Albany Law School will confer an honorary degree on Alexander Hamilton in recognition of his influence in the Albany area. The degree will be conferred as part of the law school’s 167th Commencement ceremony on May 17, 2018. The award will be accepted by Douglas Hamilton, Alexander’s fifth great-grandson.
Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, author of a large portion of the Federalist Papers, and a Colonel to George Washington in the Revolutionary War.
Hamilton traveled to Albany for the first time in 1777 on behalf of George Washington to meet with General Horatio Gates, to convince Gates to provide Washington with reinforcements.
In 1780, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany where Aaron Burr was one of the invited guests. Elizabeth was the daughter of the prominent Albany family patriarch Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War general, and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler.
Hamilton spent considerable time in Albany, staying often with his in-laws when legal work brought him to the state’s high courts. Both Hamilton and Aaron Burr studied law and were admitted to the bar by 1783. They both opened law offices in New York City. Because New York’s Capitol, the highest court—the Supreme Court of Judicature (later the Court of Appeals)—and the state legislature were all in Albany, Hamilton and Burr were frequently in the area. Burr kept an office at 24 South Pearl Street, while Hamilton often stayed with his in-laws the Schuylers.
Continuous conflicts between Burr and Hamilton eventually led to Burr challenging Hamilton to a duel in 1804. It was the Albany Register that published a letter with disparaging remarks allegedly made by Hamilton about Burr that brought the conflict to a head.
Reportedly Hamilton shot in the air, but Burr aimed and hit his target. Hamilton died the following day at age 47.
On July 4, 1786, Alexander Hamilton gave an oration to the memory of Nathanael Greene in front of an audience of fellow Revolutionary veterans in the Society of the Cincinnati. Greene had died unexpectedly of heatstroke on June 19, 1786 at his home in Georgia.
Hamilton noted the strong connection that he felt to Greene because of their shared service to their country.
All the motives capable of interesting an ingenuous and feeling mind conspire to prompt me to its execution. To commemorate the talents virtues and exploits of great and good men is at all times a pleasing task to those, who know how to esteem them. But when such men to the title of superior merit join that of having been the defenders and guardians of our country—when they have been connected with us as companions in the same dangers, sufferings, misfortunes and triumphs—when they have been allied to us in the still more endearing character of friends—we recal the ideas of their worth with sensations, that affect us yet more nearly, and feel an involuntary propensity to consider their fame as our own. We seem to appropriate to ourselves the good they have acquired, and to share in the very praise we bestow.
Hamilton spoke of the potential of revolution to provide opportunities for people to display their talents and virtues.
It is an observation as just as it is common that in those great revolutions which occasionally convulse society human nature never fails to be brought forward in its brighest as well as in its blackest colors: And it has very properly been ranked not among the least of the advantages which compensate for the evils they produce, that they serve to bring to light talents and virtues which might otherwise have languished in obscurity or only shot forth a few scattered and wandering rays.
Although he was speaking about Greene, Hamilton could have been talking about his own dreams of glory in revolution. He noted that Greene would have been destined for a more ordinary life if it had not been for the “violated rights of his country” calling “him to act a part on a more splendid and more ample theatre.” Given this opportunity, Green did not hesitate to take action and risk everything.
Happily for America he hesitated not to obey the call. The vigor of his genius corresponding with the importance of the prize to be contended for, overcame the natural moderation of his temper; and though not hurried on by enthusiasm, but animated by an enlightened sense of the value of free government, he chearfully resolved to stake his fortune his hopes his life and his honor upon an enterprise of the danger of which he knew the whole magnitude in a cause which was worthy of the toils and of the blood of heroes.
Hamilton proceeded to give a long, but riveting (and slightly embellished) account of Greene’s military accomplishments and his instrumental role in battles in South Carolina and Georgia.
Hamilton spoke of the eternal gratitude of the citizens after the battles:
The evacuation of the two capitals of South Carolina and Georgia intirely restored those states to their own governments and laws. They now hailed the Illustrious Greene as their defender and deliverer. Their gratitude was proportioned to the extent of the benefits resulting from his services nor did it shew itself in words only but was manifested by acts that did honor to their generosity.
