"Washington and Hamilton," Tony Williams
Prior to Broadway and Hollywood’s creation of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison as The Odd Couple, America’s Founding Fathers included their own “odd couple” of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton---two very different men who shared similar visions on American independence and how to govern the newly created United States.
“You can’t imagine two more disparate characters than Washington and Hamilton,” said author Tony Williams at the November 18, 2015 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. Williams is the co-author along with Stephen F. Knott of the recently published book entitled Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America.
“George Washington was a Virginia planter who served in the House of Burgesses, married a rich widow and even started a war---the French and Indian War,” said Williams. “Alexander Hamilton was an illegitimate child born in the West Indies whose father abandoned him, whose mother died when he was 13 years old and whose guardian killed himself. And yet at the age of 14 he went to work, running a Caribbean mercantile house where he showed his native genius.”
Williams noted that Washington was one of the first Founding Fathers willing to go to war with Great Britain. As early as April 1769, Washington wrote to his friend and Fairfax County neighbor George Mason, “That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment to use arms in defense of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends.”
“Washington is in the forefront and probably given far less credit than some of the other early American patriots such as Samuel Adams,” said Williams. “He is a man of virtue, a man of action and doesn’t let anyone violate his rights.”
Washington and George Mason were early allies during the boycott of British goods and in writing the Fairfax Resolves, which stated that the colonists were entitled to the rights of Englishmen and the “natural rights of mankind” when it came to such issues as American self-government and taxation.
In October 1772 Hamilton left the West Indies for America, thanks to the efforts of several affluent Caribbean friends who wanted Hamilton to get a college education. At first Hamilton considered Princeton but decided against it when John Witherspoon, Princeton’s president, would not permit Hamilton to take the large volume of courses necessary for him to graduate in only two years. As a result, Hamilton elected to enroll at King’s College (modern-day Columbia University).
While at King’s College, Hamilton joined the Sons of Liberty and became a strong supporter of the American patriotic cause. As a collegian he gave speeches in front of large crowds and wrote influential pamphlets about natural rights, not just the rights of Englishmen.
Shortly after war broke out at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress named Washington as commander of the Continental Army. “They selected him because he was from Virginia, he had war experience and they admired his character. Congress felt they could trust Washington---unlike a Julius Caesar,” said Williams.
Washington and Hamilton first met each other during the 1776 British attack on New York City. According to Williams, the Americans were “outgunned and outgeneraled”. British troops along with the British fleet quickly overwhelmed the American defensive positions on Long Island and Manhattan. What remained of the battered Continental Army fled New York City and retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
However, a brave American artillery captain came to Washington’s attention for covering several American retreats. In January 1777 Washington invited the 20-year-old Hamilton to join his staff, and in March 1777 Hamilton was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
From early 1777 until 1781 Hamilton served Washington as one of his most trusted staff officers. Washington depended on Hamilton for writing letters and preparing staff reports, and for his organizational skills. He even gave Hamilton broad authority in dealing with more senior American officers (such as Horatio Gates) in Washington’s name. The two became close friends and developed somewhat of a father/son relationship until an incident took place which nearly wrecked their friendship.
In early 1781 Hamilton passed Washington on a flight of stairs at their command headquarters, and Washington asked to speak with Hamilton, who responded that he would be able to talk right after he delivered an important letter. After delivering the letter Hamilton proceeded toward Washington’s office when he ran into the Marquis de Lafayette, and talked with him briefly before heading once again toward Washington’s office. When Hamilton reached the top of the stairs, he encountered an angry George Washington who criticized Hamilton for keeping him waiting for 10 minutes. Washington accused Hamilton of treating him with disrespect, and Hamilton replied by tendering his resignation from Washington’s staff.
“Washington sent an intermediary to arrange a meeting with Hamilton to smooth things over but Hamilton refused,” said Williams. “He stayed on for a month or two but then resigned. Hamilton had been itching for a field command.”
During the Summer of 1781 Washington gave Hamilton a light-infantry command which consisted of a New York battalion. Shortly afterward the Continental Army, along with the French Army, marched to Yorktown where they trapped the British Army under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis. During the late stages of the Siege of Yorktown, Hamilton asked Washington for permission to lead an attack on one of the British redoubts. Washington consented.
