James T. Flexner, Young Hamilton: January 1, 1997
Flexner includes a chapter on Hamilton and Laurens titled "A Romantic Friendship" and other comments on men's intimate relationships with men are scattered throughout his book.
A Romantic Friendship
[September, 1777-January, 1780 Ages 2023]
As the military frustrations of 1779 had loomed all too foreseeably ahead, Hamilton had found himself overwhelmed by passionate emotions for his fellow aide, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens. It was probably no coincidence that the full force did not strike him until an element of safety had been added by Laurens's departure for another theater of war.
Many men suffering from a sense of insecurity greatly resent rivals more successful and perhaps more able than they. Hamilton did not suffer from this weakness. His feelings for Laurens, who was only two years his senior, included hero worship.
Where Hamilton was intellectual, Laurens was physical. His was not a frail body that had to be whipped into strenuous action by overtight nerves. Laurens's body responded by sending to his brain thrills of power and joy. Despite Hamilton's explosions of irrational behavior, he wished to light with logic the path on which he wished to go. Laurens felt no such need. He struck as his instincts prompted him and he struck hard. He was both more idealistic than Hamilton and more brutal.
In worldly endowments inherited possessions, hereditary influence, formal education Laurens incomparably outranked his friend. No family carried more weight than his in South Carolina. His father had personally taken him to Europe to organize his education, deciding that Geneva was the world's greatest intellectual and moral center.”
John's course of study there included ''Latin, Greek, Italian, belles-lettres, physics, history, geography, mathematics, experimental philosophy, fencing, riding, and civil law." In his spare time, Laurens moved in Geneva's highest social circles, acquiring elegant accomplishments and exterior polish. His father was assured that John would become "the Voltaire of South Carolina."
As soon as the Revolution broke out, Laurens yearned to fight, but his father sent him to London to study law. John found alternate excitement with a genteel but willing young woman. Fearing that marriage would further block his departure for the war, he preferred what he described as "a clandestine celebration." When her pregnancy could no longer be concealed, he told the girl's father he would make an honest woman of her provided that no effort were made to stop his going by himself to America. To his own family, in whose company his wife might have to spend much of her life, Laurens summarized the situation: "Pity obliged me to marry."1
Shortly after Brandywine, Laurens joined Washington's Family as a volunteer. Hamilton met a husky young man, whose large oval head was almost overcrowded with strongly sculptured features. Laurens's eyes were blue, his expression dissatisfied, daring, self-confident, supercilious.2 Instantaneously, he rivaled Hamilton's hitherto unassailed position as the ablest and most energetic of Washington's aides. Laurens even invaded Hamilton's exclusive preserve, for he also spoke fluent French. And his father was currently President of Congress.
It is indicative of the relationship between the two men that, when Washington's circle decided to call Major General Charles Lee to account for his slanders, it was Laurens who challenged and fought Lee, while Hamilton served as a second.
Early in 1779, Laurens launched on a project as audacious as it was philanthropic.
Unable to alter the stalemate around New York, the British were making use of their command of the ocean to move their operations to the weakest part of the United States, inhabited by the largest number of Tories: the South. In late 1778 and early 1779, Georgia was for all practical purposes captured, North Carolina overrun, and Laurens's home state of South Carolina seriously threatened.
Defense was crippled by the South Carolinians' fear of their slaves, by whom they were greatly outnumbered. They did not dare join the army lest, in their absence, the blacks kill their families and burn their plantations. Ever bold, Laurens devised a scheme to convert the
“danger into a strength, while at the same time taking a giant step towards a social good. He had been persuaded during his European education of the evils of slavery. South Carolina, he argued, should raise by draft from the owners several thousand black troops who would serve against the British under white officers he willingly offered himself as commander with the promise of emancipation at the end of the war. This would not only in itself augment the army but, by drawing off the most aggressive blacks from the plantations, enable white militiamen also to leave.3
During March, 1779, Laurens posted from headquarters at Morristown to secure from Congress in Philadelphia a vote urging the scheme on his native state. His father, Henry Laurens, had retired from the presidency of Congress, but had been succeeded by Hamilton's friend Jay. Hamilton wrote to persuade Jay that the project was "most rational." It was, indeed, difficult to see "how a sufficient force can be collected in that quarter without it. I have not the least doubt that the Negroes will make very excellent soldiers with proper management," and Laurens ''has all the zeal, intelligence, enterprise, and every other qualification requisite to succeed in such an undertaking.
"It is a maxim with some great military judges that, with sensible officers, soldiers can hardly be too stupid; and on this principle it is thought that the Russians would make the best troops in the world if they were under other officers than their own. I mention this because I frequently hear it objected" that Negroes are "too stupid to make soldiers. This is so far from appearing to me a valid objection that I think their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours) joined to that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life of servitude, will make them sooner become soldiers than our white inhabitants. Let officers be men of sense and sentiment, and the nearer the soldiers approach to machines perhaps the better."4
To Laurens himself, Hamilton wrote, "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, 'till 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 on 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 so artfully instilled into me."
