Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Alexander Hamilton: not just another pretty face

Alexander Hamilton. 1757-1804. First Secretary of the Treasury of the United States in the administration of George washington.

Born on the Island of Nevis, in the British West Indies, the bastard child of Rachel Lavien and one James Hamilton, a son of a Scottish laird of Ayrshire.

Because he was a bastard, the infinitely Christ-like and compassionate Church of England denied him both membership in the church and an education in the church school. Hamilton obtained what early education he could from private tutors and by reading his mother's library of 34 books. But these books contained Roman and Greek classics.

The father abandoned them in 1765 and the mother died in 1768, leaving Hamilton not only a bastard but also effectively an orphan before he was a teenager. This was quite depressing, even by eighteenth-century standards. I mention all this to offer a possible reason for Hamilton's later arrogance and big mouth that would eventually be the death of him. (Quite literally.)

From the British West Indies to the the British American colonies, young Hamilton arrived in New Jersey via the port of Boston, in 1772. Revolution was already afoot; the Boston Tea Party occurred the following year when Hamilton was age 16. He was not a participant, though already on the side of the revolutionaries. He applied and was accepted at King's College in New York City (now Columbia University.)

The Americans engaged the British in 1775, laying siege to the city of Boston for months and finally being successful in dislodging the British. During the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought. It was a British victory, but they took 1,026 casualties in the process, leading Washington to remark to the effect he would be happy to lose battles of that sort any day.

It was at this time, in 1775, that 18-year-old college student Alexander Hamilton joined the army. [Many Americans believe that the American Revolution started on July 4, 1776, but that is not true. That was simply the date Washington (and others) finally prevailed on the Continental Congress to issue a formal declaration of independence. The actual fighting had long-since started by then.] Hamilton achieved the rank of Lieutenant in the New York artillery.

Alexander Hamilton was a politician since...God! - since birth, I guess, and soon, as he would all his life, he began collecting friends in high places. It was his modus operandi. His massaged his connections with New York movers and shakers, such as Alexander McDougall and future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay. He raised a 60-man artillery company and, surprise, was elected their captain. Age 19.

To his credit, the cocky little fucker firebrand was fearless, and his artillery made a good account of itself at White Plains, and even more so at the Battle of Trenton, where, perched on the highest ground in the city, his artillery kept the rented Hessians pinned down long enough for an even more cocky General Washington's raggedy taggers to disembowel them. It is, I think, safe to say that the name "Hamilton" and his artillery stuck prominently in the unfathomable recesses of His Excellency George Washington's agile mind after that memorable Christmas day feast on the Hessians. All this, you'll remember, came after Washington and his frozen-solid army, ensconced across the Delaware from the Hessians on Christmas Eve, made his historic and monumental decision that, since the British were miles away, partying big-time for the Christmas holiday, leaving only their rent-a-soldiers from Germany to loosely guard the gates to New Jersey, that this would be as good a time as any to have a go at the Krauts. At least that was apparently what Washington thought. Since he obviously wasn't going to be able to spend Christmas in front of the fireplace at Mt. Vernon anyway, why the heck not, right?
And so, leaving a few men behind to keep the campfires burning brightly for the benefit of the not-so-sharp Hessian lookouts, Washington raft-ferried 5000 men across the Delaware amongst the floating ice and the presumed bitching of his cold men, and delivered a fine Christmas present to the rented Germans, who, one must assume, were all deaf as well. I mean, really, how does one float a 5000 man army across the river, stumbling around at night, and not be heard by one's enemy? Okay, it probably happened upstream a bit. But such was Washington's luck his entire life. Did you know that Washington had three horses shot out from under him in the French and Indian war and never once took a bullet to his person? Way. But the French were notorious horse-shooters, so there's that. I made that up. I mean about the French being horse-shooters. But Washington WAS known for his good luck all his life. I think he thought he was invincible. Maybe he was.

"And God created George Washington, perhaps the younger brother of Jesus, to come down and kick the crap out of the British and make for us a homeland free and sacred."

So let it be written; so let it be done.

Washington apparently even had time to have his picture painted that cold night, standing in some bogus boat as he followed his raggedy boys across the Delaware. And then proceeded to kick das Krauters' goose-stepping asses all the way down the road to Trenton, where he then spent what one must assume was a pretty self-satisfied Christmas. Not quite Virginia, but better than Pennsyvania, eh? Valley Forge - Brrrrrrr!

