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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
When I myself was making preliminary survey of the Hamilton material, before I realized that any questions had been raised about the Reynolds affair, I was struck by the resemblance between the perfervid style attributed to Maria and that authentically used by Hamilton in his love letters to his fiancée and then wife. The modern historian, Julian Boyd, has pointed out that, despite urgings and expressed doubts, Hamilton kept hidden from all reliable eyes the originals of the letters he was willing to publish so widely. If Hamilton did write these love letters to himself, the implication of childhood fantasy is overwhelming.
There is no reason to believe that whatever love affairs Hamilton did have brought him anything but temporary surcease. And his legitimate family life mounted to a double tragedy. He had brought up his eldest son, Philip, according to his own ideas. And at the age of nineteen, Philip, having himself picked the fight, challenged to a duel a political enemy of his father’s. Probably close to the spot on the Jersey Highlands where the father was to be mortally wounded, Philip received a fatal wound. We are assured by Hamilton’s grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, who was in his own lifetime famous as a doctor for the insane, that the shock of Philip’s death drove Hamilton’s second child—she was named Angelica after her aunt—over the edge into an insanity from which she never recovered, although she lived to be seventy-three.
Hamilton had, of course, his circle of male admirers politicians and businessmen of ability, wealth, and influence who accorded him all the esteem that, as a scorned and then disinherited youth, he had so passionately desired. But he could not translate this admiration into what he even more desired: power. Power not for its own sake, not for the license it gave to destroy, but for the opportunity to create order and system, to build. He had a vision of the perfect state, a vision orderly when he could hold onto his passions, and for a time it had seemed that he could turn that vision into reality. He could not foresee that his conceptions, which he believed had been defeated, would rise again, achieving in later generations dimensions in many ways above his most ambitious dreams. Before his living eyes the nation was dissolving into what he considered chaos—and he had lost the power effectively to intervene.
The French statesman Talleyrand became intimate with Hamilton during two years of exile in America and then returned to France to dominate, as Napoleon’s foreign minister, European international affairs. He wrote, “I consider Napoleon, [the British statesman, Charles James] Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He divined Europe.”
Should Hamilton have settled in the Europe he had divined? Had it been an evil wind that had blown him from the Leeward Islands to a continent where the people, those vicious clods who had been his enemies since childhood, could prevent a man of vision from grasping the power he needed to achieve personal glory and also bring into being what he knew was best for everyone?
In 1802, Hamilton wrote his friend Gouverneur Morris, “Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present constitution than myself; and contrary to all my anticipations of its fate … from the very beginning, I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric, yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that the American world was not made for me.”
A long-envisioned way out was left to him. He had written John Laurens, a friend now dead these twenty-two years, “I have no other wish than as soon as possible to make a brilliant exit. ” Aaron Burr had sent him a duelist’s challenge. Although Hamilton admitted that dueling was the worst way of determining the justice of a quarrel, such encounters were part of the military, the ceremonial, the chivalric world. He would expose his body to Burr’s bullet, but himself fire in the air.
On July 11, 1804, a bullet entered Alexander Hamilton’s liver. The next day he died in great pain.