The next paragraph in this letter dealt with Laurens's having finally, after again refusing, accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel in the line. Laurens seems to have written his friend for reassurance that his action had not violated "delicacy." Hamilton replied that, as Washington's aide, Laurens had as much right as any officer to be officially a lieutenant colonel, and as he intended to command his own black brigade, he was not invading any established military hierarchy. Revealing himself on this occasion an adherent of the rigid military protocol which was likely to stand in his own way, Hamilton wrote that had Laurens been given additional seniority by having his commission dated "posterior to your appointment as aide-de-camp, I should have considered it derogatory to your former rank, to mine, and to that of the whole corps." As it was, Laurens's second refusal had revealed "overscrupulous delicacy. In hesitating you have refined upon the refinements of generosity."
Hamilton went on to send news concerning Laurens's connections in England. The phraseology reveals that Hamilton had been left ill-informed concerning his friend's marriage so much so, indeed, that he did not know Laurens had a daughter and also that he understood the relationship might be treated with levity. He was enclosing, Hamilton wrote, some letters that would permit Laurens to have "sweet converse with your dearer self." They had been brought by a Mrs. Moore, "soi-disant parente de Madame votre épouse. [Laurens's mother-in-law was called Manning.] She speaks of a daughter of yours, well when she left England, perhaps" Here someone, in going over Hamilton's papers, felt that propriety required scratching out three words.
"And now, my dear, as we are upon the subject of wife, I empower and command you to get me one in Carolina. Take her descriptionShe must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape), sensible (a little learning will do), well bred (but she must have an aversion to the word ton), chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness), of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist). In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of; I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion, a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint. 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 worldas 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 and that I am willing to take the trouble of them upon myself.”
“If you should not readily meet with a lady that you think answers my description, you can only advertise in the public papers and doubtless you will hear of many competitors for most of the qualifications required, who will be glad to become candidates for such a prize as I am. To excite their emulation, it will be necessary for you to give an account of the loverhis size, make, quality of mind and body, achievements, expectations, fortune, etc. 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" Here about five words have been obliterated. Fortunately their import can be guessed: it is an ancient joke to interrelate the size of a man's nose and the size of his penis. ”
Hamilton ended by wondering what "put it into my head to hazard this jeu de folie. Do I want a wife? No I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all."5
Laurens was in no hurry to answer Hamilton. When he finally wrote from Charleston some three months later, his only response to his friend's personal ardors was to say that the bearer of his letter "will relate to you how many violent struggles I have had between duty and inclinationhow much my heart was with you while I appeared to be most actively employed here." He could not leave while there was the slightest hope of his succeeding with his plan for black levies.”
Although Laurens had secured the endorsement he had sought from the Continental Congress, the South Carolinians, who commonly searched their slave quarters daily to discover and confiscate any weapons, were horrified by the recommendation that they themselves arm their blacks. Rather than do that, the inhabitants of Charleston, whose city was now under siege, offered a deal to Sir Henry Clinton: if the British would leave the state, South Carolina would withdraw from the war, leaving the question of her eventual allegiance to be settled by the final treaty of peace. Only British refusal to accept this partial surrender kept the defenders of Charleston of whom Laurens was now one on guard on the city's walls.”
Laurens's comment to Hamilton ran, "Oh, that I were Demosthenesthe Athenians never deserved more bitter exprobation than my countrymen!" He ended his letter, "I entreat you, my dear friend, write me as frequently as circumstances will permit, and enlighten me upon what is going forward." He sent his love not directly to Hamilton but "to all our dear colleagues."6
The lukewarmness of Laurens's sentiments did not prevent Hamilton from replying in his previous high tone: "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 disarmed my resentment and by a single mark of attention made up the quarrel. You must at least allow me a large stock of good nature.”
Hamilton went on to postulate that Spain's entry into the war on the side of France would so overextend the resources of Great Britain that negotiation not conquest would become her object. It followed that she would seek to acquire two or three southern states to counterbalance the loss of her West Indian islands, and give her "credit in Europe." The British could be expected to come down harder on South Carolina.
Laurens's "black scheme" was obviously the state's "best resource." But, "even the animated and persuasive eloquence of my young Demosthenes will not be able to rouse his countrymen from the lethargy of voluptuous indolence or dissolve the fascinating character of self-interest." It was impossible to inspire Americans with "the natural enthusiasm of republicans." Experience would convince Laurens ''that there is no virtue in America; the commerce which presided over the birth and education of these states has fitted their inhabitants for the chain, and that the only condition that they sincerely desire is that it may be a golden one."
It was in this letter that Hamilton described to Laurens how "the cabal" was trying to ruin him by misquoting what he insisted he had not said. He did not mention to his friend the charges that, being a foreigner, he was motivated only by personal ambition.7
Laurens used his family position to get himself elected to the South Carolina legislature, where he continued his vain arguments. The immediate crisis ameliorated. The British besiegers, deciding they were too weak to continue their siege of Charleston, returned to Georgia. D'Estaing then appeared with his fleet. The reason he kept Hamilton waiting disconsolately on the Delaware Capes and the New Jersey shore was that he had joined American troops (including Laurens) in trying to reduce the British strong point at Savannah, Georgia. An assault was undertaken and repulsed. D'Estaing sailed back to the Indies and Laurens posted north to Washington's headquarters, seeking reinforcements for next year's southern campaign.