Okay, so Washington only took Trenton for a few hours before the British, not in the least amused that their Christmas Partay-ing had been disrupted, and their rent-a-jerries routed, arrived to re-take Trenton. Of course by the time the terminally-pissed Brits showed, Washington and his shoeless Band of Brothers had, as usual, faded into the countryside like a morning fog, perhaps even singing a peppy Credence Clearwater ditty (Bad Moon Rising??) as they went, and carrying all the Trenton plunder they COULD carry, one assumes. Perhaps even some shoes - who knows? And that was the name of THAT game.

But, back to Hamilton. He had racked up enough brownie points that day to get the big invite to become Washington's aide-de-camp. THE General Washington, boys. The bastard from the islands was beginning to make his move.

Although Washington, one assumes, probably treated Hamilton more like a pet at first, the Father Of Our Country seemed to take a genuine shine to the cocky little bantam rooster before long. So, that was that. Everyone of importance seemed to detest Hamilton and his accompanying big mouth that he carried around on his face: first VP and second Prez John Adams could hardly bring himself to be civil to him; first Secretary of State Tom Jefferson, who was forced to serve with Hamilton in Washington's cabinet must have spent many evenings in tears and plotting of ways to off Alex. God, how Jefferson despised the wee blighter! And we all know what Jefferson's later VP, Aaron Burr, thought of Hamilton and his mouth. But at least Aaron got the last word, eh? But that's a story for later.

Anyway, George Washington liked the frisky little teen, later older Secretary, so that was that; it didn't mean JACK what the others liked or didn't like. As long as Washington lived, Hamilton had protection. But Washington didn't live long.

And so it came to pass, that when Lord Cornwallis turned around and looked behind himself at Yorktown (in Virginia - wouldn't you know), and saw that the French fleet had come a-callin', the Americans (after fumbling around under the Articles of Confederation for a few years) made a new constitution and formed their REAL government, and stocked it with all these above-named men (well, not Cornwallis, but the rest); then, lo, it came to pass that the little bastard from the back streets way down yonder on the isle of Nevis, became our first Secretary of the Treasury and got, ever since, his etched face plastered on the front of our ten-dollar bill. And you can take that to the bank. Really. You can take that to the bank.

I suppose this should be the end of the story. But Alexander Hamilton was not one to let fame and fortune cause him to let well enough alone and keep his mouth shut. Nosiree bobcat TAIL! A Federalist, he was not a fan of the new Republicans led by Jefferson and his side-kick Madison (himself also a diminutive founding father, you'll recall, who, in his spare time, wrote our constitution. I'm not quite sure how Madison and Hamilton buried the hatchet long enough to write the Federalist Papers - or perhaps Madison never REALLY hated Hamilton and was only pretending to hate him in order to please his mentor Jefferson. Will we ever REALLY know? Will anyone ever REALLY care?) and Jefferson's Vice-President, the ever-scowling Aaron Burr.

Both Hamilton and Burr were New Yorkers, and Hamilton sort of made it a hobby to follow Burr around and bad-mouth him to everyone who would listen. Well, not THAT overtly, but every chance he got. And the darkly furrowed Vice-President was not exactly taking it all that well, so to speak. If you get my drift. Scowling soon turned to frothing at the mouth and soon he called Alex out. Yeah. He do. Out for a duel.

Being as he was the one called out, it was Hamilton's choice of weapons. If Hamilton had been as brave as his mouth would have us believe, he would have chosen a knife in each hand in a pitch-dark room. At least that comes to MY mind as the most effective and inventive kind of duel, yet still somewhat fun - for a while. Well, perhaps not so much fun for the seconds. But nooooo. Dueling pistols.

Now it occurs to me that the simple fact that Hamilton even OWNED a set of dueling pistols says something about his plucky temperment. Don'tcha think? Anyway.

So in the early morning light they had themselves rowed across the river from New York (at that time you couldn't simply WALK across the thick jelly of the polluted Hudson) and Hamilton prepared to give Burr satisfaction. But, since Burr could only kill Hamilton one time, that was hardly satisfaction. Can't get NO satisfaction, as Mick Jagger might have said. Or not.

And so, as the history books tell us, Burr and Hamilton faced each other in the early morning light on the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, overlooking what would later become the site of the World Trade Center, and what would soon become New York's Financial District, but what was then only marked by a long stone wall along a street inventively called Wall Street, and they commenced a-dueling. And I don't mean Banjos.

