of whoredom." The former secretary of the treasury was told that he could claim no merit, except a dubious virility. In a letter to his mentor and hero, Thomas Jefferson, Callender gloated that Hamilton had done himself more damage than "fifty of the best pens in America could have said against him." Jefferson snidely commented that pleading guilty to one crime was not exactly de facto exoneration for another crime. Jefferson's closest friend, James Madison, called it "a curious specimen of the ingenious folly of its author."
Most Federalists assumed the Reynolds' pamphlet finished Hamilton as a candidate for president or any other public office. But Judge David Cobb of Massachusetts took a more realistic eighteenth-century view: "Hamilton is fallen for the present," he told ex-Secretary of War Henry Knox. "But if he fornicates with every woman in the cities of New York and Philadelphia, he will rise again." The American public, Cobb maintained, did not expect "purity of character" in their politicians.