Concerning the reunion of Laurens and Hamilton there is not a shred of information. From Philadelphia on his way back south, Laurens expressed to Hamilton no warmer sentiments than the following: "Present my respects and love to our excellent General and the Family. May you enjoy all the pleasure, moral and physical, which you promise yourself in winter quarters, and be as happy as you deserve."8
Hamilton read his next letter from Laurens with pulsating emotion. For some time, there had been pressure on the South Carolina prodigy to allow himself to be elected by Congress as secretary to the American minister in France. Laurens had refused, but had finally come to the conclusion that a citizen had no right to decline any office offered him by his countrymen unless he could recommend a suitable substitute. He had, so he now wrote Hamilton, notified the congressional representatives that he had found a person equally qualified with himself "in point of integrity and much better in point of ability." Laurens greatly hoped that Congress would appoint Alexander Hamilton. However, "if unhappily they could not agree on Colonel Hamilton," and it was felt absolutely necessary that he himself should serve, "I should think it my duty to obey the orders of Congress."
Laurens went on to report that the legislature had nominated Hamilton and three others: "I am sorry that you are not better known to Congress. Great stress is laid upon the probity and patriotism of the person to be employed in this commission. I have given my testimony of you in this and other equally essential points."9
In his reply, Hamilton started out courteously he hoped Laurens would serve after all and then unmasked his passion for the post and his bitterness that he could not expect to receive it. What Laurens had written about the stress being laid on patriotism must have hurt, since Hamilton knew that the Philadelphia coffeehouse rumor was being used to impugn his patriotism in important congressional circles. Did Laurens's mention of the issue mean that he had heard the gossip?
“Not one of the four in nomination," Hamilton exclaimed, "but would stand a better chance than myself, and yet my vanity tells me they do not all merit a preference. But I am a stranger in the country. I have no property here, no connexions. If I have talents and integrity (as you say I have) these are justly deemed very spurious titles in these enlightened days, when unsupported by others more solid." He supposed that three quarters of the congressmen were "mortal enemies" to talents, and "three fourths of the other fourth have a laudable contempt" for integrity.
“Hamilton then confided to Laurens that he had already made an effort to escape from Washington's headquarters by joining his friend in fighting to the southward. He had "candidly" explained to His Excellency "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 military character as a soldier above mediocrity." Washington, so Hamilton continued, could not refuse, "but arguments have been made to dissuade me from it which, however little weight they may have had in my judgment, gave law to my feelings.* I am chagrined and unhappy, but I submit.”
“In short, Laurens, I am disgusted with everything in this world but yourself and very few more honest fellows."
Then the man who was years later to die in a spectacular duel wrote: "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 terrestrial country."10
*Hamilton was undoubtedly told that he could serve the cause best in his role as assistant to the Commander in Chief.
Later in his biography of Hamilton, Flexner discusses his relationship with Lafayette:
. . . in Laurens's absence Lafayette had become Hamilton's closest companion. To Hamilton the Marquis wrote, "Before this campaign, I was your friend and very intimate friend agreeable to the ideas of the world." Since he had returned from his visit to France, "my sentiment has increased to such a point the world knows nothing about."11
This statement, when considered with Hamilton's passionate effusions to Laurens, raises questions concerning homosexuality. They cannot be categorically answered. Surely physical attraction or repulsion enters, under the most normal circumstances, into one man's reaction to another. Hamilton and his fellow aides routinely sent each other their love; indeed, they often sent their love wholesale to the entire headquarters Family. What considerations carry an emotional relationship between members of the same sex over the edge? If the answer is, as the twentieth century seems to assume, a purely physical one, it can only be said that the essential data are lacking in relation to Hamilton and Laurens and Lafayette. Certainly no one at the time sensed anything to whisper about, but then in the eighteenth century homosexuality had by no means become the active issue that it is today.
We do know that Hamilton poured into Lafayette's sympathetic ears his growing frustrations at being forever held to what he considered menial services as Washington's desk-bound aide. A year had passed since Washingon had, when refusing to let him join Laurens in the southern fighting, promised Hamilton that in due course he would "be glad to furnish me with an occasion."12 That was a year ago, and, so Hamilton complained bitterly, nothing had happened. Lafayette expressed eagerness to furnish Hamilton with an occasion.
1. Townsend, Laurens; Wallace, Laurens.
2. Sellers, Peale, 123, 367.
“3. Wallace, 449 ff.
4. HS, II, 1718.
5. HS, II, 3438.
6. HS, II, 102103.
7. HS, II, 165169.
8. HS, II, 225226.
9. HS, II, 230231.
10. HS, II, 226, 254255, 509.
11. HS, II, 517. [Note 3 in Flexner biography]
12. HS, II, 509. [Note 4 in Flexner biography]
James Thomas Flexner, The Young Hamilton, A Biography (NY: Fordham University Press), pp. 255-263; 316.