Richard Godbeer, The Overflowing of Friendship: Love between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (2009)

Richard Godbeer, The Overflowing of Friendship: Love between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

Paragraphing has been added for easier reading on a website.

For the footnotes and source citations, see Godbeer's original book.


The language that Laurens and his fellow aides-de-camp used in their correspondence with each other was tender and demonstrative.

“All the lads embrace you,” wrote Hamilton to Laurens, and “remember you as a friend and a brother.”

In one letter he told Laurens that Robert Harrison, James McHenry, and Caleb Gibbs had asked him to “put you in mind of the place you have in their hearts.”

In another he wrote, “Meade says God bless you.”

And at the end of yet another, he told Laurens that “all the family” sent “their love,” in which “join[ed] the General and Mrs. Washington.” He added significantly: “what is best, ’tis not in the style of ceremony but sincerity.”

Their use of familial terminology and of affectionate language was, in other words, neither perfunctory nor merely ceremonial, but genuine and meaningful.6

The Continental Army was by no means the only military force in which officers characterized their affection for one another in terms of loving brotherhood, but the significance of that affection and the fraternal language used to describe it varied greatly from one time and place to another, depending on the larger social, political, and cultural context in which the war was taking place.

As we will see, what made this particular “band of brothers” distinctive was the remarkable symmetry between their articulation of loving camaraderie and a new conception of political identity that emerged during the imperial crisis, then evolving into a potent vision for republican citizenship in the 1780s and 1790s.7 Excepted from p. 121.


In common with other eighteenth-century male friends, Washington’s “brother aides” felt a deep sense of responsibility to foster virtue in each other; that shared commitment to moral integrity would then inform the spirit of their public service.

Writing to Richard Meade, John Laurens described their “unbounded and inviolable attachment” as a “bright flame” that “kindled” their “virtues.”

Laurens wished Alexander Hamilton “pleasure moral and physical” in winter quarters and finished one letter with the benediction, “be as happy as you deserve,” a touching expression of faith in his friend’s merits.

Hamilton responded with a similar blend of affectionate trust and exhortation. “Do justice to my regard for you,” he declared.

Hamilton noted in another letter to Laurens that they had “the same interests, pains, pleasures, [and] sympathies.” As the aides-de-camp strove together for the patriot cause, their personal virtues would combine with the sympathetic understanding that developed between close friends to inspire them. . . . Excerpted from p. 122.

It would be misleading to suggest that members of Washington’s military household always maintained an exalted tone in their relations with one another. Indeed, the camaraderie enjoyed by the aides-de-camp was at times quite scurrilous and puerile.

In May 1779, McHenry was apparently too busy to write to Laurens, in part because of “public business” but also because he was “engaged in writing an heroic poem of which the family are the subject.”

Hamilton told Laurens that Harrison had “a distinguished place in the piece”: “His sedentary exploits are sung in strains of laborious dullness. The many breeches he has worn out during the war are enumerated, nor are the depredations which long sitting has made on his [arse] unsung.” Harrison’s poem also “celebrate[d] 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,” presumably an allusion to their performative breaking of wind. Excerpted from p. 122.


Though Washington “and all the lads” sent “their love,” it would not have surprised anyone in the general’s “family” that it was Hamilton who actually wrote to Laurens on a regular basis, or that the other officers assumed he would be the conduit for “sympathy” between them and their imprisoned brother.

“I have more of the infirmities of human nature than the others,” Hamilton told his friend, “and suspect myself of being biased by my partiality for you.” Just as the men we encountered in previous chapters tended to have one or two friends with whom they were especially intimate, so this was true of Hamilton. His particular friend was John Laurens, and the two young men clearly loved each other deeply.

They met for the first time in 1777. Both had abandoned their studies in order to fight for the patriot cause. Hamilton had been enrolled as a student at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York; he initially fought with his pen as a pamphleteer before signing up in 1776, soon afterward fighting several battles at the head of an artillery company. In March 1777 he joined Washington’s staff as an aide with the rank of lieutenant general.

Laurens had been studying law across the Atlantic in London; after returning to the newly independent States in January 1777, he accompanied his father to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was to meet. He then traveled on that summer to join the patriot army in New Jersey. A month later, after making a name for himself at the Battle of Brandywine, he also was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and became an aide to Washington.

