Hamilton and Gates: Hamilton’s “Valley Forge” Moment

The end of 1777 was both an exciting and dark time for Hamilton.  As Washington’s aide, Hamilton was exposed to the darker side of the Continental Congress.  He also experienced the struggle of American soldiers and foreign allies against a bitter winter with limited supplies.  Hamilton found this period, when the American victory was far from certain and when factions within Congress and the Continental Army were turning against General Washington, to be extremely frustrating.  However, the lessons he learned in this time shaped his political philosophy and his distrust of some of the institutions of the pre-Constitution government.

File:Alexander Hamilton 1757 1804 hi.jpg

Alexander Hamilton in the Uniform of the New York Artillery” by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)

In November 1777, a month before the planned moved to the Valley Forge encampment, Washington sent Hamilton on a sensitive diplomatic mission to General Horatio Gates.  Washington wanted Hamilton to borrow a “sizable body of troops” for an attack upon British forces in New York or Philadelphia.   Washington trusted Hamilton’s discretion and gave his young aide a tremendous amount of power.  Washington gave a letter to Hamilton to show Gates, which laid out “the absolute necessity that there is for [Gates] detaching a very considerable part of the army at present under [Gates’s] command.”  However, Gates had no intention of cooperating with Washington. Prior to Hamilton’s arrival, Gates had won a series of important battles, culminating in the September and October 1777 battles at Saratoga in which he defeated British General John Burgoyne.  As Gates grew more famous, Washington suffered a series of defeats and struggled to hold major cities.  Gates was entrenched as the hero of the Eastern States while Washington was being criticized for his inability to protect the North.

Nineteenth Century historian John William Wallace sets this scene:

“In short,  it could not be reasonably doubted that Gates, who of necessity, was sufficiently acquainted with the great need which Washington had of reinforcements, meant to retard as much as possible the possession by him of such knowledge concerning operations as the North as would authorize a second demand by him for reinforcements for the benefit of Fort Mifflin.  The matter could no longer be trifled with, and on the 30th of October 1777…Washington…send the man whose wonderful ability he early discovered and ever confided in–Alexander Hamilton, then at the age of twenty years–direct to the new-made hero of the North, with instructions, obviously of a very strong kind, and which Hamilton omitted to carry out in their full extent only from a conviction of the power and malignity of the cabal–to forward an immediate reinforcement from the northern army.”

In a letter to Washington upon his arrival in Albany, Hamilton described his first encounter with Gate:

 “I arrived here yesterday, at noon, and waited upon General Gates immediately, on the business of my mission ; but was sorry to find his ideas did not correspond with yours for drawing off the number of troops you directed. I used every argument in my power to convince him of the propriety of the measure ; but he was inflexible in the opinion, that two brigades, at least, of Continental troops should remain in and near this place.


…all I could effect, was to have one brigade despatched, in addition to those already marched. I found myself infinitely embarrassed, and was at a loss how to act. I felt the importance of strengthening you as much as possible ; but, on the other hand, I found insuperable inconveniences in acting diametrically opposite to the opinion of a gentleman, whose successes have raised him into the highest importance.”

Given Gates’s hero status in the East, Hamilton felt that any attempt he made to strong-arm Gates on Washington’s behalf would result in an embarrassment for Washington because it would not be enforced.  In fact, such an attempt could further weaken Washington’s position as commander-in-chief.

Imagine Hamilton’s frustration!  Gates’s refusal to supply Washington with troops at a critical moment was characterized by Wallace as a major cause in the fall of Fort Mifflin the same month.

Wallace stated:

“No reinforcements ever came in time to be of value in saving Fort Mifflin- it fell on the night of the 15th of November….The delay in the arrival of certain of the troops was owing to the imbecility of General Putnam; but there is no ground to suppose that it was his purpose to cause the fall of the fort.  Had Gates wished to aid Washington there would have been little trouble in the case.  But if Washington could drive Howe from Philadelphia and reduce him to where General Burgoyne was, what became of the immeasurable superiority of Gates what of the sublime wisdom which characterized Conway and his fellow-conspirators in their estimate of Washington?  They all had, therefore, a specific problem to prove, and that Fort Mifflin should fall was a necessary thing to get their Q.E.D.  IT did fall, as Gates intended that it should.”

After Hamilton returned from his meeting with Gates, he fell violently ill and had to take bedrest for a few weeks before he joined Washington at Valley Forge for the rest of the winter.  Hamilton’s experience trying to push Congress to provide supplies for the hungry, weary, and cold soldiers stationed there shaped his frustration with Congress and his view that an energetic central government, rather than a confederacy of states was required to maintain stability.  (More on this soon!)

