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Alexander Hamilton's Papers, Edited By Joanne Freeman


Friday, Mar. 22, 2002

It was more than my interest in Alexander Hamilton that provoked me to review Alexander Hamilton: Writings, edited by Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman. Rather it was the publisher, because to understand and appreciate this work, it is necessary to explain the Library of America, which published it.

Library of America and Its Influence on Publishing

Library of America is a non-profit publisher founded just over two decades ago to bring the best and most significant of American writing - essays, letters, poetry, pamphlets, novels, and nonfiction works - to contemporary readers.

In its twenty-two years of publishing, it has presented a remarkable array of culturally important volumes. They fall into the categories of African-American Writers; Colonial & Revolutionary America; Mystery and Crime; Nature and Crime; Nineteenth-Century Novels, Stories, & Essays; Poetry, Religion and Spirituality; Southern Writers; The Civil War; Twentieth-Century Fiction; Plays & Essays; Twentieth-Century Journalism; and Women Writers.

Most pleasing about the Library of America collection is that the text is authoritative. LOA retains scholars to research the "printing and publishing history of each work ... to learn when it was written, what differences there were in pre-publication versions, who prepared the copy sent to the publisher, and who proofread the galleys." If necessary, other collateral research is done to find the best edition. This background research is presented in each volume in an appropriate note, along with relevant chronological data to provide the reader with context and enhance his or her understanding of the material.

Library of America books are the best bargain in publishing. Too good, in fact - for LOA, which sells roughly a quarter of a million books a year, loses money. It survives with charitable contributions, which are tax deductible to the donor. Thus, it is the kindness of the thoughtful that keeps in print the nation's most noteworthy writing.

Professor Freeman's Background and Editorial Role

It is in this tradition that LOA has published its 129th volume: Alexander Hamilton: Writings. Selecting Yale assistant professor of history Joanne Freeman to assemble the material has given this undertaking added attention. Professor Freeman also recently published Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, which addresses the nasty but widespread practice of dueling in early America - and Hamilton was involved in one of history's most notorious duels.

Professor Freeman reports that she has assembled "172 letters, essays, pamphlets, reports, speeches, resolutions, and memoranda written or delivered by Alexander Hamilton between 1769 and 1804." Among the additional materials, understandably and most appropriately she has included "the text of three letters written to Hamilton by Aaron Burr during the correspondence that let to their [deadly] duel."

Hamilton's Writings: Scandals, Statesmanship, and His Federalist Papers

Much of the material was drawn from the 19,000 documents in the twenty-seven volumes of Hamilton's papers that have been compiled by Columbia University (between 1961 and 1987), and the other comparably expansive multi-volume collections. My only criticism, and it is mild, is the inclusion in this single volume of all fifty-one contributions by Hamilton to The Federalist Papers, which are readily available in other works. Hamilton's Federalist writings cover 315 pages of the 1023 pages of textual material - almost a third.

Admittedly, at first blush some of the material is not exactly scintillating, like Hamilton's "Report on the Subject of Manufactures," written in 1791 when he was serving as Secretary of the Treasury. But Professor Freeman's chronology at the back of the book places each of the selected writings in context, giving significance to the selected documents.

The report on manufacturing, it seems, was being written by Hamilton at the same time he struck up his extramarital relationship with the attractive and seductive Maria Reynolds - a subject that Hamilton would later write about. And this report shows, on close reading, Hamilton's skills as a lawyer in interpreting the Constitution's "general welfare" clause to justify Federal spending to support manufacturing. This interpretation was, at that time, rejected by Congress, but later Hamilton's view won out, and was adopted.

To mention just a few of the writings that caught this reader's attention I would include Hamilton's correspondence with his wife (they had a close and loving marriage, even after he confessed adultery); his June 18, 1878 speech at the Constitutional Convention; a letter of June 27, 1788 to convince George Washington to serve (he believed Washington's becoming president vital to the success of the new government); a May 5, 1789 letter to Washington regarding presidential etiquette (which, in fact, broadly outlined how the new presidency should operate); and the documents relating to the historic political battles to establish a national banking system. Reading Hamilton's draft of Washington's Farewell Address caused me to compare it with the final - and to realize how much our first President had relied on his longtime aide.

The Reynolds Pamphlet: Admitting Adultery, But Denying Corruption

Finally, I had never read the complete text of the controversial "Reynolds Pamphlet" of August 25, 1797. Scandalmongering journalist James Callender had published pamphlets accusing Hamilton of using James Reynolds, Maria Reynolds's husband, to speculate in public funds as Secretary of the Treasury. To quell the corruption charges, Hamilton responded with a pamphlet of his own.

Hamilton's pamphlet ran nearly 10,000 words and confessed his adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds. In what must have been breathtaking reading in 1797, Hamilton wrote:

The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.

While the document is very persuasive, and absolved Hamilton at the time, the confession cost him dearly. Many say had this incident not occurred, he would have become President. Hamilton's wife, while obviously hurt by this scandal, remained steadfast with her husband.

The Notorious Burr-Hamilton Disagreement, and Deadly Duel

Professor Freeman's expertise - not to mention other writings - on the code of honor that foreshortened Hamilton's life explains her nice selection of documents relating to the infamous Burr-Hamilton dispute and duel. Hamilton and Burr had long been political rivals. Hamilton, concerned about Federalist support for Burr for governor of New York, where they both resided, began writing and speaking against Burr.

After losing the race, Burr wrote to Hamilton on June 18, 1804. Burr enclosed a letter he had received recounting that Hamilton had said Burr was "a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government." Burr wanted to know if Hamilton had indeed made this remark.

Hamilton refused to avow or disavow the remark. Burr wanted an apology, which Hamilton refused to give him. As a result, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel to resolve the matter. Hamilton accepted, and as his papers show, began to get his financial affairs in order, anticipating the duel might be fatal.

The letter Hamilton wrote for delivery to his wife, in the event he did not survive his "interview" - as duels were euphemistically described - gave me a lump in my throat. But I'm an easy touch with our founders, even when they are doing "stupid white men" antics:

If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.

The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.

Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.

July 4, 1804

On July 11, 1804, the duel occurred. Hamilton was struck by a pistol ball that perforated his liver before lodging in his spine. Still alive, he was carried back to Greenwich Village.

After seeing his wife and children, he died at 2 p.m. on the next day, July 12th. The last documents Professor Freeman has included are the statements of the attendants for Hamilton and Burr who were present at the fatal duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. Frankly, it is difficult to find the honor in the business of dueling - which caused us to lose this great and honorable man.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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