In the late eighteenth century, Bryan Edwards, a Jamaican author, inserted this description into a reference work on the West Indies. "The nights" in summer "are transcendantally beautiful. The clearness of the heavens, the serenity of the air, and the soft tranquility in which Nature reposes contribute to harmonize the mind, and produce the most calm and delightful sensations. The moon too in these climates displays far greater radiance than in Europe: the smallest print is legible by her light; and in the moon's absence her function is not ill-supplied by the brightness of the milky-way, and that glorious planet Venus, which appears here like a little moon...cast[ing] a shade from trees."
When Alexander Hamilton was born, the Caribbean was as enchanting as it is now. It was also richer, thanks to sugar. At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, when the British victors considered restoring some of their conquests to France, they seriously debated whether to return Canada, or the island of Guadeloupe. One sugar island weighed evenly in the balance with half of North America. Some West Indian planters made fortunes. They lived high in the islands, and when they returned to the old country. "Such eating and drinking I never saw," wrote a visitor to Jamaica. "Such loads of all sorts of high, rich and seasoned things and really gallons of wine and mixed liquors. They eat a late breakfast as if they had never eaten before. It is as disgusting as it is astonishing." "There was no such thing as a [seat in Parliament] to be had now," an English lord wrote in 1767; rich West Indians "had secured them all at the rate of 3,000 pounds at least, but many at four thousand pounds, and two or three that he knew at five thousand pounds".
If war, disease, and hurricanes spared them, sugar planters could do well indeed. But there was little else to do in the West Indies. The sugar islands were floating agricultural factories, with few small farms, and small service populations in their ports. When young George Washington of Virginia (hardly an egalitarian society) took a trip to Barbados in 1751, he was struck by the material disparity he saw there. "There are few who may be called middling people. They are either very rich or very poor."
Beneath the poor whites were the slaves. Sugar farming was labor intensive; on plantations, slaves outnumbered their white masters by twenty to one. Their life was harsh. In I755, Denmark decreed that masters in the Danish Virgin Islands could not punish their slaves by mutilating them, or putting them on the rack, though they might shackle and flog them. In spite of this lenience, the slaves of St. Croix planned a revolt in 1759. The free black man who revealed the plot ahead of time committed suicide, after which his body was hung, then burned at the stake. Slaves found riding or walking the streets of Christiansted, the main town, after eight o'clock at night were given 150 lashes at the fort, "at no expense to the owner." Edwards, describing the British island of Nevis as a "beautiful little spot," added that the population was 600 whites and 10,000 blacks: "a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well-regulated militia." In the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the "well-regulated militia" would be a force for freedom. In the West Indies, it was a force for keeping the labor force in line.
Hamilton, who grew up in Nevis and St. Croix, never wrote a fond word about the Caribbean, and never made the slightest effort to return for a visit as an adult. The prosperity of the West Indies existed chiefly in its balance sheets, and made little use of human capital apart from muscle. With its barren riches and its lack of opportunity, it was a place to leave behind, and a model for what a happy country should avoid.
Hamilton's early life and the lives of his family were set in the small islands -- the Leeward and the Virgin Islands -- that rim the northeast corner of the Caribbean. Hamilton's mother, Rachel Faucett, was born on Nevis, but went to St. Croix, a twenty-hour sail with the trade winds, as a teenager. She followed one of her sisters, who had married a St. Croix planter named James Lytton. About 1745, Rachel married another planter, John Lavien, and a year later she bore him a son. Like many whites in the Caribbean, the families were a mix of nationalities, who had settled without regard to the islands' formal owners: the Faucetts were Huguenots and the Lyttons English; Lavien was probably German.
Hamilton family tradition held that Rachel had "witnessed...family quarrels" as a gift. If so, she found a new set of them in her marriage to Lavien. They settled on a cotton plantation he owned, ironically named Contentment, but in 1750, he had her jailed in the town fort in Christiansted -- the same place where curfew-breaking slaves were lashed -- for refusing to live with him. When she got out, she returned to the British West Indies, where she met James Hamilton.
