Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Meeting Notes: September 20, 2017

"Alexander Hamilton: New York's Young Revolutionary," Randy Flood

Prior to becoming a hip-hop star on the Broadway stage, Alexander Hamilton lived a remarkable life as one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers.

“This man was probably more responsible for 13 separate states becoming a nation than anyone else,” said Randy Flood at the September 20, 2017 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “However we wouldn’t be talking so much about him today if not for Broadway.”

The real Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the Leeward Islands, which were part of the British West Indies. He claimed January 11, 1757 as his birthdate but some historians believe he was actually born in 1755.

Hamilton was born out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette, who had married Johann Michael Lavien on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. She abandoned Lavien and a son from that marriage, and moved to Nevis where she met and lived with James Hamilton. Although James Hamilton is generally regarded as the biological father of Alexander Hamilton, some historians believe that the actual biological father was Thomas Stevens, a prosperous Nevis merchant.

“Thomas Stevens had a son named Edward Stevens who became a good friend of Alexander Hamilton’s,” said Flood. “People commented on how much the two of them looked alike, and how they shared so many similar interests.”

James Hamilton abandoned Rachel Faucette and her children, and shortly thereafter Rachel died on February 19, 1768 from a severe fever. Alexander Hamilton and his brother James, Jr. briefly lived with a cousin until he committed suicide. After this tragedy Alexander went to live with Thomas Stevens who became his guardian.

“At age 11 Hamilton got his first job as a clerk in an import/export firm where he held ship captains accountable for their cargo,” said Flood. “For five months in 1771 he ran the business himself while the owner was overseas on a business trip. He was also an avid reader and a great writer.”

In appreciation for the young Hamilton’s achievements on the island of Nevis, various business and community leaders paid for his passage to New York and his tuition and living expenses in order to send Hamilton to a North American college.

Hamilton’s first choice was the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) but the college president, John Witherspoon, turned down Hamilton’s request to seek a degree in only one year. When this attempt failed, Hamilton made the same request to Myles Cooper, president of King’s College (now known as Columbia University). Cooper approved his one-year request, and Hamilton officially matriculated at King’s College in May 1774.

Shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, Hamilton and other King’s College students joined an American volunteer militia unit called the Corsicans. Hamilton became an artillery captain.

“He got to know everything about artillery pieces as part of his militia service,” said Flood.

Hamilton fought bravely throughout the New York Campaign. At the Battle of Harlem Heights his artillery unit vigorously defended its position, an action which came to the attention of senior officers in the Continental Army.

“We don’t know whether it was Nathanael Greene or Henry Knox, but one of them noticed Hamilton and invited him one night to have dinner with Washington,” said Flood.

On March 1, 1777 Hamilton joined Washington’s staff and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Two of Hamilton’s primary talents as a staff officer were his ability to read and speak French, and his ability to write very well. Hamilton assisted Washington with his correspondence to his subordinates, the Continental Congress and French officers. 

“Hamilton became Washington’s go-to guy,” said Flood. “He was indispensible.”

For approximately four years Hamilton served as Washington’s chief aide, however Hamilton grew restless and wanted a field command. Washington continued to discourage him from leaving his staff until an incident in February 1781 nearly wrecked their friendship and triggered Hamilton’s transfer. After Washington rebuked Hamilton one day for keeping him waiting, Hamilton resigned from Washington’s staff and threatened to resign his army commission if he didn’t receive a field command.  Washington sadly accepted Hamilton’s request and assigned him to command a light infantry battalion.

During the Yorktown Campaign, Hamilton persuaded his field commander, the Marquis de Lafayette, to allow Hamilton to lead a nighttime surprise attack against the British fortification called Redoubt #10. Hamilton bravely led his troops’ bayonet charge against the well-fortified position, and captured it and many British soldiers while suffering very few American casualties. The capture of this redoubt, coupled with the capture of nearby Redoubt #9 by  French troops, tightened the noose around the remainder of the British army to the point where they surrendered a few days later on October 19, 1781.

Shortly after Yorktown he resigned his commission and returned to New York where he passed the bar after a few months of self study. Hamilton set up his law practice in Albany, and in July 1782 he was appointed to the Congress of the Confederation as a New York representative for the term beginning in November 1782. He quit after one year, becoming somewhat frustrated over what he perceived as the extremely weak powers of America’s confederation government. 

After the American Revolution officially ended and the British army evacuated New York City, Hamilton moved there in 1783 to practice law. In 1784 he helped to create the Bank of New York and secured considerable financing from several wealthy investors who lived in the West Indies.

“When the American Revolution ended, America was broke, the British were broke, the French were broke and the Spanish were broke. Everyone was broke except for the Dutch, and they were the bankers of the world,” quipped Flood.

The Articles of Confederation weren’t working very well for the new American nation. Hamilton was among the nation’s leaders who called for a constitutional convention for the purpose of amending the Articles in order to create a stronger national government.

