Imagine a small, precocious young orphan, prematurely hardened by the harsh cruelties of life. He journeys across an ocean to an unsettled new land in search of a great destiny. His name is Hamilton.
Soon after arriving in this new land, he becomes educated on the paramount issue of the day: whether the people of this land will rule themselves, or be ruled by an ancient power that has claimed this land and its people. He comes to believe in the cause of this people and its quest for freedom. This fledgling nation is America.
America’s oppressor is not just any foe; standing between this new nation and its freedom is the greatest military power on earth - the Army of the British Empire.
Hamilton eventually enters the orbit of a great soldier of immense physical and moral strength who is charged with the daunting task of leading this fledgling nation, with only an army of farmers and tradesmen, in a bloody fight for freedom against their oppressor. The great soldier’s name is Washington.
The Glorious Cause
Hamilton joins the American Army as a captain in a New York artillery company and rises quickly to become Washington’s key military aide. Washington has no children of his own, and comes to view Hamilton, along with his other aides, as a surrogate son. He recognizes Hamilton’s powerful mind and charges him to aide in plotting out strategy for the American Army. However, Hamilton eventually comes to bristle at this role. He desperately desires to shed his lowly origins and he seeks to gain “reputation” as a soldier. He lobbies Washington for the opportunity to lead men into battle. Washington reluctantly denies these requests, believing that he simply cannot replace Hamilton’s administrative skills. Thus, Washington, a valiant leader revered by an entire nation, eventually comes to be deeply resented by Hamilton.
Washington is not a stranger to Hamilton's frustrations. The loss of his father at age eleven derails Washington’s prospect for a formal education, something that nags at him throughout his life. Like Hamilton, young Washington is also relentless in his quest to gain reputation. He seeks to attain it through a military career and is deeply he frustrated when, time and again, he is denied opportunity. He eventually quits the military life and becomes a gentleman planter, only to return to lead America’s rebellion twenty years later.
Washington is possessed of a volcanic temper. However, by sheer force of will, he comes to master it, seldom allowing it to conquer his resolve. However, this temper is triggered by the heavy strains of war, and the already-resentful Hamilton, toiling long days and nights along side Washington, often bears the brunt of this wrath, pushing him further away.
America's struggle for freedom drags on for years. Washington and his “family” – a group of military aides about the same age as Hamilton - lived like vagabonds. They occupy literally dozens of patriot homesteads during the course of the war. Washington’s wife Martha joins him for stretches of time, particularly during winters when the fighting virtually halts.
Another young orphan joins Washington just months after Hamilton. He too travels to America from his homeland in search of a great destiny. Hamilton and the orphan have much in common: they are precocious and extremely confident in their abilities. They both speak French. They become fast friends – as close as brothers. This young man's name is Lafayette. The young Frenchman is not yet twenty years old when he joins the patriot cause.
There are two stark differences between the two young soldiers. First, Lafayette’s great talent is that of a battlefield leader, and Washington summons him to lead men into battle many times – exactly the role Hamilton openly craves. Despite this, Hamilton never feels or exhibits jealousy toward the deserving and accomplished Lafayette. Second, unlike the intense, edgy Hamilton, Lafayette is a gregarious, easy-going soul who sees the good in everyone, especially Washington, whom he reveres like a father. Washington in turn endows Lafayette with fatherly love and advice – exactly what Lafayette craves. Again, Hamilton feels no jealousy toward this relationship, and in fact spurns Washington’s attempts at friendship. Single-minded in his pursuit of reputation, he wants only one thing from Washington: opportunity.
There are many hardships in this epic struggle for freedom. Most times, there is little or no food. The American soldiers are barely clothed and often go without shoes. Moreover, there is no means to pay the soldiers.
