Douglas Ambrose, Charter Fellow of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) and Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at Hamilton College, has been chosen by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, to write a book about the museum’s collection of correspondence between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The cache of letters held by the museum relates to the Burr-Hamilton duel, the most famous in American history. The philanthropist Steven Clark purchased the letters in the 1950s for the museum. The proposed volume, to be published by the Fenimore Museum, will contain for the first time transcriptions of all the correspondence as well as pictorial images of each letter. The Museum will also develop programming and digital content related to the letters. A $70,000 grant from the Long Island-based Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation will underwrite the project.
Ambrose will team with expert photographers to put together a “lavishly illustrated and handsome” volume that conveys the tensions and passions of the era. The volume will make the public aware of the riches housed at the museum. “My job,” said Ambrose, “will be to contextualize the duel.” To that end he will write a 15,000-word explanatory essay. He will explain what led to the duel, the political rivalries of the time, Hamilton’s suspicions about Burr’s character, and the culture of honor. New York outlawed dueling in 1804. Burr was not charged in Hamilton’s death, but his political career was ruined.
To highlight Ambrose’s effort, AHI will sponsor a special panel, open to the public, “What Should You Know about Alexander Hamilton?” at the Fenimore Museum on Saturday, April 21 at 4 p.m. Ambrose will be joined by Carson Holloway, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha and Bradford Wilson, Executive Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton, University. Professors Holloway and Wilson have coedited a two-volume set of The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Ambrose studied history under the late Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, two of the most influential historians of their generation. Ambrose began his scholarly focus on Hamilton in 2000 when philanthropist and Hamilton College alumnus Carl B. Menges asked him to put together a conference on the college’s namesake and charter trustee. The working conference was held at Hamilton College in 2001 and featured Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser as keynote speaker and many other distinguished scholars, including Genovese. Ambrose and Robert Martin, Professor of Government, Hamilton College, combined to co-edit a widely praised anthology The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (NYU Press, 2007), derived from essays produced for the conference.
Alexander Hamilton’s life marks one of the great meritocratic stories in an age of revolution. Revolutionary War hero, delegate at the Constitutional Convention, author of fifty-one of the eighty-five essays in The Federalist, first Secretary of the Treasury—and a man of strong political passions—Hamilton was born in poverty out of wedlock in 1755 on the British Caribbean island of Nevis to Rachel Faucett Lavien and James Hamilton. His father abandoned the family when Alexander was 10, and his mother died three years later. The teenage Alexander Hamilton had little formal schooling but became a voracious reader and found work as a clerk where he was entrusted with large responsibilities despite his youth. His intellectual abilities were recognized by Hugh Knox, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister, who sent the seventeen-year-old to the colonies for a formal education. While attending King’s College (today Columbia University), he combined studies in the liberal arts with political writing.
Hamilton began his military career by joining the New York provincial militia in 1775. The following year, at the age of 21, he was appointed as commander with the rank of captain of an artillery company and saw considerable action in the battles in New York and New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, including George Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton and the subsequent Battle of Princeton. General Washington appointed him his aide-de-camp and promoted him to lieutenant colonel. As commander of a New York infantry battalion, Hamilton led a successful assault on British fortifications at Yorktown in October 1781.
Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780. Upon leaving active service in late 1781 and returning to New York, he began to study law and pursue a political career. He received an appointment in 1782 from the New York State legislature to serve as delegate to Congress. During his three-year tenure he became convinced that the government under the Articles needed revision. After opening a law office in New York City, Hamilton continued to stay engaged in politics and defended less-than-popular causes. In a series of pamphlets he criticized New York laws that punished Loyalists, and he defended them in court. He helped found the Bank of New York and the state’s Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. In 1786 he was elected to the New York assembly and then appointed as a delegate to the Annapolis Convention, which met to discuss the problems of interstate commerce under the Articles of Confederation. He served as one of three delegates from New York at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
To sway public opinion in New York in favor of ratifying the new Constitution, Hamilton recruited John Jay and James Madison to write with him a series of essays under the pseudonym “Publius.” The eighty-five essays, written over ten months, appeared in two New York newspapers before being published collectively in 1788 as The Federalist. Hamilton’s great antagonist, Thomas Jefferson, regarded the eighty-five essays as “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.”
