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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Hamilton was still powerful in his own party in his own region; he still had his law practice to fill his mind to the extent that things which did not basically interest him could—but how small was the stage compared not only to what he had dreamed of, but to what he had once achieved!
The interaction of Hamilton’s temperament with his formative experiences had not prepared him to create or enjoy a satisfactory private life. Although he yearned to escape from his storm-tossed ambitions to a warm and peaceful home, no walls that he could build were long impermeable to outside tempests, nor, even at home, could he keep from engendering troubles. Throughout his life, he continued to write his wife Betsey in the high style of romance and perfect love which had characterized his letters during their courtship. Again and again and again he stated that his one wish was to desert the great world to be forever at her side. Although Betsey insisted that she adored her husband, the evidence hardly points to a contented marriage.
Betsey became an extreme neurasthenic, grasping desperately, like a shipwrecked sailor, at supports that she feared were not steadfast enough to keep her head above the waves. She was often sick from nerves, and she was further separated from her husband’s active life by a long succession of pregnancies. Apart from miscarriages, with which she was regularly threatened, she bore eight children.
After her husband’s death, Betsey’s health seems to have improved: she lived to be ninety-seven, a most redoubtable old lady. During her fifty years of widowhood, her husband was all her own: he could escape her no longer. Summoning various men to be his biographers, she repelled them all by her possessive effort to dictate what they should write. She even engaged in a lawsuit with one of her dead husband’s most intimate colleagues to gain possession of papers which she believed would enhance her husband’s reputation. Not until Hamilton had been dead for thirty-six years and Betsey was very old was a biography of Hamilton written—by their son, John C. Hamilton. It was reverent in approach and exaggerated in claims.
That the living Hamilton had been a dedicated and accomplished pursuer of women was implied by the documents of his young manhood and became standard gossip during his years of fame. How much Betsey heard or suspected, the records do not tell, but we know that two situations were forced on her attention. A close friendship went on, for all their relations and friends to see, between her husband and her dashing sister Angelica, who wrote Betsey in 1794, “I love him very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” Did Betsey believe Angelica’s further statement that the wife need not “be jealous” since all the sister wanted was to “promote his glory” and enjoy “a little chit-chat"? In any case, the wife remained emotionally dependent on the sister.
Hamilton himself made as public as anything could possibly be what he asserted had been his affair with Maria Reynolds. He had engaged in financial dealings with this lady’s disreputable husband which came to the knowledge of his political enemies. They concluded that James Reynolds had been serving as the Secretary of the Treasury’s agent in buying up, at a low price, certificates which Treasury policy would make valuable, the owners to be swindled having been identified from Treasury records. To demonstrate that he had not been engaged in peculation but had, in fact, been paying blackmail, Hamilton published a pamphlet displaying a liaison with Reynolds’ wife. The accepted judgment on his behavior is that expressed by Allan Nevins in the Dictionary of American Biography: the revelation “had the merit of a proud bravery, for it showed him willing to endure any personal humiliation rather than a slur on his public integrity.”
Assuming only sex and blackmail were involved, Nevins’ explanation would be the basic one. But overtones inevitably sound in the ears of someone who has from the start followed Hamilton’s dilemmas. All that the situation had required of Hamilton was that he demonstrate enough factual information about the liaison and the resulting blackmail to convince the public. But Hamilton included in his pamphlet, which ran to ninety-five pages, the entirely unnecessary statement that he entertained Maria in his own home, and quoted entire love letters in which his paramour expressed the extremities of passion for him, and an almost suicidal despair when he neglected her. As one reads on and on, a feeling grows that there was a personal need behind all this quoting. Was Hamilton, probably unconsciously, identifying Maria with his mother? Was he trying to overcome unslaked humiliations by putting himself, as publicly in the great world as had been his disgrace in his childhood environment, triumphantly in the role of his mother’s lovers who had incited his impotent jealousy and rage when he had been a child? Not everyone was convinced, then or now, that Hamilton was in fact guilty of infidelity rather than some activity he was hiding. His contemporary tormentor, James Thompson Callender, wrote, “Those letters from Mrs. Reynolds are badly spelt and pointed [punctuated]. Capitals also occur in the midst of words. But waiving such excrescences, the style is pathetic and even elegant. It does not bear the marks of an illiterate writer.”