James Hamilton, the fourth son of a Scottish laird, had come to the Caribbean to make his fortune as a merchant. Fifty years later, Alexander Hamilton wrote a friend that "I have better pretensions than most of those who in this Country plume themselves on Ancestry." This was an unusually defensive tone for him: Hamilton characteristically expected people to endorse his ideas and his actions because he had shown how right they were, not because he had a good pedigree. He went on to admit that his birth was "not free from blemish," for Rachel had two sons with James Hamilton -- James Junior and Alexander -- without getting a divorce from John Lavien.
Illegitimacy may not have had quite the stigma in that century that it acquired under the Victorians in the next, but it was still shameful. A dozen years later, when Benjamin Franklin arranged for his illegitimate son William to be named royal governor of New Jersey, John Adams called it an "Insult to the Morals of America." Rachel and James Senior seem to have tried to avoid the stigma: Alexander believed that his mother had gotten a second marriage, and the records of a christening on the Dutch island of St. Eustatius mention the presence of James Hamilton and "Rachel Hamilton his wife." In the Danish Virgin Islands, however, Rachel was still Rachel Lavien -- until 1759, when John Lavien divorced her for her "ungodly mode of life." Since Rachel was the party at fault, Danish law did not allow her to remarry. Presumably, James Senior discovered this state of affairs when he moved with his family to St. Croix in 1765. A year later, he left them, never to return.
To support herself, Rachel opened a provision store in Christiansted. Alexander went to work as a clerk in a merchant house; his older brother worked for a carpenter. In 1768, Alexander and Rachel came down with a fever. The son recovered; the mother died.
These, and a few other dry details, reflected in scattered church and legal documents, are virtually all we know of Hamilton's earliest childhood. They leave several puzzles. One is the year of his birth. Hamilton indicated, and descendants of his who wrote biographies of him stated flatly, that he was born in 1757, which would mean that he began working in a merchant house at the age of nine. But in settling Rachel's estate in 1768, the probate court listed her illegitimate sons' ages as fifteen and thirteen, which would mean that Alexander had been born in 1755. Biographers in thrall to documents tend to accept 1755; defenders of the later date point out that the clerk was not perfect, for he misspelled the name Lavien. The desire to add two years to Alexander's age may also reflect an impulse, encouraged by the practice of assigning schoolchildren to grades, to discount the abilities of the gifted. Without being a Mozart, Alexander Hamilton was a very bright boy -- and he was hardly unique. Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to a printer at the age of twelve, and published his first journalism when he was sixteen. The future theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote an eloquent and observant essay on flying spiders when he was twelve, and entered Yale College a year later. One of the supporters of an "older" Hamilton inconsistently argues that his responsibilities as a clerk were not that great. If they were not, then it is all the more likely that a younger boy could have fulfilled them. Recognizing that even a younger Hamilton would not have been miraculous, and believing that a man is more likely to know his own birthday than a clerk in a probate court, I will accept 1757.
A more important question is the character of his parents. Since Hamilton's relations with women played an important role in his public career, it would be interesting to know more about his mother. Hamilton described her to his children as a woman of "superior intellect," "elevated and generous sentiments," and "unusual elegance of person and manner." John Lavien accused her in his divorce papers of "whoring with everyone." Neither man was an objective witness. What is clear is that Rachel was a good businesswoman; when she died, the accounts of her store were in order, and she had only a few short-term debts.
