Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Letting the Cat out of the Bag

Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Six

So far, we have been examining the religious beliefs of Alexander Hamilton, by going through certain time periods in his life, and doing our detective work in those areas. However, we are arriving at a time in his life (the 1780s through the 1790s) which involves more controversy than I think I can cover on a blog. I do, however, plan to write a book on the subject (although it will encompass more than just figuring out Hamilton's religious beliefs through life). I think that a book would give me the better opportunity, space, and time, than a blog would, to dealing with such a complicated issue. But do not get me wrong; I am not of the persuasion that Hamilton's faith was complicated, in the sense that many experts use that term today.

So instead of continuing the "Alexander Hamilton's Religion" series, I will just be writing posts (as I find the leisure) which will deal with certain aspects of the question and the debate, and which will serve to inform the reader, without going into all the detail that my upcoming book will.

Today, I will start by shedding some light on a "tale" that has been "prowling" around the history books of late, and which has been used by some on the opposite side of the "religion of Hamilton" debate, to smear his character and throw the genuineness of his faith into doubt. You may be familiar with it.

Many people now reading have no doubt heard of the story told by several authors, that Martha Washington, while staying with her husband in the winter months of the War (which was also a time of frequent social festivities for Washington and his officers, and in which Hamilton participated), had a mischievous, rambunctious tomcat. It is said that Mrs. Washington, upon observing the similar character of her tomcat and “General Washington's boy” (Washington is said to have referred to Hamilton as “Alexander, my boy”)(1), she dubbed her cat “Hamilton.”

There is a slight, or rather serious, problem with this tradition; it's not even tradition! At least, not that I can find. Let me just illustrate my point by telling the story of how I discovered what I did.

Like many so many, I had picked up this story from several books written by modern scholars. No footnotes or references or indication of sources really followed this little anecdote, and so I simply took it for granted, with the thought in the back of my mind that modern historians can sometimes be a little too generous with the rumors and urban legends, especially the convenient sappy ones. (I'll just forewarn those who are about to criticize me for that statement to pay careful attention to the case now in question).

While reading a biography of Hamilton (David Loth's 1939 biography – the oldest one I could get my hands on at the time), which, I must admit, has been the worst biography of Hamilton I have never finished – this anecdote was cited, with a reference that it was found in a newspaper reported run by tories. (2) Aha! Considering that Mr. Loth was anything but biased in Hamilton's favor, I found this juicy little tidbit a good reason not to put too much weight on the “'tomcat' tale.”

But there's more. While looking through an old book (from the 19th century) on the American Revolution, I found what was apparently a snippet from the above-mentioned paper. It was reprinted in several books, the words being quoted exactly alike in each book. Here is an excerpt of it, presented in the History of the Flag of the United States of America, by George Henry Preble (1882), page 264 {footnote}:

An English writer, a few years later, thus ridicules the fondness of the American colonists for the number thirteen [the new American flag has thirteen stripes and stars].: --
“Thirteen is a number particularly belonging to the rebels. A party of naval prisoners lately returned from Jersey say that the nations among the rebels are thirteen dried clams per day; that the titular Lord Stirling takes thirteen glasses of grog every morning, ... that Mr. Washington has thirteen toes to his feet (the extra ones having grown since the Declaration of Independence), and that same number of teeth in each jaw; that the Sachem Schuyler has a topknot of thirteen stiff hairs, which erect themselves on the crown of his head when he grows mad; ... that Polly Wayne was just thirteen hours in subduing Stony Point, and as many seconds in leaving in; that a well-organized rebel household has thirteen children, all of whom expect to be generals and members of the high and mighty Congress of the 'thirteen united States' when they attain thirteen years; that Mrs. Washington has a mottled tomcat (which she calls in a complementary way Hamilton) with thirteen yellow rings around his tail, that his flaunting it suggested to the Congress the adoption of the same number of stripes for the rebel flag.” -- Journal of Captain Smythe, R. A., January, 1780 (3)
Unless there is some other account with a better correspondence to the “tale” that keeps “prowling” around the history books (as if it were proof of something historical), than we may conclude that it is, at best, based upon the least reliable of sources. Why? You don't get information about the personal lives of the Founders (particularly those who had not really achieved international fame yet) from 3,000 miles across the ocean, written by their enemies, merely as fictitious political satire! And even if you did take the above selection as viable historical evidence (please enlighten me), where is the connection between Hamilton and a tomcat with immorality? None would seem apparent to the casual reader. Nor has any connection ever been given, until recent decades, the last I checked. Someone must have had a very polluted mind to seriously imagine that there could have been such a connection intended in this selection. And by the way, Loth's aforementioned biography is the earliest source I could find, that makes such a connection. I am therefore of the opinion, that the current legend is an invention hardly 70 years old.

