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The Many Alexander Hamiltons

An interview with Joanne B. Freeman

HUMANITIES, Winter 2018 | Volume 39, Number 1

In 2015, the U.S. Treasury announced it was going to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. Then came the deluge of Hamilton interest inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, literally casting a spotlight on the words and actions of this important Founder, which, no doubt, helped preserve his image on the ten-spot. And while bookish students of history brushed off their much-underlined copies of the Federalist essays to celebrate this renewal of interest in America’s first Treasury secretary, the Library of America brought out The Essential Hamilton, a paperback selection of Hamilton’s writings, edited by Joanne B. Freeman, professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Freeman is also the editor of Hamilton: Writings, which the Library of America published in 2001, the author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, and a cohost of the popular history podcast BackStory. And so we requested an interview with her, making clear that we meant “interview” in the modern sense of questions and answers and not in the Hamilton-Burr sense of pistols at dawn.

HUMANITIES: How did you first get to know Alexander Hamilton?

JOANNE B. FREEMAN: I stumbled across Hamilton during the nation’s bicentennial, when I was a teen. The Founding era was everywhere, and I became interested. (The movie 1776 played a role as well.) So I went to the library and began reading Founder biographies. When I got to Hamilton, I stopped. He struck me as something of an outlier Founder. His not-so-cushy youth in the West Indies, his dramatic death in a duel: He was interesting. And there were relatively few biographies about him, so I thought that I could “discover” something new. But the biography that I was reading wasn’t persuasive. (I wish I could remember why!) So I went to the public library and asked the librarian what the author had used as evidence. She pointed out Hamilton’s published papers—the 27-volume authoritative edition—and I took out the first volume. From that point on, I was hooked. The letters felt like the real “stuff” of history, and I decided that I wanted to figure Hamilton out. I read through all 27 volumes, and then started again. And again. There was a person—and, indeed, an entire world—in those books that I found fascinating.

HUMANITIES: In The Essential Hamilton and the 2001 volume of his writings that you edited for the Library of America, you can see that Hamilton knew a great deal about literary style. For example, the account he wrote, at the age of 17, of a hurricane that had landed on Saint Croix is a very theatrical piece of writing, involving what he calls “self-discourse,” which is to say, a highly poetic, exclamatory, style. What do we know about the kind of literature Hamilton was reading in his youth?

FREEMAN: We know that there were books in Hamilton’s childhood home, though we don’t know the titles. We also know that he was an exclamatory kind of guy—or at least, an impulsive one. Some of his writings suggest that he was fond of the poetry of Alexander Pope.

HUMANITIES: The Founders’ pro-liberty rhetoric did not square with the practice of slavery in the United States. And Hamilton frequently used the metaphor of slavery when discussing threats to political liberty. Was he able to do so in good conscience? And what were his views on slavery?

FREEMAN: The use of the metaphor of slavery in Revolution-era pamphleteering was relatively common. And the irony of a slave-holding people using that metaphor was noticed at the time. Referencing Americans in a pamphlet written in 1775, Samuel Johnson famously said, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Were Americans able to use that metaphor in good conscience? Probably. Should they have been able to? That’s another question entirely.

As far as Hamilton and slavery are concerned,  he was antislavery but by no means an ardent abolitionist. He helped found the New York Manumission Society, but his father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, owned slaves, and as an attorney Hamilton may have occasionally represented clients involved in the business of slavery. Like many of his time, he was a bundle of contradictions when it came to slavery.

HUMANITIES: The Founders were famously skeptical about human nature, but Hamilton seems to have had an even darker view than the rest. What inspired him to so distrust human nature?

FREEMAN: Who knows what inspires that kind of thinking? Perhaps the difficulties of his childhood? What one can say is that Hamilton had a dark view of human nature and conceived of structures of government as a means of channeling humankind’s all-too-prevailing selfish passions. By his logic, the threat of unmoored selfishness and greed made strong centralized governments all the more necessary.

HUMANITIES: Hamilton wrote beautiful romantic letters to Eliza, who, fans of the musical know, “erased herself from the narrative” by destroying the letters she wrote to him. What was lost because of this?

FREEMAN: Elizabeth Hamilton wasn’t alone in destroying letters. The wives of many public figures of the period did the same. They were preserving their privacy, but in doing so they were muting—even silencing—their own voices. So the female half of many correspondence exchanges can be difficult to reconstruct, sometimes making their insights, inclinations, and actions hard to track. Our understanding of the “conversation” of politics in the early republic—and indeed, our understanding of the period generally—would be far richer if more of these voices had survived on paper.