It is also clear that James Hamilton, Sr., was a bum. He had other qualities -- his surviving letter shows charm, and his decision to move from Scotland to the Caribbean suggests that he had a stock of youthful enterprise, or at least hope -- but he was a bum nevertheless, and this would have been clear to his sons. When he left his family, he did not disappear, but went back to the Leeward Islands, where he lived a long and uneventful life. He and his famous son made sporadic efforts to keep in touch. In 1783, Alexander wrote to his older brother, who had asked him for money: "But what has become of our dear father?...Perhaps, alas! he is no more, and I shall not have the pleasing opportunity of contributing to render the close of his life more happy than the progress of it." Ten years later, James wrote the secretary of the treasury from St. Vincent that he would take "the first ship that sails for Philadelphia." But two years after that, Alexander wrote a friend that though he had "pressed" his father to come, James had decided not to, on account of his health. Perhaps he was reluctant to be so directly helped by the son he had abandoned. In 1799, the old man died. Afterward, Alexander wrote that his father had "too much pride and too large a portion of indolence -- but his character was otherwise beyond reproach." This was more generous than accurate. Pride and indolence are faults (Alexander inherited the first, though not the second). But they were not James's only faults. If he had vanished, his lover and his children could have consoled themselves with romantic, even tragic, speculations about his character and his fate. But he simply moved over a few islands. James Hamilton walked away from a complicated situation, and made it plain that that was what he had done. When Alexander Hamilton became a husband and father, he dedicated himself (sometimes with very mixed results) to behaving differently.
Rachel left a modest estate -- nine slaves, thirteen silver spoons, and thirty-four books. James Junior and Alexander received none of it. John Lavien appeared before the probate court and claimed everything for his and Rachel's legitimate son. The Lytton family, into which Rachel's sister had married, gave the Hamilton boys some help, buying back the thirty-four books at an auction. But the Lyttons were coming to grief too. Two of Alexander's Lytton cousins had left the island as bankrupts; a third killed himself. James Lytton, their father, died a month later. Alexander was practically alone in a small world.
A year later, age twelve, he wrote his first letter that survives, to Edward Stevens, an older boy who had been sent to New York to attend King's College, now Columbia University. "[T]o confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is so prevalent that I contemn the grov'ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho' not my Character to exalt my Station....Im no Philosopher, you see, and may be justly said to Build Castles in the Air....yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War." St. Croix was a bigger island than Nevis, with more than twice the population -- 24,000, of which 2,000 were white -- and as a merchant's clerk, Alexander could observe its traffic with a wider world. But in the normal course of things, a local boy without a family could not expect to see the world, still less to exalt his station. Neddy Stevens might get away; not him.
Three factors altered the course of things. In 1771, the Reverend Hugh Knox, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister, moved to Christiansted and noticed the ambitious boy. Knox was interested in education, and he had plans to teach the local slaves. He himself had been educated at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, at that time the finest school in the Thirteen Colonies. Jonathan Edwards had served briefly as president; Knox had studied with Edwards's son-in-law, Aaron Burr. Knox could introduce Alexander to two new worlds -- learning, and North America.
Hamilton's employer, Nicholas Cruger, had even more extensive connections on the mainland, which would propel Alexander in that direction. The Crugers, originally a German family, had been New York merchants for three generations. Nicholas's uncle had been the first president of the New York Chamber of Commerce. Nicholas and his three brothers were dispatched by the family to different centers of business: St. Croix, Jamaica, Curasao, and Bristol, England. (The brother who went to Bristol ultimately became mayor, and a member of Parliament.) In Christiansted, Nicholas Cruger owned ships, warehouses, a general store, and a counting house, where Hamilton worked, on Kongensgade, or King Street. Cruger and other New Yorkers began trading in St. Croix at mid-century for its sugar, delivering it to the refineries of old New York families like the Roosevelts. In return, they brought the islanders the staples that were not produced locally. One of Cruger's handbills advertised Albany white pine, pork, codfish, Madeira, and mules from Puerto Rico. Cruger was not a regular slave-trader, though in 1771 he did auction three hundred "first class slaves...just in from Africa." In Virgin Islands dialect today, the phrase "the City," when used without qualification, means New York, or America (the two are assumed to be interchangeable). There was no United States when Hamilton was Cruger's clerk, but Cruger's hometown had already become a pivot for the Virgin Islands' dealings with North America, and the world.