Hamilton concluded by lamenting that Greene was “only allowed to assist in laying the foundation and not permitted to aid in rearing the superstructure of American greatness[.]”
But where alas is now this consumate General, this brave soldier, this discerning statesman, this steady patriot, this virtuous citizen, this amiable man? Why could not so many talents, so many virtues, so many bright and useful qualities shield him from a premature grave? Why was he not longer spared to a country which he so dearly loved, which he was so well able to serve, which still seems so much to stand in need of his services? Why was he only allowed to assist in laying the foundation and not permitted to aid in rearing the superstructure of American greatness?
A contemporary description of the event called it an “elegant eulogium” and noted that the President, Vice-President, senate, the speaker, and the house of representatives all attended. (Note that because this was before the Washington Administration, the President and Vice-President at this time were elected under the Articles of Confederation).
One great example of the legendary collaboration between Washington and Hamilton during Washington’s presidency is in the written correspondence they shared in the summer of 1792. Washington described concerns that were raised to him about the administration’s policy’s, most of which had been built and enacted by Hamilton himself. In response, Hamilton (unsurprisingly) drafted a lengthy, 10,000+ word response that addressed each of the objections Washington presented. I’ve included excerpts of some of the objections and Hamilton’s responses that I found most interesting below along with some commentary and analysis, but I encourage you to read the full letters, available from Founders Online. You can find Washington’s July 29, 1792 letter here, and Hamilton’s August 18, 1792 response here.
Washington wrote to Hamilton from Mt. Vernon about his conversations with others about the state of the government:
“On my way home, and since my arrival here, I have endeavoured to learn from sensible & moderate men—known friends to the Government—the sentiments which are entertained of public measures. These all agree that the Country is prosperous & happy; but they seem to be alarmed at that system of policy, and those interpretations of the Constitution which have taken place in Congress.”
Washington divided the concerns into twenty-one categories, and asked Hamilton to respond to those criticisms “as soon as you can make it convenient to yourself.” Most of the criticisms focused on financial policy. Hamilton responded about three weeks later with a lengthy point-by-point defense of the policies he had put into place.
The first and foremost concern Washington expressed was that the public debt was “greater than we can possibly pay” and that the amount of the debt had been miscalculated. Summing up the criticisms he had heard, he wrote:
“That the public debt is greater than we can possibly pay before other causes of adding new debt to it will occur; and that this has been artificially created by adding together the whole amount of the debtor & creditor sides of the accounts, instead of taking only their balances; which could have been paid off in a short time.”
First, Hamilton defended the amount of the debt:
“The public Debt was produced by the late war. It is not the fault of the present government that it exists; unless it can be proved, that public morality and policy do not require of a Government an honest provision for its debts.”
Hamilton responded, ridiculing the assumptions of the critics who had spoken to Washington:
“The thirteen States in their joint capacity owed a certain sum. The same states, in their separate capacities, owed another sum. These two sums constituted the aggregate of the public Debt. The public, in a political sense, compounded of the Governments of the Union and of the several states, was the debtor. The individuals who held the various evidences of debt were the creditors. It would be non-sense to say, that the combining of the two parts of the public Debt is adding together the Debtor and Creditor sides of the account. So great an absurdity cannot be supposed to be intended by the objection. Another meaning must therefore be sought for.”
Hamilton also discussed the general benefits of having a public debt:
“The general inducements to a provision for the public Debt are—I To preserve the public faith and integrity by fulfilling as far as was practicable the public engagements. II To manifest a due respect for property by satisfying the public obligations in the hands of the public Creditors and which were as much their property as their houses or their lands their hats or their coats. III To revive and establish public Credit; the palladium of public safety. IV To preserve the Government itself by shewing it worthy of the confidence which was placed in it, to procure to the community the blessings which in innumerable ways attend confidence in the Government and to avoid the evils which in as many ways attend the want of confidence in it.”
