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A note on long-distance relationships in the 18th century
In the 1770s, there is no Snapchat or Twitter, no email or phone. If you can’t talk to someone face to face, you’ll have to send a letter. And if there’s a war going on, it’s not easy to figure out how to deliver a letter. So you’re likely to write longer letters, not lots of short ones.
I could cut the letters below substantially, but then you’d have my interpretation of what’s important about Hamilton’s attitude toward the ladies, and I’d rather let you make your own judgment – although I will tell you occasionally what I think the main points are. Pour a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and read on.
When Hamilton came to Elizabethtown, NJ to study in 1773, he met William Livingston and his family, including daughter Catharine (“Kitty”). By 1777, Livingston had served on the Continental Congress and was governor of New Jersey. When Hamilton wrote the following letter to Kitty in early April 1777, he had been on General Washington’s staff for just over a month. The army was still in winter quarters at Morristown, NJ.
Alexander has been asked to write to Kitty because he can discuss politics with her. I suspect that one of the reasons he was so reliably popular with women is that he was happy to treat women as equals in discussions of politics and the military. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson, who later corresponded with Angelica, told her: “You will preserve, from temper and inclination, the happy privilege of the ladies to leave to the rougher sex and to the newspapers their party squabbles and reproaches.” (May 24, 1797; quoted here) – essentially, “Don’t worry your pretty head about such politics.”
Here’s what Alexander wrote to Kitty Livingston. Main points: I’m happy to discuss politics with you, but I want to keep my options open for discussing other matters, including romance; there is not much news to report on the military front, but we’d all like to win, because among other benefits it will allow people to think about things like matrimony.
Morris Town [New Jersey] April 11th. 1777
I take pleasure in transmitting you a letter, committed to my care, by your Sister Miss Suky, and in executing a promise, I gave her, of making an advance towards a correspondence with you. She says you discover, in all your letters to her, a relish for politics, which she thinks my situation qualifies me better for gratifying, than would be in her power; and from a desire to accommodate you in this particular, as well as to get rid of what she calls a difficult task to herself, and to give me an opportunity of enjoying the felicity which must naturally attend it, she wishes me to engage on the footing of a political correspondent.
Though I am perfectly willing to harmonize with your inclination, in this respect, without making the cynical inquiry, whether it proceed from sympathy in the concerns of the public, or merely from female curiosity, yet I will not consent to be limited to any particular subject. I challenge you to meet me in whatever path you dare; and if you have no objection, for variety and amusement, we will even sometimes make excursions in the flowery walks, and roseate bowers of Cupid. You know, I am renowned for gallantry, and shall always be able to entertain you with a choice collection of the prettiest things imaginable. I fancy my knowlege of you affords me a tolerably just idea of your taste, but lest I should be mistaken I shall take it kind, if you will give me such intimations of it, as will remove all doubt, and save me the trouble of finding it out with certainty myself. This will be the more obliging, as, without it, I should have a most arduous task on my hands, at least, if connoisseurs in the sex say true, according to whose representations, contrary to the vulgar opinion, woman is not a simple, but a most complex, intricate and enigmatical being.
After knowing exactly your taste, and whether you are of a romantic, or discreet temper, as to love affairs, I will endeavour to regulate myself by it. If you would choose to be a goddess, and to be worshipped as such, I will torture my imagination for the best arguments, the nature of the case will admit, to prove you so. You shall be one of the graces, or Diana, or Venus, or something surpassing them all. And after your deification, I will cull out of every poet of my acquaintance, the choicest delicacies, they possess, as offerings at your Goddesships’ shrine. But if, conformable to your usual discernment, you are content with being a mere mortal, and require no other incense, than is justly due to you, I will talk to you like one [in] his sober senses; and, though it may be straining the point a little, I will even stipulate to pay you all the rational tribute properly applicable to a fine girl.
But amidst my amorous transports, let me not forget, that I am also to perform the part of a politician and intelligencer. This however will not take up much time, as the present situation of things gives birth to very little worth notice, though it seems pregnant with something of importance. The enemy, from some late movements, appear to be brooding mischief, which must soon break out, but I hope it will turn to their own ruin. To speak plainly, there is reason to believe, they are upon the point of attempting some important entreprize. Philadelphia in the opinion of most people, is their object. I hope they may be disappointed.
Of this, I am pretty confident, that the ensuing campaign will effectually put to death all their hopes; and establish the success of our cause beyond a doubt. You and I, as well as our neighbours, are deeply interested to pray for victory, and its necessary attendant peace; as, among other good effects, they would remove those obstacles, which now lie in the way of that most delectable thing, called matrimony;—a state, which, with a kind of magnetic force, attracts every breast to it, in which sensibility has a place, in spite of the resistance it encounters in the dull admonitions of prudence, which is so prudish and perverse a dame, as to be at perpetual variance with it. With my best respects to Mr. & Mrs. Jay, I beg you will believe me to be, Your assured friend & servant
Alexr. Hamilton [Whole letter here]
Hamilton’s ideal wife
In April 1779, from Middlebrook, NJ, Hamilton wrote to his friend John Laurens (post on him here), who had been dispatched to South Carolina in hopes he would be allowed to raise a battalion of black soldiers. At the beginning of the letter, Hamilton talks about how much their friendship means to him:
Cold in my professions, warm in ⟨my⟩ friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m⟨ight⟩ be in my power, by action rather than words, ⟨to⟩ convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ’till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent on the caprice of others. You sh⟨ould⟩ not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste⟨al⟩ into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into ⟨me⟩.