I think of Hamilton’s struggle with Gates as a “Valley Forge” moment, a moment of adversity and embarrassment, that ultimately made him more attuned to the political machinations around him and ultimately contributed to his political beliefs.

Images of Hamilton: John Trumbull

[Note: I am certainly no art historian, but I very much appreciate images of Hamilton as you can tell by my Facebook group: Alexander Hamilton: The Hotness Never Dies.  I’m going to use this series to focus on a few of the painters and sculptors who depicted Hamilton, and show some of the images of Hamilton I think do him the most justice.]

The Sierra Star recently published a piece on John Trumbull entitled “A Revolutionary Painter.”   Trumbull was an active participant in the revolution, and a military comrade of Hamilton.  He briefly served as an aide to Washington, and was involved in politics as he pursued his artistic career.  Trumbull produced some of the most iconic images of the Revolution and the Early Republic.  Trumbull painted several pictures of Hamilton, and featured him prominently in his group paintings of the Constitutional Convention and the Revolutionary War. 

Interestingly, Trumbull dined with both Hamilton and Burr on July 4, 1804.   In his autobiography, Trumbull recollected the event:

“On the 4th of July, I dined with the Society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, among others Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr.  The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour ; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sang an old military song.  A few days only passed, when the wonder was solved by that unhappy event which deprived the United States of two of their most distinguished citizens.”

Trumbull had planned to pursue his career in Boston, but found that the market for his services was too crowded by other artists.  He instead returned to New York, and was commissioned by the city government to paint whole length portraits of Jay and Hamilton.  Trumbull states that he created the portrait using the bust created by Ceracchi (and later bought by Jefferson to display in Monticello) as inspiration for those portraits.

This was painted in 1805, the year after Hamilton’s death, and Trumbull used various accumulated drawings as its basis.  This portrait is the basis for the design of the Ten Dollar bill. 

By John Trumbull, 1805. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC 

(The best bill!  Image found here)

This 1792 portrait has Hamilton standing at his desk “an inkwell with quill at hand-the heroic pose of a writer and thinker at the pinnacle of his career.”

This 1832 portrait was copied from an original that Trumbull had painted in Washington in 1792. 

From the Yale University Art Gallery eCatalogue

Trumbull is an interesting historical figure in his own right.  If you’re interested in reading more about him, I suggest looking at his Autobiography or John Trumbull : a brief sketch of his life, to which is added a catalogue of his works (1901) by John Ferguson Weir.

Hamilton on His Son

I wrote earlier about Philip Hamilton’s untimely death at age 19 in a duel at the Weehawken Dueling Grounds.  I came across this letter from Hamilton to his friend Richard Kidder Meade, dated August 27, 1782, describing his seven month old son.

“You reproach me with not having said enough about our little stranger.  When I wrote last I was not sufficiently acquainted with him to give you his character…He is truly a very fine young gentleman, the most agreeable in his conversation and manners of any I ever knew–nor less remarkable for his intelligence and sweetness of temper.  You are not to imagine by my beginning with his mental qualifications that he is defective in personal.  It is agreed on all hands, that he is handsome, his features are good, his eye is not only sprightly and expressive but it is fully of benignity.  His attitude in sitting is by connoisseurs esteemed graceful and he has a method of waving his hands that announces the future orator.  He stands however rather awkwardly and his legs have not all the delicate slimness of his fathers.  It is feared He may never excel as much in dancing which is probably the only accomplishment in which he will not be a model.  If he has any fault in manners, he laughs too much.  He has now passed his Seventh Month.”

And here’s an illustration of Hamilton and his son from Tumblr

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: The Haitian Revolution

Haiti has a tumultuous and fascinating history, and was the focus of a clash of opinions between Jefferson and the Federalists from 1799-1806. Hamilton supported the Haitian revolution and the government established under Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave. He helped draft Haiti’s constitution and advocated open trade with the new nation. On the other hand, Jefferson and his southern constituency were horrified by the idea of a free black republic.