HUMANITIES: Do you think Alexander Hamilton would have made a good president? What qualities did he possess that might have helped him? What other qualities might have hurt him?

FREEMAN: I don’t think that Hamilton would have made a good president. He was too extreme in his politics; too impulsive; too unwilling to suffer fools; too convinced that he was always right; and too wary of the workings of democracy and the politics of the street. Interestingly, he knew that “the people” generally didn’t like him. In fact, he valued his unpopularity; by his reasoning, it proved that he was doing what was right rather than pandering to the public like a demagogue. Of course, what Hamilton viewed as pandering might have been seen as the open dialog of a democratic politics to others.

HUMANITIES: Hamilton frequently complained of factionalism, as did George Washington in his famous Farewell speech, which Hamilton wrote. What drove him to this view, and did he in any way believe that factionalism and partisanship were avoidable?

FREEMAN: Hamilton wasn’t alone in his fears about factionalism and political parties. Although people at the time expected plenty of clashing ideas, the idea of an organized political party pursuing its own interests seemed to threaten the idea that the new national government could achieve the general good. Thus Washington’s warning about partisanship in his Farewell Address, and thus the prevailing assumption in the late 1790s that the seeming rise of political parties signified a nation in crisis. It’s worth noting that some of Hamilton’s complaints about factionalism were gripes about its impact on him. The “Jacobin scandal-club,” as he called the Republican party, made many a swipe at his reputation.

HUMANITIES: Possibly my favorite transition in The Essential Hamilton begins at page 256. In just a couple of pages we go from Hamilton the statesman to Hamilton the smack talker to Hamilton the doting and moralistic father. How many Hamiltons were there?

FREEMAN: I hadn’t noticed that transition, but I love it! There were a lot of Hamiltons. Like all of us, different facets of his personality and persona came into view at different times, depending on the demands of the moment and his view of them. Certainly, there was a Statesman Hamilton. Just as certainly, there was a Smack-Talker Hamilton and a Family Man Hamilton, though he was less present for his family during his public life than he might have been, and felt great guilt about that towards the end of his life. There’s also Knee-Jerk Extremist Hamilton, Public Sphere-ish Hamilton (the newspaper writer), Charity-Giving Hamilton, Distrustful-of-Democracy Hamilton, Lawyerly Hamilton, and many more.

HUMANITIES: “The Reynolds Pamphlet” has to be one of the most extraordinary confessions ever delivered in public. What was it, and has there ever been anything else like it in the history of confessions?

FREEMAN: The so-called “Reynolds Pamphlet” was indeed extraordinary. The short version: Hamilton was accused of corruption in office and defended himself by arguing that the supposed evidence of misused Treasury funds was actually evidence of blackmail payments that he was making out of his own pocket to the husband of the woman he was committing adultery with—Maria Reynolds. To prove that he wasn’t a corrupt public servant, Hamilton went to extremes to prove that he was a corrupt private man, offering far more detail about his adulterous affair than one might expect. Has there been another confession like it? I’m sure that there has been, particularly in our scandal-a-week, social-media-fueled politically tumultuous times—though not necessarily committed to paper.

HUMANITIES: Religion becomes a conspicuous theme in Hamilton’s later years. Was he a churchgoing Christian? What did he believe exactly and why was it politically significant?

FREEMAN: Religion doesn’t seem to have played a central role in the majority of Hamilton’s adult life, though he was a member of Trinity Church in New York City; he was Episcopalian. In his youth and during the time that he was at King’s College (now Columbia University), he seemed to have been noticeably religious to friends—or so they said in later years. That streak didn’t reemerge until the last few years of his life, which were difficult and dark. His letters in that period have more religious references than his writings for decades before that.

Interestingly, after the downfall of the Federalists in the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton pondered using Christian religious fervor to fuel American passions to favor the Federalists, but aside from writing a letter promoting the idea, he took no action.

HUMANITIES: After Burr, who was Hamilton’s biggest rival and why?