After an extensive justification of his financial policy, Hamilton responded to the political points raised by critics. One of the objections Washington included was that Hamilton’s ultimate goal was to change the present republican form of Government. Critics today have sometimes leveled the same criticism of Hamilton.
Hamilton’s response to the charge was very direct:
“To this there is no other answer than a flat denial—except this that the project from its absurdity refutes itself.
The idea of introducing a monarchy or aristocracy into this Country, by employing the influence and force of a Government continually changing hands, towards it, is one of those visionary things, that none but madmen could meditate and that no wise men will believe.
If it could be done at all, which is utterly incredible, it would require a long series of time, certainly beyond the life of any individual to effect it. Who then would enter into such plot? For what purpose of interest or ambition?
To hope that the people may be cajoled into giving their sanctions to such institutions is still more chimerical. A people so enlightened and so diversified as the people of this Country can surely never be brought to it, but from convulsions and disorders, in consequence of the acts of popular demagogues.
The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.”
If you’re interested in reading more on the relationship and collaboration between Washington and Hamilton, here are some suggested reading titles:
This is the first of a two part series on Hamilton’s interactions with General Charles Lee. Look out for part two next week!
The University of Virginia’s Washington Papers gives this background of the Battle of Monmouth:
On 28 June 1778 the British and American forces engaged near Monmouth, New Jersey. The battle occurred when Maj. Gen. Charles Lee retreated unexpectedly after briefly engaging with the British as the British removed themselves from the village of Monmouth Courthouse. When Lee’s troops retreated towards the main body of the American forces, the British troops under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton followed close behind. Despite the great confusion resulting from the unexpected retreat, the American forces repelled the British advances. The events surrounding Lee’s retreat and Washington’s reaction to that retreat precipitated Lee’s eventual court martial, as the Lee-Washington letters make clear.
On July 4, 1778, the court martial proceedings against Lee began.
Jeff Dacus, in the Journal of the American Revolution wrote:
The court martial proceedings began on July 4, chaired by Lord Stirling, in a tavern at New Brunswick. The general officers present were Jedediah Huntington of Massachusetts, Enoch Poor of New Hampshire, William Smallwood of Maryland, and William Woodford of Virginia. None of these officers had been in the thick of the fighting on June 28.
At the court martial, Lee was permitted to ask questions to challenge the witnesses against him. Hamilton’s role in these proceedings is documented in his papers.
On July 4, Hamilton was asked questions centered on what orders from General Washington were communicated to Lee. Hamilton had actually written the letter communicating Washington’s orders to Lee, and testified to his memory of the contents of the letter because no copy was available.
Hamilton stated that the orders he wrote to Lee were in the spirit of previous communications from Washington to Lee. Lee had been ordered to detach a group of 600-800 men to skirmish with British troops to delay them so that other troops would have time to move forward:
“… the order directed that General Lee should detach a party of 6 or 800 men to lie very near the enemy, as a party of observation, in case of their moving off, to give the earliest intelligence of it, and to skirmish with them so as to produce some delay, and give time for the rest of the troops to come up…”
Hamilton expressed that Washington’s clear intent was to have Lee attack the British:
“from everything I knew of the affair, General Washington’s intention was fully to have the enemy attacked on their march, and that the circumstances must be very extraordinary and unforeseen, which, consistent with his wish, could justify the not doing it.”
At the second session of Hamilton’s testimony, on July 13th, Hamilton gave his perspective of what happened at the Battle of Monmouth, and the interaction between Washington and Lee on the field.
First, Hamilton stated that Lee’s troops had not attacked the enemy, except for small attacks by two small groups of troops, one of which Hamilton proposed to Lee.
Hamilton testified that he watched Washington give Lee a direct order to remain and fight. Lee had accepted these orders and told Washington hat he would not be the “first man to leave the field.” However, even after this exchange, Lee directed his troops to fall back.