Henceforth Hamilton and Laurens lived and worked in close proximity until early 1779, when Washington granted Laurens a leave of absence to join the patriot forces in his home state of South Carolina, which was bracing to defend itself against the British.

In common with other devoted male friends, Alexander and John now committed their love to paper as they sought to sustain themselves and each other through the hardship of separation.

A few months after John left headquarters, he wrote in a letter to Alexander that their separation was a torment to him: “How many violent struggles I have had between duty and inclination—how much my heart was with you, while I appeared to be most actively employed here.”

Two years later, he sent a moving plea: “Adieu my dear friend; while circumstances place so great a distance between us, I entreat you not to withdraw the consolation of your letters. You know the unalterable sentiments of your affectionate Laurens.”17

For his part, Alexander had not anticipated how much he would miss his friend: “I hardly knew,” he wrote, “the value you had taught my heart to set upon you.”

He lamented that he now had only words to communicate the warmth of his feelings: “I wish, my dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by actions rather than words, to convince you that I love you.”

What Hamilton meant exactly by “actions” is unclear. Was he referring to those little acts of kindness that mean so much between friends and loved ones? To physical affection? To something more than that? A nineteenth-century editor of Hamilton’s correspondence may have suspected the latter: he wrote in pencil at the top of this letter’s first manuscript page, “I must not publish the whole of this.” Some of Hamilton’s words have been crossed out, presumably by that same editor, and are now impossible to decipher.

Alexander ended his letter by lamenting that this was currently “the only kind of intercourse” that he could have with John. Here again his use of language was ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so.

At a remove of over three centuries, we should beware of leaping to potentially anachronistic readings of sentences such as this: after all, contemporaries used the word “intercourse” to denote spending time with someone; it did not necessarily imply sexual intimacy. Yet it is clear that Alexander had been used to expressing his love for John in ways that were now denied him and that words were proving an inadequate substitute.18

However challenging it may have been for Hamilton to articulate in a letter the depths of his feelings for Laurens, he applied himself to the task with characteristic flair. One of his more striking solutions was to mimic a specific literary genre of the late eighteenth century that was laced with romantic titillation, sexual danger, and the threat of scandal. He took as his inspiration seduction and abandonment narratives in which unscrupulous rakes would ensnare the hearts of innocent young ladies, lure them into premature intimacies by promising to marry them, and then disappear from the scene, leaving the women in question bereft of their virtue, socially humiliated, and emotionally crushed.19

The seduced and abandoned women who figured in these narratives had often been renowned for their virtuous chastity and their determination not to lose it; this was all part of their appeal to the aspiring seducer.

Alexander now depicted his situation as analogous to that of a seduced damsel: “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.”

The line between jesting satire and heartfelt analogy is difficult to draw here, and Hamilton may well have intended it to be so. Since joining Washington’s staff, Hamilton had cultivated a reputation for “gallantry”—an ambiguous word beloved of eighteenth-century libertines that denoted both courtly attention to young ladies and sexual adventurism. He was apparently well-known at headquarters for his aggressive pursuit of women: when Martha Washington observed the antics of an oversexed tomcat that cruised the encampment in search of female mates, she named him Hamilton. But the young man now repositioned himself, presumably with self-conscious irony, as the innocent object of another man’s affection, depicting his friend as having taken advantage of his “sensibility” to establish an emotional power over him “without [his] consent.”

Discussions of libertinism in the American press sometimes acknowledged that male rakes had themselves been “seduced” into a life of debauchery by male friends, a process that placed them in a temporarily passive and implicitly feminine role. But Hamilton was comparing himself much more explicitly to a seduced woman whose emotional well-being and reputation now depended upon her lover’s sense of honor.20

Having lost his “free[dom] from particular attachments,” Alexander offered forgiveness on condition that John proved himself a worthy and faithful lover. “But as you have done it and as we are generally indulgent to those we love,” he wrote, “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.”

Yet several months later, he complained that his friend was proving stereotypes of male infidelity to be well-founded: he had received only one letter from John since his departure. Alexander now compared himself to “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 ———.”