Fourteen months after New York’s ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton was nominated by President George Washington to be the first secretary of the newly created Department of the Treasury. The first American party system emerged from debates, often in newspapers, between Hamilton and his supporters who labeled themselves Federalists, and Jefferson, Madison, and their allies, known as Democratic-Republicans.
Although Hamilton left the cabinet in 1795, he continued to exert political influence. He vigorously defended fellow Federalist John Jay and the 1795 treaty with Great Britain. He continued to work closely with Washington, advising him and helping him write his famous farewell address in 1796. During the presidency of John Adams, Hamilton advised Secretary of State Timothy Pickering on foreign policy. But Hamilton also used his influence with several members of President John Adams’s own cabinet to thwart Adams’s leadership.
Hamilton lobbied for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to be the Federalist candidate for president in the election of 1800, but when Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr both received the same number of electoral votes, Hamilton urged Federalists to support Jefferson over Burr. In February 1801, after a tense week of debate, the House of Representatives elected Jefferson president. Hamilton then used the pages of the New-York Evening Post, a paper he helped found, to keep up a running attack on Jefferson.
Burr decided to run for governor of New York while still vice president and was supported by northeastern Federalists, who contemplated seceding and creating a separate republic. Hamilton worked vigorously to convince Federalists to support the other Republican candidate, Morgan Lewis (there was no Federalist candidate). Lewis won the April 1804 election. In June, Burr contacted Hamilton and demanded that he explain disparaging remarks about him, attributed to Hamilton, in a letter printed in an Albany newspaper. Negotiations between the two parties lasted for over a week. When Burr challenged him to a duel. Hamilton accepted, and two weeks later, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr faced each other on a field of honor in Weehawken, New Jersey.
“Burr was to the manor born and resented the upstart Hamilton,” explained Ambrose. “By 1804 Burr realized his political possibilities were narrowing and he saw Hamilton as part of it.” Hamilton saw in Burr an aspirant “Caesar.” One panelist at the 2001 conference called Burr “the consummate politician,” a real charmer who could make you think you were special, the only person in the room. Recalling the impact of that conference, Ambrose said that his work on Alexander Hamilton has been “the most unanticipated thing in my career.”
The Broadway hit musical, Hamilton, which premiered off-Broadway in February 2015, broke sales records, won numerous awards, and sparked international interest in Alexander Hamilton. Lin Manuel-Miranda based his musical on the prize-winning biography of Hamilton, published in 2004 by Ron Chernow. The Hamilton-Burr correspondence figures in the musical, and Ambrose pointed to the lyrics, for example, of the songs “Your Obedient Servant,” and “My Shot.”
The demand for more information about the life and work of Alexander Hamilton continues to grow. In Boston, Ambrose did a TED talk, “Perils of Posterity: Alexander Hamilton and a Sex Scandal.” In September, 2017, the Fenimore Museum invited Ambrose to speak in Cooperstown about Hamilton to the museum’s membership. His next speaking engagement on Hamilton is as a guest lecturer on a Smithsonian Journeys seven-night cruise called “Hamilton’s Caribbean.” Ambrose will lecture aboard the 68-guest Sea Cloud yacht, which is modeled on the private sailing barque with twenty-three sails owned in the 1930s by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her tycoon husband E.F. Hutton. Aboard the vessel, Ambrose will converse with guests on Hamilton-related themes and deliver two lectures: one on Hamilton’s Caribbean boyhood and one on Hamilton’s Caribbean in a revolutionary world. The cruise will take Ambrose across the eastern Caribbean.
More than a decade ago, in the introduction to The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton, Ambrose wrote about how Hamilton was mostly known for the image that graced the ten-dollar bill. “[F]ew really know the man,” Ambrose maintained. “And many who think they know him find it hard to embrace him with the same enthusiasm that they do a Washington, a Jefferson, a Madison, an Adams. Hamilton remains both enigmatic and suspect; important, yes, but somewhat tarnished by his supposed lack of idealism, his crass realism regarding economics, finance, military power, and national authority.” Times have changed. Since 2007, Hamilton’s star has been in the ascendant among the founding generation thanks in large part because of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, the Chernow biography on which it was based, and the scholarship of AHI’s Ambrose.
The volume is targeted for release before the end of the year.
Byline: Mary Grabar, AHI Resident Fellow