“I heard General Washington say to General Lee, that it would be necessary for him (General Washington) to leave the ground and form the main body of the army, while I understood he recommended to General Lee to remain there, and take measures for checking the advance of the enemy; General Lee replied he should obey his orders, and would not be the first man to leave the field. I was some little time after this near General Lee, during which, however, I heard no measures directed, nor saw any taken by him to answer the purpose above-mentioned.”
Hamilton described the troops marching in retreat as “marching without system or design.”
“The corps that I saw were in themselves in tolerable good order, but seemed to be marching without system or design, as chance should direct, in short, I saw nothing like a general plan, or combined disposition for a retreat; in this, however, the hurry of the occasion made it very difficult to have a distinct conception.”
Lee was found guilty of the charges by the court martial and was suspended from the army for a year. Dacus writes:
The sentence of the court was Lee’s suspension from the army for a year. The sentence was forwarded to Congress. Congress agreed to the court’s decision by a close vote, thirteen to seven, on December 5, 1778.
After his court martial, Lee let his discontent simmer and publicly complained of Washington’s poor leadership. He published a Vindication to the Public, with his version of events to defend his reputation.
Edward Bobins, writing in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography provides some background:
Charles Lee subsequently published what he called a ‘ ‘ Vindication to the Public, ‘ ‘ which was an able bit of special pleading and convinced some readers that he was a martyr, but which otherwise fell flat.
This set the stage for a showdown involving Lee and Washington’s loyal aides and supporters, Hamilton and John Laurens.
In February 1780, Hamilton wrote a letter to Eliza’s younger sister, Margarita (nicknamed Peggy) to introduce himself. At this time, he hadn’t met Peggy, but he had heard about her from Eliza.
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 every thing that concerns her; and though I have not the happiness of a personal acquaintance with you, I have had the good fortune to see several very pretty pictures of your person and mind which have inspired me with a more than common partiality for both.
You will no doubt admit it as a full proof of my frankness and good opinion of you, that I with so little ceremony introduce myself to your acquaintance and at the first step make you my confident.
Hamilton playfully described having “serious and henious” charges to make against Eliza because of her beauty and charm:
I have some things of a very serious and heinous nature to lay to her charge. She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty.
Hamilton’s description is framed in the difference between Eliza and all other women in society, who Hamilton characterized as being frivolous and foolish. His backhanded compliments wouldn’t be out of place in a modern day dating website.
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 as well as to men of understanding so that as the matter now stands it is ⟨very⟩ little known beyond the circle of these. She has good nature affability and vivacity unembellished with that charming frivolousiness 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 from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman.
Hamilton joked that Eliza was breaking hearts and turning heads all over Morristown.
I should never have done, were I to attempt to give you a catalogue of the whole, of all the hearts she has vanquished, of all the heads she has turned, of all the philosophers she has unmade, or of all the inconstants she has fixed to the great prejudice of the general service of the female world.
He told Peggy that Eliza’s influence was so strong, that to preserve the safety of the state and the army she needed to be removed from the neighborhood:
It is essential to the safety of the state and to the tranquillity of the army that one of two things take place; either that she be immediately removed from our neighbourhood, or that some other nymph qualified to maintain an equal sway come into it. By dividing her empire it will be weakened and she will be much less dangerous when she has a rival equal in charms to dispute the prize with her.
In 1804, as Thomas Jefferson was running for a second term as President of the U.S., the race to be governor of New York was heating up. Burr (who was still the sitting vice president) ran against Morgan Lewis (a Democratic-Republican) on a Federalist platform. Although Burr had previously run for political office as a Democratic-Republican, he tried to build Federalist support for his campaign. (The popular sitting governor of New York, George Clinton, was replacing Aaron Burr in the presidential race as Thomas Jefferson’s choice for Vice President, and would be Vice President of the U.S. until his death in 1812… it’s a tangled web)
Hamilton’s notes, from a February 10, 1804 speech at a Federalist meeting in Albany lay out eight reasons why the Federalists should not support Burr for Governor and should instead support a Democratic-Republican candidate.