In Alexander’s mind, their situation was at least analogous to that of lovers. His decision to invoke a literary genre that dwelt on sexual danger is striking and suggestive. Was Alexander hinting that physical expression of the love he shared with John might lead them into peril? . . . .

In the letters that Alexander wrote to John, references to friendship, love, courtship, and marriage interwove with ironic humor and multilayered ambiguity.

At the time of their separation, Alexander was still a bachelor, but John had already married an Englishwoman named Martha Manning. John and Martha met while John was studying law in London and married in 1776 after conceiving a child together. Early the following year, John returned home to join the Continental army and left his wife behind, eight months pregnant. . . . .

Some historians have suggested that wife and child “occupied little space in John’s thoughts.”22

Yet Alexander evidently thought otherwise. Letters arrived from Martha soon after John left headquarters for South Carolina in the spring of 1779, and Alexander sent them on. Like other eighteenth-century friends, he felt confident that he could, through the power of sympathy, understand John’s feelings: “I anticipate,” he wrote, “by sympathy the pleasure you must feel from the sweet converse of your dearer self in the enclosed letters.”23

Yet immediately following this apparently heartfelt acknowledgment of the love that bound John to his wife, Alexander launched into a waggish discussion of his own marital ambitions that suggested a rather sardonic attitude toward the entire enterprise of marriage. He asked his friend to keep his eyes peeled for possible candidates in South Carolina and provided him with a playful sketch of the woman he had in mind:

INDENT She 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 [a French word meaning manners or breeding that had recently become fashionable in the new republic, apparently to Hamilton’s disgust]), 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. END INDENT

Alexander urged John to bear in mind that he had “no invincible antipathy to the maidenly beauties” and that he was “willing to take the trouble of them upon [him]self,” thus reaffirming his reputation as a gallant both able and willing to pleasure the ladies.

Alexander suggested that his friend should feel free to take out an advertisement in the newspapers on his behalf, which would doubtless produce “many competitors” who would “be glad to become candidates for such a prize as I am.”

John could “give an account of the lover—his size, make, quality of mind and body, achievements, expectations, fortune, etc [Alexander’s emphases].”

He trusted that John would “no doubt be civil to [his] friend” and “do justice to the length of [his] nose.” His references to “size,” “body,” and “nose” (presumably a surrogate for another of Alexander’s well-proportioned appendages) assumed an easy and ribald familiarity between friends who shared, to borrow Tilghman’s words, “sociable bunks” in cramped quarters.

Yet beneath the humor, it also assumed a depth of intimacy that made John uniquely qualified to sing Alexander’s praises.24

Having shifted from posing as a besotted and vulnerable damsel to a touching expression of “sympathy” with his friend’s love for an absent wife and then to a playful and eventually rather scurrilous discussion of his own marital prospects, Alexander drew back and finished his letter by asking, “What could have put it into my head to hazard this jeu de follie[?]”

His answer once again careened between jest and expressions of sincere feeling as well as between the subjects of marriage and loving friendship:

“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 [to frolic or jest]? In this I have succeeded, but I have done more.”

What Alexander had succeeded in doing, beyond indulging his taste for “frisk- [ing],” was to prolong the sense of being with John that he got from writing to him: “I have gratified my feelings by lengthening out the only kind of intercourse now in my power with my friend.”25

Alexander adopted a barely less sardonic tone on the subject of women when he wrote a year later, in June 1780, to inform his friend that he was now engaged to Elizabeth Schuyler, the second daughter of Major General Philip Schuyler, a trading magnate with extensive holdings along the Mohawk River and around Albany.

In earlier letters to John, he had depicted their own relationship in language that evoked the dangers of freedom prior to marriage as innocent women opened their hearts to perhaps unscrupulous suitors, but he now depicted marriage itself as the renunciation of freedom.

“Have you not heard,” he wrote, “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.”

Alexander’s description of his bride-to-be was not exactly the romantic tribute that one suspects she herself would have been happy to read:

“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.”

Yet Alexander assured his friend that he was a “lover in earnest,” even though he did not “speak of the perfections of [his] mistress in the enthusiasm of chivalry.” And he had every intention of proving himself a loving and devoted husband: “I intend to restore the empire of Hymen and that Cupid is to be his prime minister.”26 (Excerpted from pages 126-31).