“… above mediocrity…”
For Hamilton, France’s joining America’s cause in 1778 had another significant consequence: it clearly raised the specter that the war would rapidly reach a successful conclusion with Hamilton remaining cloistered within Washington’s family. If so, any chance to make a name for himself as a valiant soldier would be quashed. In late 1780, just prior to his wedding, Hamilton wrote to his boss:
"Last fall, when I spoke to your Excellency about going to the southward, I explained candidly my feelings with respect to military reputation, and how much it was my object to act a conspicuous part in some enterprise that might perhaps raise my character as a soldier above mediocrity. You were so good as to say you would be glad to furnish me with an occasion . . . "
As previously, Washington failed to satisfy his aide's request for a command in the field.
Ever the dedicated soldier, Hamilton once said to quip that a soldier should have no wife but the military. In the winter of 1779-80 – the harshest of the century - the Continental Army was quartered in Morristown, New Jersey. There, the 25 year-old aide-de-camp was smitten by a black eyed beauty named Eliza. Elizabeth Schuyler, who was visiting from Albany with her father, General Philip Schuyler. Schuyler, who had served as the Head of the Northern Army and later served as a US Senator from New York, was an intimate of, and shared the same social station as, Washington; Washington and Martha served as godparents of Schuyler’s youngest child, born near the end of the War. After a one-month courtship in Morristown, later that year on December 14, 1780, Hamilton, the penniless bastard with no connections, joined this socially and politically prominent family, wedding Elizabeth in the South Parlor of Schuyler’s Albany mansion.
The January Mutinies
When Hamilton returned to headquarters in mid-January 1781 - after a one-month honeymoon in Albany, his first days off in four years – long brewing mutinous sentiments within the soldier ranks had come to a head. Despite the greatly improved prospects for an American victory occasioned by France’s agreement in early 1778 to join the American cause, the American Army was continually on the precipice of disintegrating. A French promise of ships of the line or boots on the ground would not feed or pay the American soldier.
On January 1, the soldiers of the Pennsylvania line, ill-clothed, starving and without pay for months, banished their officers and, under the supervision of sergeants, began marching toward Philadelphia, where they would demand recourse from the Congress. Several officers were killed. The soldiers relented after concessions were made by the Army before they reached Philadelphia, but these mutinous sentiments continued to stir.
Three weeks later, on January 20, another mutiny flared. Echoing the actions of the Pennsylvania Line, soldiers from the New Jersey Line mutinied and began to make their way to Trenton to issue demands for a redress of grievances. Washington, fearing that the Army was coming undone, traveled with Hamilton south to the scene of the mutiny. There, he ordered a detachment of soldiers to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission. The mutinous faction was subdued without resistance, and three sergeants were tried and convicted on the spot. Two were executed by a firing squad of twelve tearful mutineers; the third was issued a pardon as he had advocated peaceable return to duty.
"... We Part..."
Soon after Washington and Hamilton returned to New Windsor after putting down the New Jersey Mutiny, another mutiny of sorts flared up, this one with permanent consequences. The combination of the stressful days of the war and Hamilton's frustration at being hemmed into a desk writing letters for Washington caused matters to come to an explosive head. As Hamilton detailed in a letter to his new father-in-law Phillip Schuyler, while waiting on Hamilton to return to address a matter at New Windsor headquarters,, Washington chastised him, sternly stating:
"Colonel Hamilton! You have kept me waiting here these ten minutes. I must tell you Sir you treat me with disrespect!"
To which Hamilton replied:
"I’m not conscious of it, but since you think it necessary to tell me, we part."
And thus ended one of the most critical partnerships in the American Revolution. Hamilton briefly left the Army and retreated with Eliza to Albany, but soon moved back down the Hudson, obtaining lodging directly across the river from Washington's headquarters. During this time, Hamilton unsuccessfully lobbied Washington for a field command and bided his time. In his free moments he drafted a series of six newspaper articles under the pen name "The Continentalist", in which he laid out many of the principals that six years later would serve as the basis for the Constitution of the United States.
