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.

Thanks for Reading!