Only the 2 gentlemen and their seconds were there, of course, since dueling was already frowned upon by the Law. The rowers and whoever-the-hell-else-that-had-come-with-them had to stay down in their boats and thus only heard the shots but therefore COULD NOT SWEAR IN COURT that a duel had indeed taken place (although when Vice-President Burr walked back down to his boat and Hamilton had to be carried, one suspects those who had waited down below then got the general drift of things.)

It didn't take the sworn-to-secrecy seconds long to start yapping about what had happened, and this is the story that emerged:

Hamilton got the privilege of the first shot at Burr, since Hamilton was the one challenged. (No, they didn't just start plinking away at each other like the Earps and the Clantons at the OK corral. There was ETIQUETTE to be observed, by damn.) Hamilton fired his shot purposely wide of Burr (his BALL breaking a small limb of a tree next to Burr. Ball-breaking. They WERE near Brooklyn, so it is ok to say ball-breaking.

This was on purpose. So they said. Hamilton had earlier said he intended to waste his shot and fully expected Burr to respond in kind and then, back in New York, perhaps... who knows?... go have a drink together, maybe. It's hard to say what was in Alex's mind these many years later, isn't it? My mind is just trying to reconstruct here. Sorry. I DO assume that as Burr was drawing a bead on him, Hamilton's eyes were probably blinking rapidly as he struggled to find words to the effect, "No. No, wait. I don't think you understand..."

Or, perhaps not. Perhaps just the vacant stunned look of a deer caught in the metaphorical headlights of the (finally-smiling) Aaron Burr.

History tells us the Vice-President did NOT respond in kind to Hamilton's noble gesture, but instead shot the great Hamilton in the stomach when it was his turn. In my mind's eye, I can visualize Burr's finger repeatedly jerking on the trigger just in case the dueling pistol happened to turn into a semi-automatic and he could cap Hamilton a few more times. But that mental image of mine is probably not valid. Be that as it may, I'm thinking Burr would have happily killed Hamilton another 8 or 10 times if he had been able.

As it was, he was only able to kill him once. But it did take Hamilton a whole day to die. So there was at least THAT satisfaction.

Then, I guess, Burr just went back down to Washington on the evening stage and presided over the Senate the next morning. I couldn't find any mention of his next-day's activities.

The end.

The flag in the painting is wrong. There were no stars on the American flag when Washington crossed the Delaware. At that time, they were using the Grand Union flag. It looked like this:


  1. fascinating and not very gentlemanly of Mr Burr but perhaps he had his reasons... I did spot the flag error tho' - do I get brownie points?

  2. Incredibly long-winded though it is, it has been fascinating stuff. :) I have learnt, and more to the point, I will remember.

  3. What an intriguing word is Hessian! I had no idea. So they didn't wear sackcloth. Or high boots. Well, perhaps they did, and I understand they may have imported a nasty fly, but I'm sure they didn't worry about mathematical matrices. You've set me off on a nice little side-track. How can one word have so many very diverse meanings?

    Sorry, is that another tangent? You don't need to answer.

  4. Like Sheila, when I saw how long the post was I thought wow Max do I have time for this now, but when I started reading I found it fascinating and funny with all the side comments from you. It is amazing how he could climb so high while so young, but then they say America is the land of opportunity....look at Pres Obama for instance.

    Anyway I did enjoy the story!

  5. Very "Stan Freberg's History of the United States if America"-ish.

    I can't tell if that's a compliment. It's entertaining, but it's not clear how accurate it is (other than the facts you snuck in).

  6. Well, the little lame doggie has done it again. What a loser! The lady who said you were long-winded doesn't know the half of it. It wouldn't be so bad, but you don't say anything.

    And the one who compared you to Freberg. I hope you know she's laughing AT you, bozo! Stan was -is- a comedic genius. A fucking GENIUS! And you are... ? What? A loser with an obscure blog with 3 readers? And a night job at Denny's?

    They've all got your number so why don't you just give it up, dog breath? They wonder how ACCURATE it is. I know. A pack of bullshit you just made up, that's how.

    And I doubt you've ever actually handled a ten dollar bill in your life, let alone OWN one! Maybe bringing someone their change at a table you were waiting on!

    I know I've said this a hundred times before, but it bears repeating: YOU STINK! You stink as a writer and you stink as a waiter! Aydeeohs dirtbag!

