Monday, June 29, 2015

THE MAN ON THE TEN DOLLAR BILL


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I used to occasionally ask the clerk, when I handed them a ten, if they knew whose picture that was. Mostly, the answer was “some president.”  If there was no one waiting, I’d give a short history lesson by saying, “No, this is Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the Treasury. If he hadn’t done his job, by figuring out how to pay off the Revolutionary War debt and balance the budget, there wouldn’t be a United States today.” While this is a gloss of all his myriad accomplishments during the few short years he held the Secretary’s office, I’d hope it would make an impression. Now, because Hamilton is about to be removed from the $10 by a less illustrious successor at Treasury, the people who know their American History—and their Hamilton--are surprised and saddened


Timothy Geithner as well as other veterans and current occupants of high office have come to Hamilton’s defense. Ben Bernanke said of Hamilton "…without doubt, the best and most foresighted economic policymaker in U.S. history." Editorial writers for the New York Times, US Today, WSJ, and noted historians, like Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton is now considered the definitive work on his high-powered subject, have also registered their thoughts upon the matter.

But I’m a mere fiction writer, and to me there’s always been more to Hamilton than sterling service to his adopted country. Wanting to connect fully with his personal life, I discovered a wealth of primary source in the form of letters.  Fortunately, Elizabeth, his devoted wife, pursued and collected these in her long years of life after her husband's death. In these private communications, I was allowed a glimpse of the man behind the myth, his masks, his follies, instances of teasing and tenderness. Letters allow us, all these years later, to form an idea of what he was like. 

 I’ll start my examples with a political slur—on Hamilton and the American army—which was published in Rivington’s Tory Gazette in 1779, when he was George Washington’s most effective aide de camp. It evokes a picture of a bold, cheeky young man:

“Mrs. Washington has a mottled orange tom cat (which she calls in a complimentary way, ‘Hamilton’) with thirteen stripes around the tail and its flaunting suggested to congress the thirteen stripes for the flag.”

In his youth, among his male friends, Hamilton plays the worldly rake. Here are excerpts from a letter sent to a fellow ADC and dear friend, John Laurens, during the Revolution, a joking discussion of his requirements for a wife:  

“She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape), sensible ( a little learning will do)…of some good nature…as to religion, a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better…though I run no risk of going to purgatory for my avarice, yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world…it must needs be that my wife, if I get one, bring at least sufficency to administer to her own extravagancies…You will hear of many competitors for most of the qualifications required who will be glad to become candidates for such a prize as I am…(and) mind you do justice to the length of my nose…”

Daily life was far different before the advent of phones and rapid travel. Letters illuminate the hardships and stresses that might devolve upon an 18th Century family. Hamilton was often away from home, either riding the circuit as a lawyer, or while serving in some distant public body. Sometimes, his wife and children were in Albany with her Schuyler parents to escape the oppressive, fever-ridden city summers of Philadelphia and New York. Often, as a result of his indefatigable public life, (in the example below, during a term in the Continental Congress,) the family was separated. Here's a particularly anxious letter from a young husband to his wife:

“…I have borne your absence with patience ‘till about a week since, but the period we fixed for our reunion being come I can no longer reconcile myself. Every hour in the day I feel a severe pang on this account and half my nights are sleepless. Come my charmer and relieve me. Bring my darling boy to my bosom. Adieu Heaven bless you and speedily restore you to your fond husband…”

“I wrote to you my beloved Betsy by the last post…I count upon setting out to see you in four days; but I shall not be without apprehensions of being detained ‘till I have begun my journey…at this time, (attendance in) the House is thin…I give you joy my angel of the happy conclusion of the important work in which your country has been engaged. Now in a very short time I hope we shall be happily settled in New York.”

Many letters show concern about the ill health of their children. Originally, Hamilton had come to America to study medicine, and a continuing interest in the subject is evident throughout his life.

“The Secretary of the Treasury presents his respects to the president. The state of health of his little son and the situation of Mrs. Hamilton in consequence of it oblige him to request the present to excuse him from attending the interview with the Indians today and also to ask the President’s permission to make an excursion into the country for a few days to try the effect of exercise and change of air upon the child…”  To George Washington, July 11, 1794

Here, Hamilton, recently returned to the Capitol, writes to Elizabeth, absent in Albany with her younger children, one seriously ill, on Aug. 17, 1794:

“My Beloved Eliza… I am happy to inform you that the precious little ones we left behind are well… My heart trembles whenever I open a letter from you.” (Their youngest, John Church, had several strange "cures” tried upon his little body that summer, some suggested by his anxious father and others by attending physicians.) “The experiment of the pink root alarms, but I continue to place my hope in heaven…Alas, my beloved Johnny--what shall I hear of you! This question makes my heart sink….” 

“…If his fever should appear likely to prove obstinate, urge the Physician to consider well the propriety of trying the cold bath…”

And this last, a recollection by this same "Johnny," written down many years later: 

"...In the morning, early, he awakened me. Taking my hands in his palms, all four hands extended , he told me to repeat the Lord's Prayer. Seventy years have passed over my head, and I have forgotten many things, but not that tender expression when he stood looking at me...nor the prayer we made together the morning just before the duel..."

Whatever his other failings, Hamilton was a man who loved his family. As a writer particularly interested in the "little domestic world," as experienced in the past, this made him particularly fascinating to me.



~Juliet Waldron

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