Images of Hamilton: A New Home for Hamilton Portrait

Earlier, I wrote a post about John Trumbull’s images of Hamilton .   Today, we got some exciting news about one of Trumbull’s most iconic Hamilton portraits!  Credit Suisse, the owner of the portrait,  announced that it will be gifted to two institutions: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  This split ownership arrangement will allow the painting to be seen by audiences in two very different parts of the country.  Credit Suisse had put the painting on view at public institutions for short periods of time, but it decided that the painting should be permanently accessible to the public.  The painting was acquired by Credit Suisse as part of its takeover of another investment bank, DLJ.  The painting had been part of DLJ’s corporate art collection.

CEO Brady Dougan stated:  “Donating this well-known and highly regarded 1792 portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull to both Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art ensures that the widest possible American and international audiences can enjoy and study this historic piece of fine art for perpetuity”

The New York Times description of the portrait’s history states:

The painting’s history is very much a New York story. In 1791 five New York merchants representing the Chamber of Commerce commissioned Trumbull to paint a full-length portrait of Hamilton, President Washington’s secretary of the Treasury.

For Trumbull the assignment was trickier than it seemed. He and his subject were friends, and Hamilton was vocal in wishing his portrait to appear “unconnected with any incident of my political life.” But the men who commissioned the painting wanted it to hang in a public building. How then could Trumbull please his clients, who said they envisioned a work stately enough to be on public view, and the sitter, who shunned anything remotely official?

Taking his inspiration from European Grand Manner portraiture, the artist posed Hamilton standing, one hand on a table that is empty except for an ink stand and papers, devoid of any political references. In the background is an archway on one side and an architectural column on the other, along with a chair with a robe causally thrown over it.

Hamilton’s warm expression reflects the artist’s obvious affection for his subject. Trumbull called Hamilton’s fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, “the unhappy event which deprived the United States of two of their most distinguished citizens.”

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.

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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.

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.