“Rush on boys!”: The Siege of Yorktown
After an extensive campaign through the Southern states early in 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis moved his army to Yorktown on the Virginia coast and built a defensive position. On September 28, Washington led a combined American and French force of over 19,000 soldiers to surround Yorktown. This included Hamilton, having rejoined the Army in July, commanding a battalion of light infantry,
After a two-week siege, with constant cannon bombardment, of the British positions, a mission arose that could finally satisfy Hamilton’s long- frustrated desire to lead men in battle. Washington planned an attack on two redoubts to clear the Allied Army’s way to gain a British surrender. However, this was nearly thwarted by Washington, who appointed Lafayette and French Col. Jean Gimat to lead the separate attacks. Hamilton contested the assignment on grounds of his military seniority over Gimat. Washington agreed with his former aide’s arguments, giving Hamilton the command.
And, thus, at nightfall on October 14, 1781, Col. Alexander Hamilton, leading 400 light infantry troops carrying unloaded muskets with bayonets fixed, sprinted in the darkness toward British redoubt 10. The Hamilton-led troops assaulted and successfully took the redoubt at a loss of nine Allied soldiers. Redoubt 9 was successfully taken by Lafayette, at the loss of fifteen Allied soldiers. This successful attack on Redoubts 9 and 10 marked the last key combat operation of the American Revolution. On October 17, after Cornwallis’ unsuccessful attempt to evacuate his troops across the York River, he surrendered his Army of 8,000 men to the Allied forces.
After Yorktown (1782-83)
After Yorktown, hostilities cease while American diplomats work to negotiate a peace in Paris. Washington marches his troops back north. By Spring, he encamps with his soldiers at New Windsor along the Hudson, where for the next year he nervously struggles to keep his patchwork Army intact. Hamilton leaves the Army immediately after Yorktown and he returns to a very pregnant Eliza in Albany. During this time, he studies for the New York bar and becomes at attorney. Never far from the center of events, after a year he is appointed by New York as a delegate to the Congress, sitting in Philadelphia.
This is a precarious time for the United States. The Continental soldiers haven’t been paid in over a year. Congress, enfeebled under the Articles of Confederation, is without the power to tax. The patience of factions within the Army is again near a tipping point. A small pro-Federalist faction within Congress, led by financier Robert Morris, quietly espouses promoting the threat of soldier mutiny as leverage to make the States allow Congress to impose a Federal tax. It’s a serious mess.
On February 13, 1783, word finally reaches Philadelphia that a tentative peace accord has been signed in Paris six weeks earlier. A peace would commence the process of disbanding the Army, and with it possibly the best lever to secure the federal tax. Time is now of the essence.
That same day, Hamilton writes a letter to Washington. Although the two men have not communicated in nearly a year, Washington is an inescapable presence in Hamilton’s mind. Despite this serious test of the Army’s patience brought on by the pay issue, Hamilton knows first-hand the immense sway Washington still holds over his men. Moreover, Washington’s unfailing wisdom and resolve in the haze of war had, if not always welcome, radiated daily upon Hamilton for years. He understood better than any man Washington’s great judgment. He would later famously write of Washington, “he consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely”. He now writes Washington on this explosive matter which could kill this infant nation in the cradle.
In this letter, Hamilton accurately (and maybe strategically) cautions Washington that some within the army question Washington’s reluctance to “advanc[e] its interests with sufficient warmth”, then stating “[n]o one knows the falsehood of this opinion better than I. But it is not the less mischievous for being false.”
Hamilton suggests to Washington that by his steady hand, the threat of an Army mutiny could be a viable means to a very critical end. Recognizing the sensitivity of such a tactic, Hamilton stated:
“It is important to our tranquility that Your Excellency preserve the confidence of the army without losing that of the people, to guide the torrent, and
bring order, perhaps even good, out of confusion.”
The Newburgh Address
Soon after he receives this letter from his former aide, this “torrent” is quickly at Washington’s door. An anonymous notice circulates within the Newburgh encampment summoning the officers to a meeting to address soldier pay. The notice, written by an officer later identified as a staff member of the notorious General Horatio Gates, criticizes Washington’s leadership on the pay issue, cautioning the soldiers to “suspect the man who would advise to more moderation and patience”. The issue is now squarely before Washington. In Washington’s daily orders the following day, he postpones this meeting of officers for four days, until noon Saturday, March 15, 1783 (coincidentally the Ides of March) at a large meeting house within the encampment nicknamed the “Temple of Virtue”. Washington’s orders directed that presiding would be the senior officer present, who would then provide Washington a full report of the deliberations.