After a paragraph on Laurens’s promotion and another on news of Laurens’s wife, who was in England, Hamilton continues:
And Now my Dear as we are upon the subject of wife, I empower and command you to get me one in Carolina. Such a wife as I want will, I know, be difficult to be found, but if you succeed, it will be the stronger proof of your zeal and dexterity. Take her description—She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape) sensible (a little learning will do), well bred (but she must have an aversion to the word ton) chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness) of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagent and an œconomist). In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of; I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention to this article in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to Purgatory for my avarice; yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world—as I have not much of my own and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry; it must needs be, that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies. NB You will be pleased to recollect in your negotiations that I have no invincible antipathy to the maidenly beauties & that I am willing to take the trouble of them upon myself.
If you should not readily meet with a lady that you think answers my description you can only advertise in the public papers and doub[t]less you will hear of many competitors for most of the qualifications required, who will be glad to become candidates for such a prize as I am. To excite their emulation, it will be necessary for you to give an account of the lover—his size, make, quality of mind and body, achievements, expectations, fortune, &c. In drawing my picture, you will no doubt be civil to your friend; mind you do justice to the length of my nose and don’t forget, that I ⟨– – – – –⟩. [The Founders Archive notes, “At some points in this letter H’s words have been crossed out so that it is impossible to decipher them; and at the top of the first page, a penciled note, which was presumably written by J. C. Hamilton, reads: “I must not publish the whole of this.”]
After reviewing what I have written, I am ready to ask myself what could have put it into my head to hazard this Jeu de follie. Do I want a wife? No—I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all; and if I were silly enough to do it, I should take care how I employ a proxy. Did I mean to show my wit? If I did, I am sure I have missed my aim. Did I only intend to ⟨frisk⟩? In this I have succeeded, but I have done more. I have gratified my feelings, by lengthening out the only kind of intercourse now in my power with my friend. Adieu
A Hamilton (Whole letter here)
Elizabeth Scuyler (1757-1854), the second daughter of Philip Schuyler and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, was raised in the family of a politician, patriot, and soldier. She met Alexander Hamilton at the Schuyler mansion in Albany in 1777. In early February 1780, 22-year-old Eliza arrived at Morristown, NJ, where Washington, his staff, and the American army were in winter quarters. She stayed with her uncle, Washington’s personal physician, just down the road from headquarters.
Eliza’s older sister Angelica was described by James McHenry in 1782 (in a letter to Hamilton) as “a fine woman. She charms in all companies. No one has seen her, of either sex, who has not been pleased with her and she pleased everyone, chiefly, by means of those qualities which made you the husband of her sister.” But by February 1780, Angelica had eloped with John Barker Church: she didn’t come to Morristown.
Eliza seems to have made quite an impression on Washington’s staff, especially Hamilton, who fell hard and fast. He wrote the letter below to the Schuylers’ third daughter, Margarita, in February 1780, when he had known Eliza barely a month.
[Morristown, New Jersey, February, 1780]
In obedience to Miss Schuylers commands I do myself the pleasure to inclose you a letter, which she has been so obliging as to commit to my care, and I beg your permission to assure you that many motives conspire to render this commission peculiarly agreeable. Besides the general one of being in the service of the ladies which alone would be sufficient, even to a man of less zeal than myself, I have others of a more particular nature. I venture to tell you in confidence, that by some odd contrivance or other, your sister has found out the secret of interesting me in every thing that concerns her; and though I have not the happiness of a personal acquaintance with you, I have had the good fortune to see several very pretty pictures of your person and mind which have inspired me with a more than common partiality for both. Among others your sister carries a beautiful copy constantly about her elegantly drawn by herself, of which she has two or three times favoured me with a sight. You will no doubt admit it as a full proof of my frankness and good opinion of you, that I with so little ceremony introduce myself to your acquaintance and at the first step make you my confident. But I hope I run no risk of its being thought an impeachment of my discretion. Phlegmatists may say I take too great a license at first setting out, and witlings may sneer and wonder how a man the least acquainted with the world should show so great facility in his confidences—to a lady. But the idea I have formed of your character places it in my estimation above the insipid maxims of the former or the ill-natured jibes of the latter.