The third factor in Hamilton's change of fortune was the impression his abilities made on these men. In the fall of 1771, Cruger left St. Croix for four months on account of bad health, leaving his fourteen-year-old clerk to mind the store. In the letters he sent out during this period, Hamilton passed judgment on loads of flour ("realy very bad"), apples ("in every respect very indifferent"), and the captain of a ship the Crugers had hired ("I think he seems rather to want experience in such Voyages"). He suggested that Nicholas's brother in Curasao mount guns on the ship to protect it from the Spanish coast guard, and fretted when this was not done. "I begd Mr. Teleman Cruger to put some force upon her. How he came to neglect it I don't know."
In 1772 Hamilton got to read himself in print. On the last day of August, a hurricane raked the island, killing thirty people and sweeping ships a hundred yards inland. Alexander wrote to his father describing the disaster; some local adult saw the letter, and in early October it appeared ("by a Youth of this Island") in the Royal Danish-American Gazette. It opened with staccato description: "The roaring of the sea and wind -- fiery meteors flying about it in the air -- the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning -- the crash of the falling houses." Pious reflections followed, perhaps inspired by the Reverend Mr. Knox: "That which, in a calm and unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity....The father and benefactor were forgot [while] a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair." These were interesting thoughts to be addressed to a father, no benefactor, who had forgotten to return home. The last sentence, like a flash, prefigured the mature Hamilton: "Our General," he wrote, of the Danish governor of the island, "has issued several very salutary and humane regulations, and both in his publick and private measures, has shewn himself the Man." All his adult life, he would make confident judgments of the performance of superiors and subordinates. He was doing it at the age of fifteen.
His authority for doing so sprang from his own passion to perform well -- he never criticized from the role of a detached analyst or a kibbitzer. Years later, Hamilton told one of his sons that clerking for Cruger had taught him "method" and "facility," and that his years in the King Street counting house had been "the most useful of his education." But method and facility would have been of little account without his will to see the job done right, by himself if necessary.
Later that month, the young author was put on a ship and sent to the mainland. Other foreigners who would come to America during the Revolutionary period, like Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, were citizens of superpowers, who saw the new country as a haven of virtuous simplicity. Hamilton's trajectory was different: he was coming from the fringes to the center.
Hamilton's move to the mainland was a joint project of Cruger and Knox. The plan was to send him to the College of New Jersey at Princeton, after he had done the necessary academic catching up. Hamilton studied at a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, reading in his room until midnight, and in the morning before school began, in a nearby cemetery.
Dr. John Witherspoon, the Scottish minister who had succeeded Aaron Burr as president at Princeton, made the college a republican seminary. But Hamilton was not destined to be one of his disciples. When Hercules Mulligan, a New York merchant tailor who knew the Crugers, took him to meet Witherspoon, the teenager "stated that he wished to enter...with the understanding that he should be permitted to advance from Class to Class with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do." Though "Dr. Witherspoon listened with great attention to so unusual a proposition from so young a person" he turned him down. Hamilton made the same proposal to King's College in New York, which took him on.
Hamilton's formative American years were thus spent in a place that was like and unlike Christiansted: commercial and cosmopolitan, but vastly different in tempo and scale. The population of New York was almost 25,000, slightly more than the whole island of St. Croix; only a fifth of it consisted of slaves. The city was huddled on the southern tip of Manhattan, reaching only a mile up from the fortified Battery. (What is now Foley Square, lined with courthouses, was a deep pond, where people skated in the winter.) New York had already passed Boston in population, and was gaining on Philadelphia, then the second-largest city in the English-speaking world. Unlike the City on the Hill, or the City of Brotherly Love, New York had always been a commercial venture: first, a Dutch post for extracting furs from the interior; then, an English port. Commerce had exploded in mid-century: 700 vessels cleared the port in 1772, compared to 99 in 1746. The British mercantile system was supposed to reserve manufacturing for the mother country, but one visitor noted that New York had "plenty of mechanicks of all kinds," working in rope and snuff factories, breweries, and an ironworks.
