Monday, December 22, 2008
The Hamilton-Laurens Relationship
The gay historian, Jonathan Katz, contends that Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens had a homosexual relationship while both were aides-de-camp to Washington during the Revolution. The evidence is in the letters Alexander Hamilton wrote to John Laurens shortly after Laurens left Washington's military family to return to his home state of South Carolina in an effort to persuade the legislature to recruit African American troops to fight the British. Laurens evidently wrote first but Hamilton's reply in April 1779 is the first letter in the correspondence that we have. Hamilton begins his letter with what certainly appear to be homoerotic intentions:
"Cold in my professions, warm in my friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by action rather than words to convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that 'til you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You should not have taken advantage of my sensibility to steal into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it,and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have artfully instilled into me."
It doesn't seem that Laurens' letters sparked this ardor. In the next paragraph Hamilton refers to his letters and its all business:
"I have received your two letters one from Philadelphia the other from Chester. I am pleased with your success, so far, and I hope the favorable omens, that precede your application to the Assembly may have as favourable an issue, provided the situation of affairs should require it which I fear will be the case."
Hamilton then turns to what must have been the major concern in Laurens' letters: his promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel which vaulted him above his fellow aide-de-camps. Hamilton writes:
"This carries with it an air of preference, which, though we can all truly say, we love your character and admire your military merit, cannot fail to give some of us uneasy sensations. But in this, my dear J I wish you to understand me well. The blame, if there is any, falls wholly upon Congress. I repeat it, your conduct has been perfectly right and even laudable; you rejected the offer when you ought to have rejected it; and you accepted it when you ought to have accepted it; and let me add with a degree of overscrupulous delicacy. It was necessary to your project; your project was the public good; and I should have done the same. In hesistating, you have refined upon the refinements of generosity."
After a little military gossip to the detriment of Gen Gates, "fresh proof of his impudence, his folly and his rascality," though Hamilton gives no specifics, Hamilton mentions a letter he has enclosed which is from Laurens' wife in England. When the war started Laurens was studying in England and in October 1776, at the young age of 21, he married an Englishwoman. He left her in January 1777. Hamilton writes:
"I anticipate by sympathy the pleasure you must feel from the sweet converse of your dearer self in the inclosed letters. I hope they may be recent. They were brought out of New York by General Thompson delivered to him there by a Mrs. Moore not long from England, soi-disante parente de Madame votre epouse. She speaks of a daughter of yours, well when she left England, perhaps (---)"
Then Hamilton launches into a rather bold sally about the type of wife he wants Laurens to find for him in South Carolina. Most important is her fortune:
"But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention to this article in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to Purgatory for my avarice; yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world - as I have not much of my own and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry; it must needs be, that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies. NB You will be pleased to recollect in your negotiations that I have no invincible antipathy to the maidenly beauties & that I am willing to take the trouble of them upon myself."
Then Hamilton roguishly tells Laurens what to tell the maidens about their suitor:
"To excite their emulation, it will be necessary for you to give an account of the lover - his size, make, quality of mind and body, achievements, expectations, fortune, & c. In drawing my picture, you will no doubt be civil to your friend; mind you do justice to the length of my nose and don't forget, that I (-----)"
Then he suggests that all he has written is in jest:
"Do I want a wife? No - I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all; and if I were silly enough to do it, I should take care how I employ a proxy. Did I mean to show my wit? If I did, I am sure I have missed my aim. Did I only intend to frisk? In this I have succeeded, but I have done more. I have gratified my feelings, by lengthening out the only kind of intercourse now in my power with my friend. Adieu."
I have never seen the originals of this letter. The editor of them uses (---) dashes to indicate illigible words, each dash roughly a word.
This indeed is pretty good evidence of a physically affectionate relationship between Hamilton and Laurens, or, at least, Hamilton's desire for one. Hamilton's emphasizing the words "size" and "body," leads one to believe that Laurens was well acquainted with the latter and the size of Hamilton's penis. However, a case can be made that this was all puckish writing, with Hamilton taking advantage of Laurens guilty feelings for abandoning his wife; and Hamilton responding to Laurens' jibes at Hamilton's search for a wife. And he did marry a year and a half later.
That Hamilton did not sustain this banter in subsequent letters doesn't negate the importance of this letter. It would be a difficult act to follow so it is probable that Laurens did not respond in kind and that Hamilton became more circumspect. His next letter to Laurens written in May is mostly about military affairs and Laurens' absence is regretted not by Hamilton personally but by the "family," the group of aides-de-camp that Laurens left:
"Harrison, McHenry, Gibbs put you in mind of the place you have in their hearts. McHenry would write you; but besides public business he pleads his being engaged in writing an heroic Poem of which the family are the subject. You will have your part in it. He celebrates our usual matin entertainment, and the music of those fine sounds, with which he and I are accustomed to regale the ears of the fraternity. Harrison holds a distinguished place in the piece. His sedentary exploits are sung in strains of laborious dulness. The many breeches he has worn out during the war are enumerated, nor are the depredations which long sitting has made on his ______ unsung."
In his next letter to Laurens, dated September 11, Hamilton chides him for not writing:
"I acknowledge but one letter from you, since you left us, of the 14th of July which just arrived in time to appease a violent conflict between my friendship and my pride. I have written you five or six letters since you left Philadelphia and I should have written you more had you made proper return. But like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued. I had almost resolved to lavish no more of them upon you and to reject you as an inconstant and an ungrateful ______. But you have now diarmed my resentment and by a single mark of attention made up the quarrel. You must at least alow me a large stock of good nature."
