January 11, 1755 – Alexander Hamilton:
“Those who stand for nothing fall for everything.”
His life was exotic and enthralling, someone ought to make a musical about him. But don’t make it stodgy, it should be contemporary and fresh.
Hamilton was an American Founding Father; you hear so much about the Founder’s intentions in our age, we should all learn more before they all get hijacked by the GOP. He was also a soldier and military leader, an economist, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional lawyers, plus the very first United States Secretary of the Treasury; take that pouty-lipped Steve Mnuchin!
As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton was the primary author of the economic policies of George Washington‘s administration, taking on the funding of state debts by the Federal government, the establishment of a national bank, a system of tariffs, and friendly trade relations with England. He became the leader of the Federalist Party, created largely in support of his views. Who doesn’t love a party? In 1777, 45-year-old President Washington hired 22-year-old Hamilton to be his personal secretary and aide-de-camp and soon promoted him to lieutenant colonel.
A bastard child born in Charlestown on the West Indian island of Nevis, Hamilton was educated at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City, where he lived with a 32-year-old “bachelor” male haberdasher, Hercules Mulligan.
After finishing his studies, Hamilton served in the revolutionary Continental Army. He raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of 60 men, and in 1776, and was elected captain. After the Battle of Yorktown, Hamilton resigned his commission. In 1782, he was appointed to Congress as a New York representative. Before his appointment, Hamilton was already sharing his criticisms of Congress. He wrote:
“The fundamental defect is a want of power in Congress…the confederation itself is defective and requires to be altered; it is neither fit for war, nor peace.”
He resigned to practice law and then founded the Bank of New York. In 1789, Washington appointed Hamilton as the first ever Treasury Secretary of the United States of America. Washington, who was in a life-long childless marriage, and Hamilton probably had an intimate relationship. Hamilton was already known to have relationships with both men and women. Washington’s very close devotion to Hamilton turned rather icy after Hamilton married a woman following the death of Hamilton’s great love, John Laurens (1754-1782), an anti-slavery statesman from South Carolina.
Laurens “never had difficulty attracting women or men, while reserving “his primary emotional commitments for other men“, according to Laurens’ biographer Gregory D. Massey. Laurens’ life centered around his attachments to other men and male bonding.
While serving with Washington, Laurens met Hamilton. Laurens was elected to the South Carolina assembly in 1779, but resigned to fight against a British invasion. When Charleston surrendered to the British in 1780, Laurens was held as a POW until his exchange for a British officer held by the Americans. That year, 26-years-old Laurens was sent by Congress to France on a successful mission to obtain much-needed money and supplies.
There are letters from when Hamilton was 22 and Laurens was 25. Both young revolutionaries were part of that close male circle surrounding Washington. His “family”, as Washington dubbed them.
In September 1780, Hamilton writes to Laurens, under arrest and jailed in Pennsylvania:
“That you can speak only of your private affairs shall be no excuse for your not writing frequently. Remember that you write to your friends, and that friends have the same interests, pains, pleasures, sympathies; and that all men love egotism.”
They exchanged hundreds of letters during the years when they had different assignments. Laurens, captured by the British, was prevented from being at Hamilton’s wedding to Elizabeth Schuyler in December 1780, even though Hamilton had invited him. In that era, emotional language was common in romantic friendships of the same gender, but the intensely expressive language in the Hamilton-Laurens letters are very telling, even though sodomy was a capital offense throughout the new nation. Hamilton did not form friendships easily and never again revealed his interior life to another man as he had to Laurens.
In one letter Hamilton tells Laurens:
”In spite of Schuyler’s black eyes, I have still a part for the public and another for you; so your impatience to have me married is misplaced; a strange cure by the way, as if after matrimony I was to be less devoted than I am now.”
Hamilton hints that he is marrying Schuyler only for appearances sake. Hamilton references that Laurens commented that he thinks marriage will ”cure” Hamilton. Laurens believed that if Hamilton married a woman, he would be freed from his desire for men and would be able to escape the hardships of life as a queer man.