"The inhabitants," the same visitor went on, "are in general brisk and lively, kind to strangers [and] dress very gay; the fair sex are...said to be very obliging." He claimed that five hundred prostitutes lived by St. Paul's Chapel, near the entrance to King's College. "This is certainly a temptation to the youth." John Adams, passing through on his way to the Continental Congress, thought New Yorkers "talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again and talk away." There were fifteen churches, serving nine denominations and four ethnic groups -- English, Dutch, German, and French -- plus one synagogue (only Catholicism was forbidden). But religion did not unduly influence behavior. The "readiest way for a stranger to recommend himself," wrote another visitor, was to "drink stoutly" and "talk bawdy."
New York was also a city riven by politics. After the Seven Years' War (called the French and Indian War in North America), Britain tried to pay off its debts by taxing its colonies and tightening up its imperial system. Many in New York were willing to go along; later, they would call themselves Loyalists, and be called Tories. Merchants vacillated between resentment of economic restrictions and fear of disrupted trade. Radicals, like the Sons of Liberty, appealed to the mind -- handbills, one resident noted, are "daily and hourly printed, published, pasted up" -- and to the mob. "People here live...very Comfortable," wrote a British officer, "did they chuse to be contented." But they chose not to be. In the decade before the Revolution, there were twenty-some riots or other disturbances, ranging from ideological protests against imperial policy to disorderly British soldiers burning whore-houses. The Stamp Act Congress, the first colonial airing of grievances, met in New York; there was a showdown in New York with British troops before the Boston Massacre, and a tea party in New York harbor after the Boston Tea Party.
Alongside these issues of national and imperial import, old established families jockeyed for position, by any means necessary. In the elections to the provincial assembly in 1769, a member of one family faction, the Livingstons, boasted that "we have by far the best part of the bruisers on our side," while the other faction, the De Lanceys, charged that one of their opponents "dances with, and kisses (filthy beast!) those of his own sex." In 1774, Gouverneur Morris, a witty aristocrat in what is now the Bronx, memorably expressed the elites' view: "The mob begin to think, and to reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter's [skin], they bask in sunshine, and ere noon they will bite." Morris need not have worried about his position: the elites would find ways to manage popular biting for many years to come.
King's College had three teachers, including its president, Dr. Myles Cooper, and about twenty students. Ned Stevens, who was still there, finishing his studies as a doctor, joined Hamilton in a weekly debating club with several other students, including Robert Troup, who became a lifelong friend. Hamilton was already fluent in French, thanks to his mother; we do not know what her thirty-four books were, or what books Hugh Knox had let him read, but King's had a good library, well stocked with legal and political philosophers, and Hamilton worked his way through it. "He used in the evening to sit with my family," Mulligan remembered, and "write dogrel rhymes for their amusement; he was all-ways amiable and cheerful and extremely attentive to his books."
Politics gave him the chance to write his first journalism in New York. In September and October of 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and proposed an embargo on trade with Britain, to be enforced by a Continental Association with power to proscribe uncooperative merchants. This provoked a spirited attack from Samuel Seabury, an Anglican clergyman in Westchester County. Seabury was an intelligent and principled man; after the Revolution, he would become the first bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Following universal eighteenth-century polemical practice, he wrote under a pseudonym -- A. W. Farmer -- that was shrewdly chosen: despite the level of frenzy in New York City, most of the farmers in the surrounding counties were content, and suspicious of being forced to trade locally. Seabury stressed England's power and the colonies' weakness, and played on social and regional divisions: the Continental Association was a "venomous brood of scorpions," while Bostonians thought that God "made Boston for Himself, and all the rest of the world for Boston."