Haiti was first discovered and conquered by Columbus and claimed for the Spanish as Hispaniola in 1492. The Spanish used it as a trading port and maintained control of the island until 1625, when the Spanish lost control due to Dutch resistance and retreated from most of the island. The French began establishing their presence on the island in the 1620s and in 1664, the French West India Company claimed the western part of the island. The French began to import large numbers of African slaves and set up a plantation economy focused on the production of sugar and coffee. Slave rebellions were frequent because of brutal conditions, so in 1685, King Louis XIV enacted the Code Noir, which served as the basis of the law of slavery in Saint- Domingue and the other French plantation colonies. Although the Code Noir legalized manumission of slaves and provided some rights for free blacks, it also created “a rigorously punitive scheme for the discipline of slave labor.” As time passed, the government began to pass laws restricting the rights of the large free black population, the gens de couleur. The combination of oppression towards slaves and towards the free black population created a tinderbox situation. In 1789, Vincent Ogé, a wealthy member of the gens de couleur petitioned the colonial government for equal rights for free people of color in Haiti. When his demands were rejected, he tried to lead an uprising, but was unsuccessful. In 1791, more slave rebellions occured, and successfully overthrew the government. Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the leader of the movement and the unofficial leader of the government. France officially ended slavery in its colonies in 1794, prompting L’Ouverture to support the French against the Spanish. Then, the British attempted to invade the island, but L’Ouverture drove them out in 1798 and took control of the government.

Now, the American government had to decide what to do with this new, unique political situation of slaves rebelling and actually controlling the government and military.

In Nation Among Nations, Thomas Bender describes the Haiti debate:

“Haiti heightened the partisan division. Much of the debate over American policy towards Haiti was framed within the larger debate between France and Britain, as Britain maneuvered to take advantage of troubles on the island. But, as Linda Kerber has observed, the debate about foreign policy “kept sliding into the subject of slavery.” When Federalists talked about the profits of trade, southern Republicans- Jefferson’s core constituency- saw only the question of American recognition of a black republic.”

Ted Widmer states: Under the Washington and Adams administrations, “a policy of quiet indifference [towards Haiti] gradually turned into commercial and even military support– support without which it would have been impossible for the experiment in black democracy to survive. ”

Hamilton understood the complicated political landscape surrounding the decision and on February 9, 1799 wrote:

…as in every thing else, we must unite caution with decision. The United States must not be committed on the independence of St. Domingo. No guaranty—no formal treaty—nothing that can rise up in judgment. It will be enough to let Toussaint be assured verbally, but explicitly, that upon his declaration of independence a commercial intercourse will be opened, and continue while he maintains it, and gives due protection to our vessels and property. I incline to think the declaration of independence ought to precede.

In June 1799, Adams issued a proclamation regarding Commerce with St. Domingo and allowed US ships to trade with Haiti. Hamilton worked closely with his friend and Adams’ Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering to develop this support. While some historians have inaccurately characterized this collaboration as occurring behind Adams’ back, Adams was in fact fully aware of these events and told Pickering that the negotiations with L’Ouverture “enjoyed his fullest approbation.” Hamilton was impressive in his “active sympathy for Haiti.” Hamilton and Pickering worked to have Hamilton’s close boyhood friend Edward Stevens deployed as Consul General of the United States at Cape-Francais in 1799. Hamilton also drafted the Haitian Constitution.

However, when Jefferson came to power, he immediately tried to recalled Stevens and embargoed trade with Haiti. As Bender states:

“Unlike Adams, [Jefferson] was widely recognized for his support of revolutions, even the French one. In defense of its turn to violence, he observed that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ But was what tolerable in Paris was not so in Cap Haitien. The revolution there terrified Jefferson.”

Jefferson’s complete resistance to the events in Haiti was a direct product of his racism and his desire to help his constituents maintain a slave system in the South. He feared that the example of a black republic would encourage resistance in the South. Ironically, the Louisiana Purchase was made possible only because Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti made a French empire in America pointless. Henry Adams described the acquisition of that territory and the prevention of French invasion as a debt owed by the American people “to the desperate courage of five hundred thousand Haytian negroes who would not be enslaved.” Clearly, Jefferson never saw it that way. After Hamilton’s death, American foreign policy became increasingly proslavery, and in 1806, a stiff embargo was placed on Haitian trade. Napoleon captured Toussaint L’Ouverture, who died in captivity. For a complete background of the Haitian revolution and the response of the Founding Fathers, see Gordon S. Brown’s Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution.

Hamil-Swag: Clothes

1) Children’s Alexander Hamilton Costume: aka how I will dress my future child.  Available from Buffalo Breath Costumes.

Click here to view larger image

2) T-Shirts: Cafe Press and Zazzle have a variety of designs to choose from.  My friend Morgan had a Hamilton shirt custom made for me, which was awesome.  Here are some of my favorites:

     – Foxiest of the Federalists (from Zazzle)

Alexander Hamilton- Foxiest of the Federalists T-shirt

– I ❤ Alexander Hamilton (Cafe Press has several color and design options)


3) Baseball Cap- “In my previous life I was Alexander Hamilton.”