I have already confessed the influence your sister has gained over me; yet notwithstanding this, I have some things of a very serious and heinous nature to lay to her charge. She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty. Her good sense is destitute of that happy mixture of vanity and ostentation which would make it conspicuous to the whole tribe of fools and foplings as well as to men of understanding so that as the matter now stands it is ⟨very⟩ little known beyond the circle of these. She has good nature affability and vivacity unembellished with that charming frivolousiness which is justly deemed one of the principal accomplishments of a belle. In short she is so strange a creature that she possesses all the beauties virtues and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects, which from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman. The most determined adversaries of Hymen [i.e., marriage] can find in her no pretext for their hostility, and there are several of my friends, philosophers who railed at love as a weakness, men of the world who laughed at it as a phantasie, whom she has presumptuously and daringly compelled to acknowlege its power and surrender at discretion. I can the better assert the truth of this, as I am myself of the number. She has had the address to overset all the wise resolutions I had been framing for more than four years past, and from a rational sort of being and a professed contemner of Cupid has in a trice metamorphosed me into the veriest inamorato you perhaps ever saw.
These are a few specimens of the mischiefs, and enormities she has committed the little time she has made her appearance among us. I should never have done, were I to attempt to give you a catalogue of the whole, of all the hearts she has vanquished, of all the heads she has turned, of all the philosophers she has unmade, or of all the inconstants she has fixed to the great prejudice of the general service of the female world. It is essential to the safety of the state and to the tranquillity of the army that one of two things take place; either that she be immediately removed from our neighbourhood, or that some other nymph qualified to maintain an equal sway come into it. By dividing her empire it will be weakened and she will be much less dangerous when she has a rival equal in charms to dispute the prize with her. I solicit your aid to [Letter ends abruptly; what survives is here)
Asking for Papa Schuyler’s permission to marry
Alexander and Eliza asked Eliza’s parents for permission to wed sometime in February or March, a month or so after they met at Morristown. Here’s the opening paragraph of the letter with Papa Schuyler’s reply. The rest of the letter discusses political and military matters.
Philadelphia April 8th 1780
Yesterday I had the pleasure to receive a line from Mrs Schuyler in answer to mine on the subject of the one you delivered me at Morris town; she consents to Comply with your and her daughters wishes. You will see the Impropriety of taking the dernier pas where you are. Mrs. Schuyler did not see her Eldest daughter married. That also gave me pain, and we wish not to Experience It a Second time. I shall probably be at Camp In a few days, when we will adjust all matters. …
Adieu my Love to Betsy, make the same to Mrs. Cochran, my best wishes to all at head Quarters,
I am Dr Sir sincerely Yours &c &c
Ph. Schuyler (Whole letter here)
Hamilton announces his engagement to John Laurens
Sometime between April 1779 and June 1780, John Laurens was captured by the British. When Alexander wrote the letter below, Laurens had been released on parole, on the condition that he remain in Pennsylvania. The first paragraph of the letter (which I’ve cut below) deals with a possible exchange of prisoners; the second and third with recent military actions. After that, Alexander expresses discouragement with his fellow Americans, and then – almost in passing – tells of his engagement.
[Ramapo, New Jersey, June 30, 1780]
You have heard how the enemy made an incursion into the Jerseys and made an excursion out of it, how the Continental troops and Militia behaved with singular spirit, how the enemys Vessels have been dancing up and down the North River, and how they have at length thought proper to sit down quietly in New York. You have also heard how we have made a very good show with very little substance. My Dear Laurens, our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep in their compositions. They are determined not to be free and they can neither be frightened, discouraged nor persuaded to change their resolution. If we are saved France and Spain must save us. I have the most pigmy-feelings at the idea, and I almost wish to hide my disgrace in universal ruin. Don’t think I rave; for the conduct of the states is enough most pitiful that can be imagined. …
We have now before us a golden opportunity: we have applied to the states for means completely within their power; we have done everything that could operate on their fears and on their hopes. They have complied by halves, and if we attempt any thing, we must do it on the principle of despair; when we had it in our power to do it with a moral certainty of success, if we had properly exerted our resources. We are however still trying to rouse them, and it is still possible we may have a glorious campaign. I wish as far as you think yourself at liberty you would give me a confidential view of the progress of your affairs Southward.
Have you not heard that I am on the point of becoming a benedict? I confess my sins. I am guilty. Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes—is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. And believe me, I am lover in earnest, though I do not speak of the perfections of my Mistress in the enthusiasm of Chivalry.
Is it true that you are confined to Pensylvania? Cannot you pay us a visit? If you can, hasten to give us a pleasure which we shall relish with the sensibility of the sincerest friendship.
Adieu God bless you.
The lads all sympathize with you and send you the assurances of their love. (Whole letter here)
“Becoming a Benedict” probably refers to Much Ado about Nothing, whose Benedick swears he’ll never marry. (Act One; search “bachelor”)
This sounds lukewarm, but remember this is a time when it’s not considered acceptable to got into details about one’s deepest emotions. Alexander’s son John C. Hamilton heavily censored many of this father’s letters before publishing them, and even scribbled out passages on the original letters to make them illegible – and that was 50 years or so later.
- Want to see some writing in Alexander’s hand? See this site.Next week: Alexander’s letters to Eliza, 1780-1781.
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