In the future, we will examine how other areas of Hamilton's life and faith have been distorted in recent years, and how those distortions are indebted to apocryphal legends like this one.


Our Founding Truth said...

Hey Herc,

I've been busy learning how to write, haha.
Can you help me find the exact letter that Hamilton refers to his plan for the const. society? I found it last night, and can't find it today, the date was April 1802.

All I'm finding now is quotes of the letter in various works.

The letter said he "had been thinking of this from time to time." I'd love to find a date with that reference, it would completely refute Rowe's claim that Hamilton became a Christian after his son's death, which occurred Nov. 23, 1801.

If Rowe is correct, Hamilton would have converted immediately, and his reference to "from time to time" was a period of four months.

It seems far fetched to me, what do you think?


Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi OFT. Thanks for dropping by, and leaving your comment. Glad you are busy learning to write; it can be a challenge sometimes (as it was for me) but keep going! I hope that the Handbook I mentioned (if you are using it) is serving your purposes well.

The letter which you requested is here.

I too had noticed that quote ("from time to time") by Hamilton, and that indicated to me that the CCS was not something he cooked up overnight. Of course, it cannot be proven empirically the exact time when Hamilton's thoughts began to form along this line, but if you look through his writings, I think we can find clues. I would estimate that these kinds of ideas began to form in his mind at about the time that he wrote to several of Adams' cabinet members in 1798, urging them to prompt President John Adams to declare a national day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. Hamilton added that not only were these measures proper in of themselves, but that it would serve America well to remember God in a day and age when skepticism seemed rampant. The quotes of these letters can be seen on my blog here (scroll toward the bottom of the post).

I think that you are right in saying that Rowe's claims about Hamilton's faith are far-fetched, although, they are not just his claims. While there is a lot of evidence to prove the claim erroneous, all it takes is a little bit of common sense, and a knowledge of Hamilton's character, to disprove it.

As I have pointed out in my last two posts on Alexander Hamilton's religion, Hamilton was not one to flip-flop on his beliefs. He was the kind of person who studied a subject intensely, and then formed a solid conclusion, from which nobody could shake him. The evidence shows that Hamilton was a Christian in his youth -- there is no dispute about that. And Troup's testimony that Hamilton defended his faith with zeal and ability shows that Hamilton, from an early age, had become convinced in the truth of biblical Christianity.

So to say that because Hamilton didn't talk much about religion in his middle years, somehow proves that Hamilton changed his religious beliefs is totally absurd, and inconsistent with what we already know about Hamilton.

If Hamilton did change his beliefs

A) there should be positive evidence of it in his writings, since Hamilton usually had a hard time keeping his opinions to himself, and
B) there should have occurred some drastic watershed event in Hamilton's life to account for this change.

But both A and B requirements are lacking.

There is other positive evidence which strongly indicates that Hamilton's religious beliefs remained consistent through his life, although his religiosity may have shifted around from time to time. But his religiosity is of little consequence to the question "Was Hamilton a Christian?" Religious beliefs, and religiosity, are two separate things.

I will discuss this subject later, as now I am pressed for time, and future blog posts and my upcoming book would be a better place to discuss it. All the same, I am too happy to discuss it with you.

Thanks again for dropping by. God bless.

Our Founding Truth said...

Hi Herc,

I agree with you about Hamilton's faith, if he did become a Christian after his son's death, wouldn't he have written about it?


Cato said...

Good post. I'd heard of that "tomcat" reference but it never occurred to me to use that as proof that he was irreligious. If anything, I find Hamilton's behavior during the Adams administration to have been reprehensible (such as, writing the expose letter about Adams). I look forward to your continued address on this matter.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Cato. Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate your input any time.