PL Alexander Hamilton Baseball Cap

Feel free to chime in with your favorite Hamil-Swag clothing!

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: Enlisting Black Soldiers in the Continental Army

In a March 14, 1779 letter to John Jay, then-president of the Continental Congress, Hamilton advocated a proposal to raise three or four battalions of black soldiers.  This was a project that Hamilton and his friend and fellow abolitionist John Laurens came up with together, and John Laurens delivered the letter to Jay.  In the letter, Hamilton stated:

The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men.

In the book Black Patriots and Loyalists, Alan Gilbert describes the role of black soldiers in both the Loyalist and patriot cause.  The British actively recruited black soldiers, with Lord Dunmore’s November 1775 proclamation.  The proclamation stated that all indentured servants and slaves “free” who were “able and willing to wear arms.”  While black soldiers had been part of the colonial militias, Washington had refused to accept them into the official Continental Army.  However, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation prompted Washington’s decision to finally accept black soldiers in the army on December 31, 1775.  In 1781, during the Battle of Yorktown, when Hamilton was commanding a battalion of troops under Lafayette, Lieutenant Colonel de Gimat’s battalion was composed of a majority of black soldiers.

According to the Freedom Trail Foundation:

By 1779, 15% of the Continental Army and colonial militias were made of men of African decent. They saw action in every single major battle including Ticonderoga, Monmouth, Valley Forge, Princeton, and Washington’s Delaware crossing.

Despite the opposition of his contemporaries, and Washington’s initial refusal, Hamilton and Laurens persisted in advocating for the acceptance of black soldiers into the Continental Army.  Hamilton’s responses to the racist views of his contemporaries foreshadowed his lifelong commitment to the cause of abolition.  In sharp contrast to the blatant racism of “Enlightenment” thinker Jefferson, Hamilton never wavered on his philosophical opposition to slavery.

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: An Introduction

Paul Finkelman recently wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times focusing on Thomas Jefferson’s views on race. Finkelman states:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

I was discussing the issue this weekend with Rand Scholet at the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, and it is truly remarkable how progressive Hamilton’s views on race were compared to many of his contemporaries. Hamilton grew up in the West Indies and was surrounded by slavery: slaves accounted for almost 90% of the total population. He participated in the slave trade on an administrative basis as a young clerk, and developed a disgust towards the entire institution. When Hamilton was involved with the Revolution, he advocated allowing blacks to join the Continental Army, despite opposition from many of his contemporaries. Hamilton’s philosophies on race were comparatively extremely progressive. I plan to write a series of blog posts highlighting Hamilton’s stance on slavery and other racial issues including the incorporation of black soldiers into the Continental Army, the New York Manumission Society, and the rebellion in Haiti. For more background on this issue, see James Oliver Horton’s Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation.

Hamilton and the Filibuster

Changing the rules of the filibuster has again come front and center, with various prominent Democratic senators calling for a change in the Senate procedural rules to make it more difficult for Senators to invoke the filibuster. Of course, the filibuster as we know it today, was not part of the structure of the early constitutional government. However, some of Hamilton’s work seems to anticipate the current use of the filibuster as a purely partisan tool to increase gridlock. In Federalist No. 22, Hamilton addressed what he saw as a fundamental problem of the government under the Articles of Confederation- that smaller states had the ability to block legislation.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. Congress, from the nonattendance of a few States, have been frequently in the situation of a Polish diet, where a single veto has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements. A sixtieth part of the Union, which is about the proportion of Delaware and Rhode Island, has several times been able to oppose an entire bar to its operations. This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

It is not difficult to discover, that a principle of this kind gives greater scope to foreign corruption, as well as to domestic faction, than that which permits the sense of the majority to decide; though the contrary of this has been presumed. The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely to be done, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.

Hamilton was a dedicated supporter of protecting minority rights, even when his causes were deeply unpopular, as with his protection of Tories after the Revolution. However, he understood that a system that essentially gave a small fraction of the population the ability to block important decisions was unsustainable. Abuse of the filibuster by either party to gridlock government reduces our system to “a state of inaction” that Hamilton warned was unsustainable.

And, if you needed more reasons to dislike the filibuster…Aaron Burr laid the foundations for it before it became part of Senate strategy in the 1830s and 1840s.

For further reading on Hamilton and the filibuster, check out Hendrik Hertzberg’s 2011 piece in the New Yorker.