Hamilton and Washington

During the war Hamilton advanced rapidly to a place of prestige and power. He was widely recognized as Washington's foremost aide-de-camp. However, Hamilton knew that the only fame that mattered in war was that won in combat. He pressed Washington for a field command but Washington decided he could not dispense with his services. Hamilton bore his frustration until an incident in February 1781 when Washington upbraided him for what seems a slight discourtesy. In the context of an examination of homosexuality two things are of interest: another man, Lafayette, was involved, and the unkind things Hamilton said about Washington who he had served faithfully for three years.

Hamilton wrote about the incident to his father in law Gen. Philip Schuyler:

Since I had the pleasure of writing you last an unexpected change has taken place in my situation. I am no longer a member of the General's family. This information will surprise you and the manner of the change will surprise you more. Two day ago The General and I passed each other on the stairs. He told me he wanted to speak to me. I answered that I would wait upon him immediately. I went below and delivered Mr. Tilghman a letter to be sent to The Commissary containing an order of a pressing and interesting nature. Returning to The General I was stopped in the way by the Marquis De la Fayette, and we conversed together about a minute on a matter of business. He can testify how impatient I was to get back, and that I left him in a manner which but for our intimacy would have been more than abrupt. Instead of finding the General as usual in his room, I met him at the head of the stairs, where accosting me in a very angry tone, "Col Hamilton (said he), you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you Sir you treat me with disrespect." I replied without petulancy, but with decision "I am not conscious of it Sir, but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so we part" "Very well Sir (said he) if it be your choice" or something to this effect and we separated.

I sincerely believe my absence which gave so much umbrage did not last two minutes.

Hamilton then describes Washington's effort to reconcile "less than an hour" after the tift. Hamilton refused and explained to his father-in-law that he "always disliked the office of an Aide de Camp." He also disliked the General. In one version of this letter used by Henry Cabot Lodge for his biography, Hamilton wrote: It was not long before I discovered he was neither remarkable for delicacy nor good temper, which revived my former aversion to the station...."

The manuscript version of the letter doesn't have that but does show Hamilton's personal inclinations toward Washington:

I believe you know the place I held in The Generals confidence and councils of which will make it the more extraordinary to you to learn that for three years past I have felt no friendship for him and have professed none. The truth is our own dispositions are the opposites of each other & the pride of my temper would not suffer me to profess what I did not feel. Indeed when advances of this kind have been made to me on his part, they were received in a manner that showed at least I had no inclination to court them, and that I wished to stand rather upon a footing of military confidence than of private attachment. You are too good a judge of human nature not to be sensible how this conduct in me must have operated on a man to whom all the world is offering incense. With this key you will easily unlock the present mystery. At the end of the war I may say many things to you concerning which I shall impose upon myself 'till then an inviolable silence.

Hamilton wrote a brief letter about the break-up to James McHenry who had also been an aide-de-camp. This letter makes clear that carping about the General had been a pastime of the aides: "We have often spoken freely our sentiments to each other. Except to a very few friends our difference will be a secret; therefore be silent. I shall continue to support a popularity that has been essential, is still useful." To my knowledge, Hamilton never revealed what so distressed him about Washington. The Great Man's popularity proved essential to the Republic until his death and quite some time beyond that.

Lafayette tried to mediate the dispute. Certainly his role in it was innocent. There is no evidence of sexual tension between Washington and Lafayette. Although Hamilton said that his conversation with Lafayette was about military business, perhaps that conversation was in French and to Washington's ear had connotations of anything but business; what Hamilton remembered as an abrupt, almost impolite conversation, could have sounded to Washington as especially intimate because of that very abruptness. Quite possibly when speaking French, Hamilton energized the body language of delicacy and sensibility that he so admired in refined Europeans like Lafayette and Andre, and the lack of which in Washington had caused Hamilton to spurn any closer intimacy.

Hamilton twice uses the word "temper." Washington does not have a "good temper," and "the pride of [Hamilton's] temper" prevented him from becoming more intimate with Washington. What exactly is meant by temper?

 

Yet I don't think the use of the word is meant to suggest that certain men are naturally made so that they cannot become friends, or that when Hamilton says they have "opposite dispositions," that he was referring to a clash of personalities. Rather Hamilton is suggesting that Washington does not contrive the world in such a way to make Hamilton truly comfortable in it, that is Washington's want of delicacy. So when Hamilton wrote to McHenry about Washington not being one of us, he meant that Washington did not entertain the same world of possibilities that Hamilton and other members of the family did. I think this different world that Hamilton wanted to embraced had a homo-erotic component not inconsistent with military tradition. In 1777 Hamilton transcribed passages from Plutarch's Lives on Greek history. Judging from the length of the transcription Hamilton seemed most interested in Romulus and Lycurgus's laws for Sparta which describe a completely militarized society that was at the same time licentious:

To make the women more robust and more capable of vigorous offspring, he ordered them to practice several of the athletic exercises, and to destroy an excessive delicacy he ordained that at certain solemn feasts and sacrifices the virgins should go naked as well as the young men and in this manner dance in their presence.

To promote marriage those who continued batchelors beyond a certain age were made infamous by law....

When a couple were to be married the husband carried off the bride by force....

To prevent jealousy a man might lend his wife.... On the other side a worthy man, who was in love with a married woman, on account of her modesty and the beauty of her children, was at liberty to beg of her husband admission to her, that thus by planting in a good soil he might raise a generous progeny to possess all the valuable qualifications of their parents....

Every lad had a lover or friend who took care of his education and shared in the praise or blame of his virtues and vices. It was the same with the women....

This same manuscript, the "Pay Book", contains notes on international economy and finances. Needless to say in fashioning the new America, Hamilton made much greater use of that than he did of his gleanings about Lycurgus. However, as many other biographers and historians have pointed out that while Hamilton was a family man with seven children, he also was a libertine and at times a reckless one as shown by his affair with Mrs. Reynolds and his alleged relationship with his sister-in-law Angelica Church.

 

Bob Arnebeck

 

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