Hamilton wrote two responses, "A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress," and "The Farmer Refuted," which appeared in December 1774 and February 1775 respectively, and together ran to 50,000 words. He was as much a know-it-all as when he approved the measures of the Danish governor, only now he knew more. "Apply yourself, without delay," he told the Farmer, "to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorff [sic], Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlamaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject," he went on, "but if you attend diligently to these, you will not require any." In another place, he told Seabury, "What you say concerning the lumber that is exported from Canada is totally false."
Hamilton turned the tables on Seabury by arguing that the colonies, instead of being weak and divided, were in fact a growing economic threat to the mother country. "The boundless extent of territory we possess, the wholesome temperament of our climate, the luxuriance and fertility of our soil, the variety of our products, the rapidity of the growth of our population, the industry of our countrymen, and the commodiousness of our ports" had caused "a jealousy of our dawning splendor" This passage is striking for its foresight. During the war, George Washington would use the phrase "rising empire." But no other Revolutionary would envisage it so vividly. Hamilton's argument was also striking because he said "our." He signed his pamphlets "A Friend of America," but he wrote them as an American; in two years, the immigrant had become a patriot.
Hamilton appealed to rights as well as power. "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power." In the vein of inspirational rhetoric, this is the finest thing Hamilton ever wrote, and the most Jeffersonian.
He also gave a vivid description of what happens when rights are denied, a state he called "slavery." He meant by this the enslavement of the colonies that would ensue if they continued to be taxed without representation from London, though it is hard not to think that his description gained in vividness from the slavery he had seen firsthand. "I might show that [slavery] is fatal to religion and morality; that it tends to debase the mind, and corrupt its noblest springs of action. I might show that it relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape."
He also made several miscalculations. "There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty," he declared, "that makes human nature rise above itself in acts of bravery and heroism." He would soon discover that this is sometimes true, sometimes not. If Britain chose force, he recommended guerrilla warfare, "harass[ing] and exhaust[ing]" British soldiers "by frequent skirmishes and incursions," rather than "tak[ing] the open field with them." He would also discover the limits of that strategy. Finally, he would come to reassess the "industry" of his new countrymen -- not just compared to his own unusual standards, but to the norm of the European world.
Nevertheless, the pamphlets were an impressive performance -- so much so that they were attributed to John Jay, a delegate to the First Continental Congress who had graduated from King's College in 1764. Dr. Cooper, a devout Anglican who agreed with Seabury, thought it "absurd to imagine that so young a man" as his own student "could have written" them. Between the publication dates of the two pamphlets, Hamilton turned eighteen.
Late in April, the colonies learned of the battles of Lexington and Concord; argument had become armed defiance. One night in May, a mob came to the college intending to tar and feather Cooper (tarring and feathering was not a prank, but a painful punishment, sometimes fatal). Hamilton and Troup, who were rooming together, heard the commotion and went to Cooper's front steps, where Hamilton "proceeded with great animation and eloquence to harangue the mob on...the disgrace it would bring on the cause of liberty." Cooper was able to escape by a back door and take refuge on a British warship.
Another New Yorker who would join Cooper in flight was James Rivington, a printer who had published Seabury's pamphlets, and was accounted a Tory (though he had also published Hamilton's replies). In November, a band of militiamen from Connecticut broke into Rivington's print shop on Hanover Square, smashed his presses, and seized his type. Hamilton lectured this group of patriots too, this time without effect. On their way, for good measure, the raiders scooped up Samuel Seabury.
Historians teach that mobs and other irregular proceedings -- popular tribunals, ex post facto laws -- are a feature of all revolutions, even ones that are thought of as good and generally orderly. Hamilton never learned this lesson. He opposed mobs and revolutionary justice all his life, sometimes at the risk of his reputation, or his safety. After the Rivington episode, he wrote his first letter to John Jay, who was then serving in the Second Continental Congress: "I am always more or less alarmed at every thing which is done of mere will and pleasure without any proper authority."