The rest of the long letter is devoted to military and civil matters, with one misogynistic aside. Hamilton had been maligned by a Dr. Gordon who Hamilton describes as "an old Jesuit," and adds: "The proverb is verified - 'there never was any mischief but had a priest or a woman at the bottom.'" Laurens came to Philadelphia in the fall of 1779 and suggested to Congress (his father was president of that body,) that Hamilton be sent to France as secretary to the diplomatic mission being sent there. In a January 8, 1780, letter Hamilton reveals his desire to leave Washington's family and get a field command. The request had been denied and Hamilton confessed:
"I am chagrined and unhappy but I submit. In short Laurens I am disgusted with every thing in this world but yourself and very few more honest fellows and I have no other wish than as soon as possible to make a brilliant exit. 'Tis a weakness; but I feel I am not fit for this terrestreal Country."
Meanwhile, Hamilton took advantage of winter quarters to begin courting young ladies, soon centering his attentions on Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Schuyler of New York. His March 30 letter to Laurens is mostly business with a short affectionate closing:
"Adieu my Dear; I am sure you will exert yourself to save your country; but do not unnecessarily risk one of its most valuable sons. Take as much care of yourself as you ought for the public sake and for the sake of Yr. affectionate A Hamilton. All the lads remember you as a friend and a brother. Meade says God bless you."
Hamilton mentions his engagement in a June 30 letter to Laurens, after giving a full report on the war news. He strikes a pose to prove that he's not anywhere near being head-over-heels in love:
"Have you not heard that I am on the point of becoming a benedict? I confess my sins. I am guilty. Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes - is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. And believe me, I am lover in earnest, though I do not speak of the perfections of my Mistress in the enthusiasm of Chivalry."
"Is it true that you are confined to Pennsylvania? Cannot you pay us a visit? If you can, hasten to give us a pleasure which we shall relish with the sensibility of the sincerest friendship."
Laurens had been captured, then paroled with restrictions on his movements. Apparently Laurens could only go so far as the Pennsylvania border, so Hamilton, as revealed in a letter to his fiancee, pressed for permission to go to the border to meet him and "the General has half consented to its taking place." In his next letter, September 12, Hamilton refers to "mutual neglect in our correspondence." Laurens complained about not getting letters from the rest of the "family." Hamilton explained: "I have conveyed your reproof to the lads. They have considered me as the secretary of the family and fancied a partnership which did not exist. Writing or not writing to you, you know they love you and sympathise in all that concerns you."
The phrase "fancied a partnership which did not exist" suggests two things: that others in the family perceived Hamilton and Laurens to be so close that their friendship was exclusive, and that Hamilton realized that that wasn't the case. This suggests that much of homoeroticism in Hamilton's letter was an imposition. Hamilton was the bastard without family connections from the West Indies and Laurens was the scion of the prominent South Carolina family. In intellect, imagination, vaulting ambition, and lust for derring-do, the two were equal. Is it possible that Hamilton sought to trump Laurens' advantaged upbringing by highlighting the physical attraction they had for each other which if consummated would have invited scandal? This tension is even more apparent in Hamilton's next letter, written four days later on the eve of an important meeting with French officers. After explaining the importance of the meeting, Hamilton chides Laurens for using as an excuse for not writing that his parole forbade writing about military affairs:
"That you can speak only of your private affairs shall be no excuse for your not writing frequently. Remember that you write to your friends, and that friends have the same interests, pains, pleasures, sympathies; and that all men love egotism."
This passage speaks volumes about the lack of genuine intimacy between Hamilton and Laurens, with the distance being maintained by the latter. In the next paragraph Hamilton is his provocative self:
In spite of Schuylers black eyes, I have still a part for the public and another for you; so your impatience to have me married is misplaced; a strange cure by the way, as if after matrimony I was to be less devoted than I am now. Let me tell you, that I intend to restore the empire of Hymen and that Cupid is to be his prime Minister. I wish you were at liberty to transgress the bounds of Pensylvania. I would invite you after the fall to Albany to be witness to the final consummation. My Mistress is a good girl, and already loves you because I have told her you are a clever fellow and my friend; but mind, she loves you a l'americaine not a la francoise.
Adieu, be happy, and let friendship between us be more than a name. A Hamilton The General & all the lads send you their love.
In the extant letters, this is the last of Hamilton's homoerotic bravado with Laurens. But it is quite enough to allow us to label Hamilton as a man with a wide appetite for pleasures that comfortably included homosexuality. Marriage would be no cure for his love for Laurens. He wished Laurens was able to "transgress"... the state line. Of course, an invitation to the "final consummation" may not be that novel an inclusion in a young, about-to-be-married man's letter to a bosom friend, nor his coy remarks about his wife-to-be.
In what proved to be his last letter to Laurens, Hamilton did not stroke any erotic chords. He suggests that peace is at hand and tells Laurens:
It requires all the virtue and all the abilities of the Country. Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each other sentiments, our views are the same; we have fought side by side to make America free, let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.
This is a speech, not a letter to a lover.
The Hamilton-Laurens relationship was short-lived because Laurens, lusting for action even as the war was essentially over, got himself killed in a meaningless skirmish in 1782. I don't think we can read into Laurens' foolhardiness any death-wish arising from Hamilton's marriage. And in a letter to General Greene, Hamilton speaks of Laurens' death with pat phrases: "I feel the deepest affiction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and inestimable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end.... I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number." On the otherhand, marriage did not cure Hamilton of his homoerotic yearnings. His encounters with the condemned spy Andre were extraordinary and the way he engineered his leaving George Washington's military family had sexual overtones.