Michael E. Newton on “Discovering the Earliest Known Records of Alexander Hamilton” and “A “Jest” Gone Wrong: Nicholas Cruger’s “Supposed Duel” on St. Croix”

My talk today at Liberty Hall Museum about about Discovering the Earliest Known Records of Alexander Hamilton and A “Jest” Gone Wrong: Nicholas Cruger’s “Supposed Duel” on St. Croix.

If you have trouble watching the video here, please see the video on Liberty Hall Museum’s facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/libertyhallmuseum/videos/1803776389648810/

New Hamilton Discoveries to be Revealed on July 6

On Thursday, July 6, at 1:00 p.m. (to be repeated at 3:00 p.m.), I will share my recent discovery of the earliest known records of Alexander Hamilton and their implications to Hamilton’s biography. These records predate Hamilton’s letter to Edward “Ned” Stevens of November 1769 and the probate record of Hamilton’s mother from February 1768.

I’ll also be sharing a previously unknown story about Nicholas Cruger, Hamilton’s boss on St. Croix, and his “supposed duel,” which caused a “sensation” and much “disorder” on the island.

The event will take place at Liberty Hall Museum at 1003 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083. A similar event last year sold out, so please reserve your seat at http://www.kean.edu/libertyhall/events/young-immigrant-hamilton-tour-july6.

If you can’t attend, the event will be live streamed on Liberty Hall’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/libertyhallmuseum/

Doctoring Newspapers for PBS’s “Hamilton’s America” Documentary

Like every other fan of Alexander Hamilton the man and Hamilton: An American Musical, I was eager to watch the PBS documentary about the making of the musical, titled Hamilton’s America, which aired on October 21, 2016. I knew that this documentary would be a mix of Alexander Hamilton history and behind-the-scenes footage of the development, production, and staging of the musical. And while I enjoyed most of the documentary, I was sorely disappointed in some of the historical inaccuracies.

Now, we all know that there are historical inaccuracies in the musical. Most of these are perfectly fine as Lin-Manuel Miranda used his poetic license to tell the story. Lafayette being in America and meeting Hamilton before the war even started is one such example. Everyone knows it didn’t happen that way, but it made sense from the musical’s perspective to present it that way. Other inaccuracies were mistakes to which Miranda has admitted, like when Angelica Schuyler said, “My father has no sons,” when he in fact had three sons. Others are errors that have come down through history and which the musical repeats, like the oft-repeated tale of Martha Washington’s tomcat named Hamilton.

As a piece of fiction, Hamilton: An American Musical is immensely enjoyable. Moreover, it gets most of the history right and certainly captures the spirit of Hamilton’s life and of the period. So even when this nit-picky historian points out inaccuracies in the musical, he does not intend to diminish the great work created by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the other producers and performers. It is only done to educate those who would like to learn more about Alexander Hamilton.

However, when PBS produces a documentary, I expect more accuracy and certainly don’t expect them to mislead the viewer. And yet, that is exactly what happens in at least one instance. Talking about Alexander Hamilton’s life on St. Croix in the Caribbean West Indies, the documentary of course discusses Hamilton’s account of the great hurricane of 1772, which was published in St. Croix’s The Royal Danish American Gazette. On screen, they present this image of the newspaper.

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Alexander Hamilton’s hurricane account, as published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, as shown in PBS’s Hamilton’s America

According to this image, Hamilton’s hurricane account was published in The Royal Danish American Gazette on Sunday, September 6, 1772. At the top of the newspaper’s first column appeared a preface introducing Hamilton’s account. Hamilton’s writing then appears on the top of columns two and three.

Unfortunately, none of this is true. This image is a complete fake. It was doctored for the purpose of presenting in this documentary.

Here’s what the newspaper featuring Hamilton’s hurricane account really looks like:

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First of all, you probably noticed that Hamilton’s hurricane account appears on the second page of the newspaper, not the first. Not only is that less dramatic than having it on the first page, it makes it more difficult to present quickly on the TV screen. And in order to make Hamilton’s hurricane account fit on the first three columns of the first page, they didn’t just copy and paste the original into their desired position, but they actually retyped it. Of course, they styled it to look like it was original to 1772 because they wouldn’t want the viewer to think it was fake.

Second, you might notice that while Hamilton’s newspaper account is dated September 6, 1772, it was not published until October 3, 1772. And yet, in PBS’s version, the newspaper with Hamilton’s account was published on September 6.