“Hamilton fool-heartedly jumped onto another man’s shoulders and launched himself onto the enemy parapet with his saber slashing,” said Williams. “His troops captured the British redoubt and Hamilton achieved his military glory.”
After Cornwallis’ surrender the American Revolution entered a slow period when both sides basically held their defensive positions while peace negotiations continued. By 1783 America’s revolutionary furor was dying and the Continental Army was not getting paid by Congress. In what has become known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, a group of senior officers met for the purpose of planning how to put pressure on Congress to pay them or face the consequences of a possible military mutiny.
“I would argue that the way Washington handled the Newburgh Conspiracy was Washington’s finest hour or one of his finest,” said Williams.
An important meeting of American senior officers took place in Newburgh, NY on March 15, 1783. Washington surprised his subordinates by attending, and gave a speech about the importance of the army to remain loyal to Congressional authority and not to undertake any sort of a coup against the existing civilian government. His subordinates listened politely but most of them were not moved by Washington’s advice. Then in a dramatic moment Washington pulled out of a pocket his pair of glasses, put them on and apologized by saying, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.”
At that, Washington’s subordinates were so moved by their commander’s declining vigor that some of them wept, some of them hugged each other and all of them pledged their loyalty to Congress. The Newburgh Conspiracy collapsed.
After Great Britain and the newly created United States signed a peace treaty, the British Army and many Loyalists evacuated New York City in November 1783. Shortly after they left, Washington announced his retirement from the military and told his army farewell on November 26, 1783 in New York City. Even though Alexander Hamilton and his family lived in a house on Wall Street only a few blocks away from Washington’s farewell luncheon with his subordinate officers, Hamilton did not attend the event.
“This shows the distance to which they had drifted apart,” said Williams. “In fact if not for the Constitutional Convention a few years later, they probably would have gone their separate ways.”
In May 1787 the Constitutional Convention began its deliberations in Philadelphia. Washington was elected president of the Convention, and Hamilton served as one of New York’s delegates. During the course of the Convention, the two of them got reacquainted over dinners at Philadelphia taverns and learned how much they had in common when it came to their views on a strong central government, and the need for a constitution which granted more central authority. The Convention produced such a document on September 17, 1787.
The state-by-state campaign to ratify the Constitution frequently involved very bitter debate, especially in Virginia and New York. “Hamilton was a one-man wrecking crew in support of the Constitution,” said Williams. “He wrote many of the Federalists essays, along with James Madison and John Jay.”
After ratification and the election of Washington as president, he appointed Hamilton as his secretary of the treasury.
“Almost from the start Washington agreed with Hamilton 99% of the time, especially on how to handle the national debt. When it came to cabinet meetings, Hamilton was the smartest guy in the room and probably the smartest Founding Father. The problem is that he let everyone know it,” joked Williams.
After Washington retired from the presidency he returned to Mount Vernon. Hamilton had resigned from the cabinet a few months earlier in order to continue his law career in New York City. Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. Hamilton died on July 12, 1804---one day after getting mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel at Weehawken, NJ.
“Nearly all of the Founding Fathers agreed on one thing, and that was how unprincipled Aaron Burr was,” said Williams.
Williams closed his presentation by asking and answering the question---what could Hamilton have achieved politically had he not died when he did? “Not too much,” said Williams. “He was pretty much damaged goods in 1804. Hamilton had angered his fellow Federalists when John Adams was president, and especially in 1800 when Hamilton didn’t support Adams’ re-election efforts.”
Tony Williams serves as the professional development director at the Bill of Rights Institute, and program director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute in Charlottesville. In addition to his book Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America, Williams is also the author of the following four books on early America:
1. The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results That Shaped America
2. The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny
3. Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution
4. America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character
Prior to Williams’ presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. President Bill Welsch announced plans for a round table field trip on April 2, 2016. John Maas and Mark Lender will lead a bus tour in the Richmond vicinity to sites related to Benedict Arnold’s Virginia raid.
2. President Bill Welsch said $400 was raised this year by the Round Table’s preservation fund toward this year’s preservation partner---Campaign 1776. He presented the Round Table’s $400 check to Lindsey Morrison, Fellow for Battlefield Preservation at the Civil War Trust. She thanked the Round Table for the contribution to Campaign 1776 and said that the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond is the first revolution round table in the nation to make a group donation toward Campaign 1776, which is the American Revolution subsidiary of the Civil War Trust.