  7. Don't listed to that idiot, Maxie. I believe you!

  8. Sage - So good to have you back! Of course, yes, Mr. Burr had his reasons. Duels are fought about "honor" and Burr was tired of Hamilton's slander. Well, some of it was probaby true, but he didn't like that part either. :) What have you been up to? And YES! - you get browning points for knowing that flag! Washington himself raised that flag the first time! (Another free bonus factoid.)

    @Sheila -Thank you. I'm glad you learned something. There were many things covered in, hopefully, an interesting way that hid the fact that you might be learning something. As you know, I love history and like to go to the original sources for my facts. Happily, these gentlemen wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And their original writings are all in the Library of Congress, their own libraries, or collected in other books about these men and their exploits. But I was NOT long-winded. Just as Mozart used exactly the right number of notes to say what he wanted to say in music, so did I use EXACTLY the right number of words. :)

  9. A. - Hessian is indeed a remarkable word. And very good for cleaning food from between your two front teeth. :) I think I knew about the high boots with the tassel, but not the sack and other stuff. Did you know that the last Russian Empress was a princess from Hesse? Indeed she was. Her mother (a daughter of Queen Victoria - weren't they all!) married its ruler and her brother (Louis?) Was the ruler of Hesse at the time she and her family were murdered. Both she and her husband were grandchildren of the little Queen. Victoria was very prolific. But I know how you dislike talking about Queen Victoria. :) Of course he (her brother) was, as were the other state princes of Germany, subservient to cousin Willie, the Kaiser. Sigh. Yes, the Kaiser was also a grandson of Victoria. Hesse was a very busy place. I think they rented themselves out as soldiers just to get hands-on practice. :)

    @Frostygirl - I can't tell you how happy you are making me by continuing to read this stuff. All true, I promise. Well, except for the parts that I OBVIOUSLY am joking bout, where I imagine what their facial expressions were, and things like that. But over a hundred true historical facts in this piece. I'm glad you thought it was funny and not boring like a history book! I would caution you, however, to be careful about comparing Obama to any of these great men. Time will tell, of course. Although Obama would probably give Hamilton (and me) a run for his money in the long-winded talking department, if not the substance department. Take care. :)

  10. @Stephanie B - Thank you for reading it all the way through. Not a compliment, at least not to Mr. Freberg. :) Yes I tried to "sneak in" a few historical facts. In fact, the facts, even the ones I wasn't sneaky about, were still facts.

    I am still pondering your very good post on federalism. You teach me things.

  11. @ Tal E Wacker - You are getting tedious.

    A "pack of bullshit"? The more educated you are, the more facts you will recognize. It is only because you are so poorly read that it appeared I was making it up. Just because you personally have never heard of something, or didn't know something, doesn't mean well-read people haven't. You bring discredit to your argument simply by being so ignorant of history.

    And I have said THIS a hundred times: fuck off.

    @Tanisha - Thank you baby. How have you been? You need to come around more often. How is your school work going this year?

  12. I do not agree with Tal, by the way. Humor is a fine way to learn.

  13. Alright my llama-loving friend.
    I finally have my USB converter - meaning I should have the next podcast done tonight or tomorrow at the latest. As well, I will go out and get a specical USB microphone this weekend - I'm afraid tonight won't work for me.
    So - I'm afraid you've missed your chance to be part of podcast history again unless you hurry - maybe next episode?


  14. @Stephanie - humor? HUMOR???

    @Canucklehead - Just waiting for the podcast to resume. My remarks to you and for you are in this post. Did you not see them?

  15. Well! Very very loooong story, but well told I would say. I liked the little quips interjected just so, at least I think they were quips. You weren't trying to be funny were you? I thought not. You really need to leave the funny to a SAINT! :)))

  16. @Ettarose - "Little quips"? Hmmmm. :)

    Not a long story at all. Too long for a post, though. But you don't have to do anything about that - the post police have already paid me a visit and issued me a warning.

    I don't think a person can "try" to be funny. Every time I set out to try to be funny I end up sounding stupid. As you know. :) So does everyone else though, when they "try" to be funny. Funny people are simply funny people. You are funny. Chica is funny. Canucklehead is funny when he stops trying to be funny. Some others. I am only a smartass.

    I do try to be interesting, though. And history books are booooooooooooring. I think there is a l law they have to be though.

  17. You ain't lying. I've never run into an American History textbook that wasn't an effective sleep aid.

  18. I may have said this before, but if you had been my teacher I would have learned a lot more. And at the risk of vitriol directed to my poor pitiful self, Mr. Whacker is obviously a pseudonym and I often wonder if he is just possibility one of Max's other personalities. To keep things rocking.



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