As Washington’s aides-de-camp Laurens and Hamilton were constantly busy, handling all of Washington’s correspondence and delivering his orders. They worked side by side. It was also during this time that they met and befriended the Marquis de Lafayette, who would become the third member of their little trio. Lafayette spent time with them whenever he was at headquarters and became very close to both. It is unlikely that Lafayette was ignorant of what was going on between his two friends.
Hamilton and Laurens compared each other to Damon and Pythias, a common euphemism for a devoted same-sex couple. In Greek mythology, Pythias, had been condemned to death by Dionysius, and wanted to return home first to put his affairs in order. Damon agreed to be put to death instead of his lover, if Pythias did not return to face his execution. Pythias returned as promised, sparing Damon’s life. Dionysius was so impressed by their devotion to each other that he pardoned Pythias and asked to be friends with the couple.
In 1779, upset with Laurens for not corresponding as much as he would have liked, Hamilton wrote:
“…like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed, and my vanity piqued.”
In 1781 Hamilton requested a transfer from Washington’s staff to be able to serve in combat with Laurens, and the request was granted. Hamilton and Laurens engaged in many military campaigns together, until Laurens was tragically killed in a skirmish in 1782. Hamilton was completely devastated.
Four months prior to Laurens’ death on the battlefield, Hamilton had written to Laurens playfully suggesting that Laurens find a wife for him, offering an exaggerated and amusing description of the ideal candidate’s appearance, personality and financial standing. Hamilton then writes:
“Do I want a wife? No – I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all.”
Late the following year, Hamilton did marry. His wife was the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in New York City. When he became president, Washington appointed Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. However, Hamilton left the poorly paid Treasury position in 1795 to resume his more lucrative law practice, but he remained a valued adviser to the president.
When the contentious presidential race of 1800 ended in an Electoral College tie, the House of Representatives was charged with resolving the situation. Hamilton put the good of his nation above party loyalty. Because he believed the Federalist candidate, Aaron Burr, would be a disastrous president, Hamilton went on a campaign to urge his fellow party members to vote instead for his longtime political adversary. Burr received the second highest number of votes, and became Vice President, but he never forgave Hamilton. When Burr ran for governor in New York State in 1804, Hamilton’s influence was strong enough to prevent a Burr victory. Taking offense at some of Hamilton’s comments, Burr challenged him to a duel in July 1804, and wounded Hamilton, who died the next day at the Greenwich Village home of his friend William Bayard Jr.
Hamilton had a marriage that produced eight children, but Hamilton’s relationship with Laurens was the most important romantic and emotional bond of his life. When we study American History, this part of his story is left out. The most embarrassing paragraphs from Hamilton’s effusive letters to Laurens have been edited, but a biography from 1902 tells how Laurens:
“…took Hamilton by storm, capturing judgement as well as heart, and loving him as ardently in return. Hamilton mourned him passionately, and never ceased to regret him. His wife consoled, diverted, and bewitched him, but there were times when he would have exchanged her for Laurens. The perfect friendship of two men is the deepest and highest sentiment of which the finite mind is capable; women miss the best in life.”
Hamilton’s grandson, Allen McLane Hamilton (1848 – 1919) wrote that many of his grandfather’s male friends were attracted to his “feminine traits”. Hamilton’s son John C. Hamilton (1792 – 1882) named his son Laurens. John C. was the one who went through all of Hamilton’s papers in the years after his death. It is possible that John C. understood that he had stumbled upon their romance.
The memory of the love of Hamilton and Laurens lives on in San Francisco at the Alexander Hamilton Post 448 of the American Legion, the organization’s single post with primarily LGBTQ veterans.
Hamilton and Laurens are depicted standing together on the “Surrender of Cornwallis” commemorative USPS postage stamp from 1981. The stamp was based on a painting commissioned by the government in 1817 from painter John Trumbull. In the extreme right of the painting, Hamilton, with hands clasped in front of him, stands in the front row immediately to the right of the ash colored horse with the prominent neck; the similarly dressed Laurens stands next to him. This painting hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building.
And of course, Hamilton’s face is on the $10 bill in commemoration of the first Secretary of the Treasury.