The first reason centered on Hamilton’s belief that Burr was a calculated politician, governed by his own ambition rather than by set principles. He wrote that Burr had been aligned with the Democratic-Republicans, either because he believed in those values (“from principle”) or because he thought that it would make it easier for him to win (“from calculation”). If Burr’s decision was based on his principles, Hamilton stated that he would not change his principles at a time when the Federalist party was struggling. If Burr had made a strategic decision, he was not going to “relinquish the ladder of his ambition” for the good of the Federalist party.
“Col Burr has steadily pursued the ⟨track⟩ of democratic policies. This he has done either from principle or from calculation. If the former he is not likely now to change his plan, when the federalists are prostrate and their enemies predominent. If the latter, he will certainly not at this time relinquish the ladder of his ambition and espouse the cause or views of the weaker party.”
Second, Hamilton described with begrudging respect that Burr was a talented politician who would be able to rally people around him
“it will be no difficult task for a man of talents intrigue and address possessing this chair of Government to rally the great body of them under his standard and thereby to consolidate for personal purposes the mass of Clintonians, his own adherents among the democrats and such federalists as from personal good will or interested motives may give him support.”
Hamilton also expressed his fear that Burr becoming governor would unite the democratic party:
“The effect of his elevation will be to reunite under a more adroit able and daring chief the now scattered fragments of the democratic party and to reinforce it by a strong detachment from the federalists.”
Hamilton expressed the fear that Burr would capitalize on the tendency of popular governments to “dissolution and disorder” and would build up popular prejudices and vices.
If he be truly, as the federalists have believed, a man of irregular and insatiable ambition; if his plan has been to rise to power on the ladder of Jacobinic principles, it is natural to conclude that he will endeavor to fix himself in power by the same instrument, that he will not lean on a fallen ⟨and⟩ falling party, generally speaking of a character not to favour usurpation and the ascendancy of a despotic chief. Every day shews more and more the much to be regretted tendency of Governments intirely popular to dissolution and disorder. Is it rational to expect, that a man who had the sagacity to foresee this tendency, and whose temper would permit him to bottom his aggrandisement on popular prejudices and vices would desert this system at a time, when more than ever the state of things invites him to adhere to it?
Although Lansing was a political enemy and an anti-Federalist who had vigorously opposed the Constitution and ruled against Hamilton as a judge, Hamilton believed that Lansing’s strength of personal character would protect the office.
If Lansing is Governor his personal character affords some security against pernicious extremes, and at the same time renders it morally certain, that the democratic party already much divided and weakened will moulder and break asunder more and more. This is certainly a state of things favorable to the future ascendancy of the wise and good. May it not lead to a recasting of parties by which the fœderalists will gain a great accession of force from former opponents?
Burr ultimately lost the election, and Morgan Lewis became the Governor of New York. Burr’s loss, in April 1804, happened just a few months before his duel with Hamilton in July 1804.
As people try to recover and rebuild from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, the hurricane coverage brought to mind Hamilton’s experience as a teenager living in St. Croix when it was hit by a destructive hurricane in 1772.
It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country.
Hamilton’s letter was published by the Royal Danish Gazette the following month.
A contemporary newspaper account published by Will Johnson at the Saba Islander states:
“From the advices just come to hand from America, is selected the following melancholy account of the effects of the Great Storm on August 31st, at the Caribbean islands.—St. Eustatia, 400 houses on the higher grounds destroyed, or rendered untenantable ; many houses carried ten or twelve yards, and others quite into the sea. Plantation-houses all down, except two, and the canes on the ground all twisted up. The Dutch church blown into the sea.—At Saba, 180 houses blown down, and the cattle carried away from their stakes.- At. St.Martin’s scarce a house standing, all their plantations destroyed. —St. Croix a every house almost at Christianstad, and all the plantations and negro houses leveled. Only three houses left standing at Frederickstadt, and numbers of people killed. At St. Kitts’s, almost all the estates are destroyed, there being scarce a mill or boiling house left standing.”