FREEMAN: Hamilton considered Burr a rival in every sense of the word, and made it his mission to oppose Burr’s career; as he said in 1792, he considered it his “religious duty.” He saw Burr as an ambitious political opportunist who was dangerous because he wasn’t restrained by political (and perhaps moral) principles. Hamilton also wasn’t particularly fond of Thomas Jefferson, whose ideas he deemed dangerously democratic and tainted by the politics of revolutionary France. But given a choice between Burr and Jefferson in the election of 1800, Hamilton had no problem choosing Jefferson. As he explained in a letter at the time, he felt sure that Jefferson cared so deeply about his public popularity that he would never do something extreme enough to jeopardize it.

HUMANITIES: Hamilton wrote before his death that he found the “interview” with Burr unavoidable. Do you think it was so?

FREEMAN: I think that their duel became unavoidable during negotiations, though it likely was unavoidable before that point. Hamilton had been insulting Burr and attacking his political career for 15 years by 1804, and as he said in a final statement before the duel, he couldn’t apologize for insults that he believed to be true. But, during negotiations, Burr accused Hamilton of not behaving like a gentleman, an insult that made it difficult, if not impossible, for Hamilton to back down, and thus made it near impossible for the two men to avoid a duel. Hamilton was something of an expert on negotiating his way out of so-called “interviews,” something that he had accomplished ten times before his final duel with Burr—and he wasn’t alone. Most men managed to negotiate their way out of duels. As I explain in my first book—Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic—in initiating an affair of honor, most men wanted to prove that they were willing to die in defense of their honor, something that often could be accomplished through carefully choreographed, ritualistic exchanges of letters in which each man declared himself ready to fight, even as their seconds forged apologies and compromises. As counterintuitive as it may seem, dueling in early America wasn’t grounded on killing; it was grounded on proving one’s willingness to die for one’s honor.

HUMANITIES: I like that The Essential Hamilton ends with a question mark as to whether Hamilton aimed his pistol at Burr or away from Burr to avoid killing him. What really happened?

FREEMAN: We don’t absolutely know what happened. Before the duel, Hamilton announced that he would withhold his first fire and not shoot at Burr. (After that, if Burr felt that honor hadn’t been satisfied and wanted a second exchange of fire, all bets were off.) Given Hamilton’s announcement, it’s hard to imagine that he would have gone back on his word, but, as Burr once said, being in a duel causes a remarkable “flurry of mind.” Also, supposedly, wounded and lying across the bottom of a boat being rowed back to New York from Weehawken, Hamilton asked someone to be careful of his pistol, which might go off, suggesting that he didn’t know that he had fired it, though the only evidence of that statement comes from Hamilton’s second, Nathaniel Pendleton, who was trying to defend Hamilton’s reputation by proving that he hadn’t fired at Burr. Burr and his second, William Van Ness, later insisted that Hamilton had fired at Burr, noting that Hamilton had asked them to wait a moment before counting down to the first fire so he could practice his aim with his glasses. That very well may have happened; duelists often tried to throw their opponents off balance with displays of bravado. In the end, it’s likely that Hamilton didn’t fire at Burr, though it’s hard to know for certain. It’s also likely that Burr wasn’t trying to kill Hamilton; more often than not, the duelist who killed his opponent lost the battle for public opinion that followed in its aftermath.

HUMANITIES: In the battle between colonial-era musicals, 1776  and Hamilton, which is your favorite and why?

FREEMAN: Tough question! 1776 inspired me to love early American history as a kid, so it has a special place in my heart, despite its many historical inaccuracies and general goofiness (an endearing goofiness, I’ll note). Hamilton—in addition to being a truly remarkable piece of musical theater—does a wonderful job of portraying the contingency of the Founding, something that’s very difficult to get across to students, who sometimes think: Of course, we won the Revolution! Of course, we wrote the Constitution! Of course, it worked! Those “of courses” didn’t exist in the Founding period; their absence is part of what made the period so fraught and seemingly perilous. People didn’t know if the American experiment in government would survive—an assumption that is essential to understanding the period as a whole.

About the Author

Joanne B. Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University.

Funding Information

In 2004, NEH made a grant of $218,000 to the New-York Historical Society to support the traveling exhibition “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America,” which visited approximately 40 libraries across the country. That same year, NEH made a $1 million grant to Twin Cities Public Television to support production of a two-hour television documentary on the life of Hamilton, which aired in 2007.

Republication Statement

This article is available for unedited republication, free of charge, using the following credit: “Originally published as"Reading Alexander Hamilton" in the Winter 2018 issue of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.” Please notify us at publications[at]neh[dot]gov if you are republishing it or have any questions.