Hamilton and James Madison lured Washington out of retirement to preside over this convention in Philadelphia. The delegates worked from May until September 1787 to create what we today call the U.S. Constitution.

“These guys were adults solving problems, and didn’t leave until they can get things done. They saw the big picture and made sacrifices and compromises to make it happen,” said Flood.

To help promote the ratification of the proposed constitution Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays which are now known as The Federalist Papers. Madison and John Jay wrote the other 34 essays.

The new constitution was ratified on September 17, 1788 and took effect on March 4, 1789. President Washington appointed Hamilton to the position of Secretary of the Treasury, where he served until January 31, 1795.

During that time Hamilton made numerous attempts to raise additional revenue for the new nation and to pay down the new nation’s debt. He also helped to create America’s own currency to replace the Spanish currency which America had generally adopted after gaining its independence from Great Britain. 

Hamilton succeeded in getting the new federal government to assume the debt owed by various states, and to pay down this debt via new tariffs and taxes. He founded the U.S. Coast Guard for the purpose of reducing smuggling operations which weren’t paying any import duties to the new government. Hamilton also raised federal revenue by getting Congress to authorize a federal tax on whiskey, a tax which Hamilton called a “sin tax”.

He also sought to improve diplomatic and business relations with Great Britain, the new nation’s largest trading partner. In 1795 he strongly supported the controversial Jay Treaty because he believed it was a means for America to work closer with America’s former enemy and mother country. Hamilton and other treaty supporters also saw the treaty as a means of avoiding another war with Great Britain and its conflict with France.

After leaving Washington’s administration he returned to New York and resumed his law practice. However he remained active in national politics and served as a private advisor to President Washington. In 1797 when John Adams replaced Washington as president, Adams retained many of Washington’s cabinet members and other senior advisors who seemed to have more loyalties to Hamilton than they did President Adams.

The Election of 1800 was one of the most famous and controversial presidential elections in American history. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes but not a majority among the four candidates. This threw the election into the House of Representatives where the race remained deadlocked between Jefferson and Burr after 35 ballots.

Prior to the 36th ballot Hamilton maneuvered behind the scenes with several colleagues to persuade them to support Jefferson. Although Hamilton despised both men, he disliked Jefferson primarily for Jefferson’s political beliefs whereas he disliked Burr even more for what Hamilton perceived as Burr’s total lack of any principles.

In 1804 Burr sought the governorship of New York, and once again Hamilton stood in his path. Burr lost the election, partly due to Hamilton’s strong support for Morgan Lewis, Burr’s opponent.

Shortly after the New York gubernatorial race, an Albany newspaper published an article which quoted a letter that Hamilton earlier wrote which sharply criticized Burr’s character. When Burr learned about Hamilton’s letter, he demanded an apology from Hamilton. When Hamilton replied by saying that he couldn’t recall any attempt to insult Burr in this letter, Burr remained angry and challenged Hamilton to a duel.

After efforts failed by liaisons to settle the dispute Burr and Hamilton dueled shortly after dawn on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey---just across the Hudson River from New York City. Burr shot Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip whereas Hamilton’s shot broke a tree branch above Burr’s head.

“The jury is still out as to who fired the first shot,” said Flood. “There’s also the question of whether Hamilton deliberately shot above Burr’s head or whether he fired high as a result of falling down wounded after getting shot by Burr. Hamilton had put on his spectacles prior to the duel so it’s very questionable as to whether he intended to waste his shot.”

Hamilton’s friends rowed the mortally wounded Hamilton across the Hudson River to a friend’s home in Greenwich Village. He died the following afternoon on July 12, 1804 in considerable pain. So ended the life of Alexander Hamilton.

“He was a rags to riches story,” said Flood. “His brilliance as a writer included Washington’s farewell address. The things he accomplished as our first Secretary of the Treasury were endless.”

Randy Flood teaches 17 different history courses at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. As a result of the Broadway play on Hamilton, Flood’s Hamilton course is currently one of his most popular classes.

Flood is a member of the Williamsburg/Yorktown American Revolution Round Table. Earlier in his career he served as a legislative staff aide to to the late U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, Jr. of Virginia.

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:

1. President Bill Welsch mentioned that Vice President/Programs Bruce Venter has nearly completed the list of guest speakers for the Round Table’s 2018 schedule.

2. President Welsch said that plans for an ARRT-Richmond field trip to Scotchtown in early November are nearly complete. He will soon email details about the trip to the entire membership.

3. On behalf of the membership Vice President/Membership Woody Childs presented engraved Jefferson cups to the four founding members of ARRT-Richmond. The four founders in 2006 were Jerry Rudd, Lynn Simms, Harry Ward and Bill Welsch. Accepting the Jefferson cup on behalf of the late Harry Ward was Frances Daniels, Dr. Ward’s niece.   

 --Bill Seward

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