Hamilton had been helping the cause in ways more significant than robbing printers and molesting Anglicans. With Troup, he joined a drill company called the Corsicans, who wore green coats and leather caps inscribed LIBERTY OR DEATH, and drilled in a churchyard. The name of the company showed its romantic spirit -- Corsica had rebelled against its Italian overlords in mid-century and had been written up by James Boswell. At the end of August 1775, the young soldiers went to the Battery to remove its cannons. Mulligan, who went with them, remembered that "Mr. H...gave me his musket to hold" and grabbed one of the cannon ropes. A British battleship in the harbor opened fire on them. "I left his musket in the Battery & retreated." Hamilton retreated with his cannon, and asked Mulligan for his musket. When told that it was back at the fort, "he went for it...with as much unconcern as if the vessel had not been there."
This was a fine exploit. But in Boston, war had begun in earnest, and the following summer it came to New York. The British had done badly in Boston. At Lexington and Concord, they had sent a detachment into hostile countryside and it had been mauled. At the battle of Bunker Hill, they had marched, without artillery cover, up a slope, toward an enemy crouched behind a fence. They took the position, but at a cost of 1,500 men. The Americans were elated by their successes, but there was no reason to think the British would continue to perform so ineptly.
After the British evacuated Boston in March, the Continental Army moved south. Thus it was that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the troops in New York on July 9. An equestrian statue of George III at Bowling Green, erected only five years earlier when New Yorkers hoped he would defend them against obnoxious ministers, was pulled down and melted into bullets, and the crown-shaped finials on the iron fence around the green were knocked off. (The green is still there, and so is the fence; the tips of its posts are still rough to the touch.) While the patriots celebrated in town, the British had been massing in the harbor and on Staten Island, where the local farmers welcomed their arrival.
Hamilton, no longer a Corsican, had been made captain of a New York artillery company in March. For the next year, his movements are subsumed in the maneuvers of the rival armies. The fundamental problem facing George Washington, the American commander, was that New York was indefensible. For reasons of politics and prestige, he was expected to hold an island city in a harbor, without a navy. The British, who had the best navy in the world, put it to good use by doing what they had failed to do on the small scale of Bunker Hill: outflank the enemy. In August, they drove Washington out of Long Island, and in September they bisected Manhattan, landing on the east side about three miles north of town. One account claims that Hamilton and his company were in a hilltop fort, below the point of the British landing, and were able to save themselves only because of the timely warning of Major Aaron Burr, son of the late president of Princeton.
Fort Washington, the last American garrison on Manhattan, fell in the middle of November. The city would stay in British hands for seven rough years; three-quarters of it would burn in a fire; the population would plunge to 5,000, then rise to over 30,000, swollen by Tory refugees. Hercules Mulligan stayed on as an American spy, designing British officers' uniforms. Family tradition had it that Hamilton volunteered to lead an assault on Fort Washington; if he did, he was fortunately not asked to do anything so suicidal, for the American army, as 1776 ended, was barely able to hold itself together. Thanks to defeats, desertions, and expiring enlistments, there were at times more American soldiers in British captivity than under Washington's command. As the Americans retreated across New Jersey, an officer remarked Hamilton. "I noticed a youth, a mere stripling, small, slender, almost delicate in frame, marching beside a piece of artillery with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought, with his hand resting on the cannon and every now and then patting it as he mused, as if it were a favorite horse or a pet plaything."
Finally, at year's end, the youth got to use his cannon to good effect. Hamilton was in the boats that crossed the Delaware for the dawn assault on Trenton, where he fired at the groggy Hessians. A week later, when the Americans turned the British flank and made their surprise attack on Princeton, he fired on the last holdouts in Nassau Hall. After long delays and frightful costs, liberty had shown some enthusiasm, and Hamilton had gotten into the College of New Jersey.
Copyright © 1999 by Richard Brookhiser