At noon that Saturday, three hundred Continental officers trudged into the Temple. General Gates, the senior officer present, enters the Temple and strides to the head of the room as the officers snap to attention. Heard from within the Temple are carriage wheels, horses and the rattle of sabres. Washington, accompanied by his Life Guard, then strides into the Temple as the men again snap to attention.
Standing before the dubious, frustrated contingent of officers, Washington passionately makes his case, imploring them to put their faith in the Congress. When he finishes, the officers stand in complete silence, few looking directly at Washington, some shuffling their feet. Fearing he has lost the men, Washington pulls a letter from Congress from his breast pocket. Washington squints painfully, then pulls spectacles from his pocket. The officers, who have never seen him wear glasses, wear surprised expressions on their faces. At this point, this 51 year-old General, who had toiled for eight long years, this a life-long lover of the theater, uttered maybe the most impactful line, in the most important performance of his life:
“Yes, Gentlemen. You must forgive me. But not only has my hair gone gray, but my eyes have gone dim in the service of my country.”
These words deeply resonated with his officers, most of whom were brought tears and a feeling of shame in not supporting this man who had sacrificed so much for the cause. After Washington finished reading the letter and exited without a word, a petition was immediately circulated in the room in which every officer vowed to patiently await Congressional action.
Shortly after Washington’s showdown with his officers and averting a mutiny and/or coup d’etat that could have spelled disaster, he wrote in a cautionary tone to his strong-willed former aide:
"I read your recent letter with pain, and contemplated the picture it had drawn with horror and astonishment. The idea of redress by force is too illusory to have had a place in the imagination of any serious mind in this Army; but there is no telling what unhappy events may result from their distrust of Justice. And as the fears of the Army are alive, I hope no resolution will be passed for disbanding the Lines ‘til their accounts are paid.
“Leading men in the Army suspect that some in Congress, regardless of the justice owed for their sacrifices, may now use them as mere puppets to establish continental funds, and would sooner sacrifice the Army before failing in the attempt.
“I have two reasons for mentioning this matter to you: First, the Army, considering its irritable state and sufferings, is a dangerous instrument to play with. . . Second, that every possible means consistent with the views of this Army, which are moderate, should be essayed to disband it without delay.”
Washington’s words proved prophetic. As summer approached, the plight of the soldier was still not remedied by Congress. On June 20, a group of about 500 mutinous soldiers stationed near Philadelphia took control over a weapons and munitions depot and marched on Independence Hall, where the Congress and the Pennsylvania Council both sat. The soldiers, shouldering bayoneted muskets, surrounded the iconic building, blocked the door and initially refused to allow the terrified delegates to leave. Despite the fearful admonitions of other other delegates, Hamilton, who sat on a three-man military affairs committee, darted through the front door, ventured into the sea of shimmering bayonets and persuaded the soldiers to allow Congress time to address their concerns.
That evening, the committee, headed by Hamilton, formally requested that the Pennsylvania Council bring in state militia to protect Congress from the mutineers, threatening that Congress would be forced to move elsewhere if the Council did not act. The following morning, the Pennsylvania Council refused Congress' request, prompting the delegates to leave Philadelphia for Princeton, New Jersey.
This riotous scene in Philadelphia stood in stark contrast to scene in New York City five months later. On November 23, 1783, thereafter known as “Evacuation Day”, Washington marched his victorious American Army into New York City as a throng of ecstatic patriots watched the last British warship exit New York Harbor.
There still remained one final chapter to this epic story. A month later, On December 23, 1783, before the Congress sitting in the Annapolis State House, General George Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. This relinquishment of power by a conquering military hero, unprecedented in the annals of history, prompted none other than Britain’s King George III to utter:
“if he does that, he’ll be the greatest man in the world.”