I do indeed intend to write in detail about this specific issue, and the Adams-Hamilton relationship in general. There is something about it that brought out the unusual bad side of both men, I think. To be honest, I am still puzzled over why their relationship turned sour so quickly. They didn't know each other very closely, but seemed to hold a respect for each other. Hamilton proved that by early showing support for Adams (although Hamilton believed that Adams would not make a good president), and Adams proved it by putting his troublesome son Charles under Hamilton's apprenticeship.

But sometime during Adams' administration, for some reason still unknown to me, their relationship, which could, perhaps, have warmed into a strong friendship, took a sharp turn for the worse. From about this time on, both men not only greatly disagreed with each other over what may have been relatively small things (i.e., how to handle diplomacy with France), but began to accuse each other of great character flaws, and it appears that they never completely forgave each other for those denunciations -- although Hamilton appears to have done so toward the end of his life -- I'll save that for later!

Solving exactly what it was that made their relationship so bad during this point is where I am at right now. Was it Hamilton's headstrong (and sometimes overbearing)-ness that messed things up? Was the acceptance by both men of rumors about each other, which came from without? Was it a serious character flaw in one or both of the men that triggered this negative turn? There could be many more probable solutions, but right now, the first two look the most probable. I have not completely solved the issue, but when I find more answers, I will write in more detail.

Thanks again for commenting.

Cato said...

Yeah, everyone has their problems and personality rubs. That is what seemed to happen between these two men. But for Hamilton to publicize such viciousness was a terrible breach of not only etiquette but sensible behavior.

Thanks for your detailed answer.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I think that you are right in your assessment of their relationship, and of Hamilton's "Letter.

Hamilton himself said, sometime before his rift with Adams, "No man is without his personal enemies. ... Bad men are the natural enemies of virtuous men. Good men sometimes mistake and dislike each other." It's sad.

Concerning his "Letter" -- I almost forgot to add in my response a selection from Hamilton's biography, written by his grandson. Although many would assume that because the book is by his grandson, it must be biased in Hamilton's favor, it is one of the most impartial accounts of Hamilton's life I have read. You wouldn't know it was his grandson. In fact, Alan McLane Hamilton was known by American courts in his own day for his fairness and objectivity, and was assigned to perform an extensive diagnosis of Mary Baker Eddy for mental illness for a court ruling, although he had come out against the "Christian Science" cult many times. I thought that disclaimer would be worth adding, in light of the selection I wish to give from his book, page 90. He points something out that is not so often pointed out in today's

"It is to be regretted that Hamilton made a great mistake when he wrote his letter censuring John Adams. Not only was the act a foolish one, but it can hardly be realized how a man possessing, ordinarily, such good judgment could make what was almost a hysterical attack upon another public character, no matter how great the provocation. The pamphlet appeared in 1800, and created great excitement among his brother Federalists who, upon its appearance, quickly advised him to suppress it. This he tried to do, but Burr, securing a copy, immediately flooded the market with others bearing upon the title-page 'Re-printed Pro-Bono-Public.' It was an abusive attack upon Adams, which was tactless in the extreme, and gave his enemies an opportunity to unmercifully gore him. The inconsistency of abusing Adams, and then, in a half-hearted way, advising the Federalists to vote for him, was a glaring political error, and can only be explained by a state of mind largely induced by his own private sorrows, and the growing desperation which was the outgrowth, not only of the dissensions in his own party, but a gain in the strength of the anti-Federalists, whose arrows were, anew, dipped in venom."

Yowsah. That inconvenient little fact about Burr has quietly been slowly forgotten. But, Hamilton did write it all the same. This was a serious mistake which neither he, nor Adams, nor the Federalist party could afford. Ouch.

Cato said...

Thank you for that quote! It is a very enlightening and sensible explanation. And I must agree that that time period (of 1788 to 1804) was a horrible time of upheaval for the nation and her leaders. I do agree that Hamilton's "private sorrows" did lead him into more dissolute situations that were inconsistent with his character, overall. It was a painful time, for them and our country.

Thanks for Reading!