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In mid-February 1781, after four years as Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton resigned. The reasons behind this and the relationship between Washington and Hamilton, are the subject of nearly as much speculation among Hamilton scholars as are Hamilton’s birth date and the reason for his duel with Burr.
Hamilton explains his resignation to a friend
Hamilton gave the reason for the break in a letter to his friend James McHenry, who had once been one of Washington’s aides and was now on the staff of the Marquis de Lafayette.
[New Windsor, New York, February 18, 1781]
I have, Dear Mac, several of your letters. I shall ⟨soon⟩ have time enough to write ⟨my⟩ friends ⟨as often⟩ as they please.
The Great man and I have come to an open rupture. Proposals of accomodation have been made on his part but rejected. I pledge my honor to you that he will find me inflexible. He shall for once at least repent his ill-humour. Without a shadow of reason and on the slightest ground, he charged me in the most affrontive manner with treating him with disrespect. I answered very decisively—“Sir I am not conscious of it but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part.” I wait till more help arrives. At present there is besides myself only Tilghman, who is just recovering from a fit of illness the consequence of too close application to business.
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.
Adieu ⟨my⟩ friend. May the time come when ⟨characters may⟩ be known in their true light.
Madame [i.e., Eliza] sends her friendship to you. (Annotated letter here)
Hamilton explains his resignation to his father-in-law
For his father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler, a more detailed explanation was in order. Alexander had married Eliza on December 14, 1780. Part of the reason this orphan immigrant was so readily accepted into the prominent and wealthy Schuyler family was surely Alexander’s position since March 1, 1777 as one of the commander-in-chief’s aide-de-camps (see “Here comes the general“). Now, two months after the wedding, Alexander has to tell General Schuyler that he’s resigned from Washington’s staff.
Head Quarters New Windsor [New York] Feby 18, 81
My Dear Sir.
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 days 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 on 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 is usual, in his room, I met him at the head of the stairs, where accosting me in an angry tone, “Colonel 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. In less than an hour after, Tilghman came to me in the General’s name, assuring me of his great confidence in my abilities, integrity, usefulness, &c, and of his desire, in a candid conversation, to heal a difference which could not have happened but in a moment of passion. I requested Mr. Tilghman to tell him, — 1st. That I had taken my resolution in a manner not to be revoked. 2d. That as a conversation could serve no other purpose than to produce explanations, mutually disagreeable, though I certainly would not refuse an interview, if he desired it, yet I would be happy, if he would permit me to decline it. 3d. That though determined to leave the family, the same principles which had kept me so long in it, would continue to direct my conduct towards him when out of it. 4th. That, however, I did not wish to distress him, or the public business, by quitting him before he could derive other assistance by the return of some of the gentlemen who were absent. 5th. And that in the mean time, it depended on him, to let our behaviour to each other be the same as if nothing had happened.
He consented to decline the conversation, and thanked me for my offer of continuing my aid in the manner I had mentioned.
I have given you so particular a detail of our difference, from the desire I have to justify myself in your opinion.
Perhaps you may think I was precipitate in rejecting the overture made by the General to an accommodation. I assure you, my dear sir, it was not the effect of resentment ; it was the deliberate result of maxims I had long formed for the government of my own conduct.
I always disliked the office of an aid-de-camp, as having in it a kind of personal dependence. I refused to serve in this capacity with two Major Generals, at an early period of the war. Infected, however, with the enthusiasm of the times, an idea of the General’s character overcame my scruples, and induced me to accept his invitation to enter into his family. It has been often with great difficulty that I have prevailed upon myself not to renounce it ; but while, from motives of public utility, I was doing violence to my feelings, I was always determined, if there should ever happen a breach between us, never to consent to an accommodation. I was persuaded, that when once that nice barrier, which marked the boundaries of what we owed to each other, should be thrown down, it might be propped again, but could never be restored.
The General is a very honest man ; — his competitors have slender abilities, and less integrity. His popularity has often been essential to the safety of America, and is still of great importance to it. These considerations have influenced my past conduct respecting him, and will influence my future ; —I think it is necessary he should be supported.