Third, there is one part of PBS’s image that is original: the beautiful masthead of The Royal Danish American Gazette. But even here, PBS erred. PBS copied the masthead with volume and issue numbers from Vol. 3, Issue No. 235. You’ll see in the real newspaper featuring Hamilton’s essay that that the issue of October 3 was No. 234. Issue No. 235 was published October 7, 1772.

Fourth, since PBS used the masthead from October 7 and no issue of the newspaper was published on September 6, PBS had no choice but to retype the date under masthead. What’s most amazing is that The Royal Danish American Gazette was published only on Saturdays and Wednesdays. But September 6, 1772, was a Sunday. So, in very large letters, PBS typed “SUNDAY.” Even to the casual eye, that “SUNDAY” stands out as inauthentic.

To summarize, PBS changed the layout of the newspaper, retyped the text of Hamilton’s hurricane account, retyped and changed the date of publication, and had the wrong issue number. The only original things about it were the words written by Hamilton and the masthead, which was taken from a different issue.

Perhaps it’s just the historian in me caring too much about historical accuracy, but I expected more from a PBS documentary.

Angelica Schuyler Church’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull (with a Cruger twist)

In the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, amid much larger and more famous paintings, hangs a small portrait of Thomas Jefferson with a most interesting history for any fan of Alexander Hamilton or the Hamilton musical. In 1786 and 1787, John Trumbull visited Thomas Jefferson in Paris. With Jefferson’s “assistance,” Trumbull began painting The Declaration of Independence on a small 21-inch by 31-inch canvas. This small painting became the basis for the huge 12-foot by 18-foot painting of the same name that hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

John Trumbull also used the original The Declaration of Independence as the source for three small portraits of Thomas Jefferson. One of the portraits was given to Maria Cosway, a married woman whose amorous correspondence with Jefferson has historians debating whether their relationship went beyond words. Another was given to Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. The other portrait of Jefferson painted by Trumbull was given to another one of Jefferson’s close friends, with whom he also wrote numerous flirtatious letters, Mrs. Angelica Church, known to many as the eldest of the Schuyler sisters. Luckily for fans of both Alexander Hamilton and Angelica Church, this portrait hangs in Gallery 753 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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John Trumbull’s Thomas Jefferson [Metropolitan Museum of Art] (© Michael E. Newton)

Fans of the real Alexander Hamilton who know a thing or two about his biography (that’s not mentioned in the musical) will also enjoy the provenance of this painting. When Angelica Church died in 1814, this painting was inherited by her daughter, Catherine. Catherine was married to Bertram Peter Cruger, who happened to be the son of Nicholas Cruger, the man who befriended and employed Hamilton back on St. Croix in the 1760s and 70s. Trumbull’s painting of Jefferson stayed in the Cruger family for three generations until Cornelia Cruger bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1923

Treasures Hidden in Plain Sight: Two Alexander Hamilton Clocks

Alexander Hamilton is everywhere! He’s in books. He’s on our currency. He’s even on Broadway. Of course, Hamilton can also be found in the numerous museums that display his portrait and curate exhibitions about him (for examples, see here, here, here, and here).

Perhaps you even saw some pieces of Hamiltonia in these museums without noticing them. For example, how many you saw the recent Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island) exhibition at the New-York Historical Society? Did you see the copy of Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer from April 20, 1775? Here’s their description and a photo I took of the newspaper (sorry for the quality):

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Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, April 20, 1775 [New-York Historical Society] (© Michael E. Newton)

Did anyone notice this advertisement in the above newspaper?

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Rivington’s New-York Gazetter, April 20, 1775 [New-York Historical Society] (© Michael E. Newton)

Here we have A.W. Farmer (Samuel Seabury) replying to an essay entitled The Farmer Refuted. I’m sure you all know who penned that essay—the one and only Alexander Hamilton. With no mention of Hamilton in the description, few people probably paid any attention to this. (For those who are curious, Seabury’s Republican Dissected was never published.)

Much more interesting, in my opinion, are a pair of clocks directly connected to Alexander Hamilton on display at two different museums not far from each other.

In the lobby of the New-York Historical Society, not far from Hamilton’s writing desk, a portrait of Hamilton by John Trumbull, and exact replicas of the dueling pistols used by Hamilton and Burr in 1804, is a clock attributed to Robert Joyce:

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Robert Joyce, Tall Case Clock [New-York Historical Society] (© Michael E. Newton)

The NYHS explains, “According to tradition, Hamilton presented this clock to the Bank of New York in 1797 to commemorate the opening of its Wall Street headquarters… Founded by Hamilton in 1784, the Bank of New York was the center of the city’s financial life and helped the federal government establish a firm economic footing. After four years on its board of directors, Hamilton left to serve as the nation’s first secretary of treasury.” [Note: Hamilton was one of the founders of the bank, not the founder.]