His estimation in your mind, whatever maybe its amount, I am persuaded has been formed on principles, which a circumstance like this cannot materially affect ; but if I thought it could diminish your friendship for him, I should almost forego the motives that urge me to justify myself to you. I wish what I have said to make no other impression, than to satisfy you I have not been in the wrong. It is also said in confidence, as a public knowledge of the breach would, in many ways, have an ill effect. It will, probably, be the policy of both sides to conceal it, and cover the separation with some plausible pretext. I am importuned by such of my friends as are privy to the affair, to listen to a reconciliation; but my resolution is unalterable.
As I cannot think of quitting the army during the war, I have a project of re-entering into the artillery, by taking Lieutenant Colonel Forrest’s place, who is desirous of re tiring on half-pay. I have not, however, made up my mind upon this head, as I should be obliged to come in the youngest lieutenant colonel instead of the eldest, which I ought to have been by natural succession, had I remained in the corps; and, at the same time, to resume studies relative to the profession, which to avoid inferiority, must be laborious. If a handsome command in the campaign in the light infantry should offer itself, I shall balance between this and the artillery. My situation in the latter would be more solid and permanent; but as I hope the war will not last long enough to make it progressive, this consideration has the less force. A command for the campaign, would leave me the winter to prosecute studies relative to my future career in life.
I have written to you on this subject with all the freedom and confidence to which you have a right, and with an assurance of the interest you take in all that concerns me.
Very sincerely and affectionately,
I am, dear sir,
Your most obedient servant,
A. Hamilton. (This is the corrected version as published in John C. Hamilton’s Life of Alexander Hamilton I, 333-336. If you like seeing how Alexander thinks, see the Founders Archive version of the letter, which includes corrections from the autograph draft signed at Morristown National Historical Park)
Philip Schuyler replies
General Schuyler responded a week later (2/25/1778).
My Dear Sir
Last night your favor of the 18 Inst: was delivered me. I confess that the contents surprized and afflicted me, not that I discover any impropriety in your conduct in the affair in question, for of that I persuade myself you are incapable, but as it may be attended with consequences prejudical to my country which I love, which I affectionately love, and as no event tending to its detriment can be beheld by me with indifference, I should esteem myself culpable were I silent on the occasion, and must therefore intreat your attention; a candid and favorable construction I ask not, for that I am certain I shall have. Long before I had the least Intimation that you intended that connection with my family, which is so very pleasing to me, and which affords me such entire satisfaction I had studied Your Character, and that of the other Gentlemen who composed the Genrals family. I thought I discovered in all an attention to the duties of their station, in some a considerable degree of ability, but, (without a compliment for I trust there is no necessity of that between us,) in you only I found those qualifications so essentially necessary to the man who is to aid and council a commanding General, environed with difficulties of every kind, and these perhaps more, and of greater magnitude, than any other ever has had to encounter, whose correspondance must of necessity be extensive always interesting, and frequently so delicate as to require much Judgment and adress to be properly managed. The public voice has confirmed the Idea I had formed of You, but what is more consoling to me and more honorable to you, men of genius Observation and Judgement think as I do on the occasion. Your quitting your station must therefore be productive of very material Injuries to the public, and this consideration, exclusive of others, impells me to wish that the unhappy breach should be closed, and a mutual Confidence restored. You may both of you Imagine when you seperate, that the cause will remain a secret, but I will venture to speak decidely, and say It is impossible, and I fear the Effect, especially with the French Officers, with the french Minister, and even with the french Court; these already Observe so many divisions between us; they know and acknowledge your Abilities and how necessary you are to the General. Indeed how will the loss be replaced? He will if you leave him, have not one Gentleman left sufficiently versed in the french to convey his Ideas. And if he obtains one, it is more than probable that he will be a meer interpreter, without being able to afford his General an Idea, and Incapable of conducting business with any competent degree of adress propriety or delicacy.
It is evident my Dear Sir that the General conceived himself the Agressor, and that he quickly repented of the Insult; “he wished to heal a difference which could not have happened but in a moment of passion.” It falls to the lott of few men to pass thro life without one of those unguar[d]ed moments which wound the feelings of a friend; let us then impute them to the fraility of human nature, and with Sternes recording angel, drop a tear, and blot It out of the page of life. I do not mean to reprehend the maxims you have formed for your conduct; they are laudable, and tho generally approved, yet times and circumstances sometimes render a deviation necessary and Justifiable. This necessity now exists in the distresses of Your country. Make the sacrifice, the greater it is, the more glorious to you, your services are wanted, they are wanted in that particular station which You have already filled so beneficially to the public, and with such extensive reputation. I am as incapable of wishing as you are of doing, any thing injurious to those principles of honor, which If I may use the expression, are the test of virtue; my wishes, which are very earnest for a reconciliation I am convinced you will impute to their true motives, public good and the best affections of the human heart. I have a letter from the General of the 20th Instant1 he mentions not a syllable of this unhappy difference. … (Rest of letter here)
Washington and Hamilton’s relationship
I always start my research with primary sources. When I move on to secondary sources, it’s with the constant question: does this scholar make sense of all the primary sources? Do his explanations make the pieces whir and click and fall into place, with no leftover facts languishing off to the side?
After reading Hamilton’s letters about his resignation from Washington’s staff, I wanted to know who else wrote about this argument at the time. Naturally I went to Michael Newton’s Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. Newton is a font of quotes from primary sources (Hamilton, his contemporaries, early biographers) and Hamilton scholars.
After reading Chapters 35-37 of Newton, I’m persuaded that the relationship between Washington and Hamilton was a business-like one rather than a father-son one, and that the break between them was not bitter and long-enduring one. It was a matter of Hamilton having outgrown his position as an aide (exactly as he explained to Philip Schuyler).
Two of the most persuasive points in favor of this are that in letters to a few of his aides (mostly men he had known before the Revolutionary War), Washington expressed affection in a way he never did to Hamilton. Also, Hamilton remained at headquarters, continuing his duties as Washington’s aide, from mid-February until April 9, 1781: hardly a situation that would have been tolerable if there had been an irreconcilable break between them.
“Unhappily for public affairs, there seems to be little prospect of activity”
Hamilton didn’t resign from the army, only from Washington’s staff. In July 1781, five months after his break with Washington, Hamilton wrote Eliza from a camp near Dobbs Ferry. Main points: 1) I was so angry not to be given a command that I resigned my commission; 2) in Washington’s name, an aide persuaded me not to resign, and promised a command as soon as feasible, and I agreed to stay; 3) I love you, and I’m in touch with your father and Angelica’s husband.
[Camp near Dobbs Ferry, New York, July 10, 1781]
The day before yesterday, my angel, I arrived here, but for the want of an opportunity could not write you sooner. Indeed, I know of none now, but shall send this to the Quarter Master General to be forwarded by the first conveyance to the care of Col. Hughes. Finding when I came here that nothing was said on the subject of a command, I wrote the General a letter [NOTE: it’s never been found] and enclosed him my commission. This morning Tilghman came to me in his name, pressed me to retain my commission, with an assurance that he would endeavor by all means to give me a command nearly such as I could have desired in the present circumstances of the army. Though I know my Betsy would be happy to hear I had rejected this proposal, it is a pleasure my reputation would not permit me to afford her. I consented to retain my commission and accept my command.
I hope my beloved Betsy will dismiss all apprehensions for my safety; unhappily for public affairs, there seems to be little prospect of activity, and if there should be Heaven will certainly be propitious to any attachment so tender, so genuine as ours. Heaven will restore me to the bosom of my love and permit me to enjoy with new relish the delights which are centred there. It costs me a great deal to be absent from them, but the privation is certainly only temporary. I impatiently long to hear from you the state of your mind since our painful separation. Be as happy as you can, I entreat you, my amiable, my beloved wife. But let not absence deprive me of the least particle of your affection. Always remember those tender proofs I have so frequently given you of mine and preserve for me unabated the only blessing which can make life of any value to me.
I write your father all the military news. I have barely seen Mr. Carter [i.e., John Barker Church, Angelica’s husband] and delivered him the letters which your amiable father committed to my care. You are of a charming family my Betsy. I shall not easily forget the marks of parting regret which appeared in both your sisters. Assure them of everything my heart is capable of feeling for the lovely sisters of a lovely wife. …
My good, my tender, my fond, my excellent Betsy, Adieu. You know not how much it must ever cost me to pronounce this word. God bless and preserve you.
A. Hamilton (whole letter here)
We’re coming up on Yorktown (October 1781), but I want to poke around a bit in Alexander’s letters from April to October 1781, and perhaps write a post related to “That Would Be Enough.” Can’t wait to see what turns up!
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