A similar clock with a similar tale is also on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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Robert Joyce, Clock [Metropolitan Museum of Art] (© Michael E. Newton)

If you didn’t see this clock the last time you visited the Met, I’m not surprised. It can found all by itself at the second-floor entrance to the American Wing in what can best be described as a hallway (technically it’s Gallery 703). I often watch dozens of people walk right by it without paying any attention. Some see me looking and taking pictures of the clock; only then do they take notice of this clock. Robert Joyce produced this clock “circa 1795” (according to the Met website) or “circa 1797” (according to the description next to the clock). According to the description, “This monumental tall clock by Robert Joyce, who trained and worked in London and Dublin before establishing himself in New York, was presented by Alexander Hamilton to the Philadelphia-based Bank of the United States around 1797.”

Thus, we have two beautiful clocks given by Alexander Hamilton in or about 1797 to the two leading banks in the country in two different museums less than a mile from each other. Please do visit these two clocks, enjoy their fine craftsmanship, and connect with everyone’s favorite Founding Father. And if you visit both clocks on the same day, be sure to stop at the statue of Alexander Hamilton as you walk from one museum to the other.

 

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Walking route between Metropolitan Museum of Art and New-York Historical Society with stop at the Alexander Hamilton statue (© Michael E. Newton)

 

Inspiration: Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire and Carle Vernet’s The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus

During my recent trip to New York City, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society. I try to visit the Met every time I’m in New York to see the special exhibits and some of my favorites (Vermeer, Van Gogh, Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware). As the Met is so large, I never have time to see everything and am able to see different things each time.

When I’m in New York, I occasionally visit the New-York Historical Society depending on what special exhibits they have. With an exhibit on the Battle of Brooklyn (Battle of Long Island), the NYHS was on my long list of things to do during my brief visit to New York.

I visited the New-York Historical Society first. When I entered Dexter Hall, the main painting gallery of the museum on the second floor, I was pleasantly surprised to and see my favorite paintings: Thomas Cole’s five-painting-series The Course of Empire (1833-1836).

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Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire [New-York Historical Society] (© Michael E. Newton)

A brief intro for those who don’t know about these paintings. The Course of Empire shows the rise and fall of an empire. Thomas Cole clearly had ancient Rome as his inspiration but painted them as a warning to the United States to not follow the same course. Thomas Cole starts with The Savage State (1834) where the landscape is in its natural state with just a few nomads in view, moves on to The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1834) as farmers move in and start to develop agriculture, jumps to The Consummation of Empire (1836) with the great wealth and power of an imperial city on display, declines into Destruction (1836) as the empire falls and the city is destroyed by barbarians, and concludes with Desolation (1836) where all that remains are the ruins of a formerly great city.

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Thomas Cole’s The Savage State [New-York Historical Society] (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

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Thomas Cole’s The Arcadian or Pastoral State [New-York Historical Society] (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

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Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire [New-York Historical Society] (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

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Thomas Cole’s Destruction [New-York Historical Society] (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

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Thomas Cole’s Desolation [New-York Historical Society] (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

I am not sure when Cole’s The Course of Empire returned to the museum but they had been in storage and away on loan for some time. The last few times I visited the NYHS, these paintings were not on display, but I did see them in July 2013 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown in an exhibit on The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision (no photography was permitted). Prior to that, I saw them at the New-York Historical Society in June 2010 when the museum was closed for renovation but they granted me access to see them in storage because I had used two of the paintings for the cover of my first book, The Path to Tyranny, because that book, like the paintings, detailed the rise and fall of free societies.

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Michael E. Newton with copy of The Path to Tyranny in front of Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire [New-York Historical Society] (© Jay  G. Newton)

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Michael E. Newton with copy of The Path to Tyranny in front of Thomas Cole’s Destruction [New-York Historical Society] (© Jay G. Newton)

After years of not seeing these paintings at NYHS, I had forgotten they were there and was pleasantly surprised to see them. As usual, I stood gazing at them for a few minutes as I soaked in their greatness. Unfortunately, I had other things to do that day and could not stay longer.

A few days later I made my customary trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was there mainly for their special exhibits on Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven and Valentin de Boulougne: Beyond Caravaggio, but wandered through my favorite parts of the museum. They recently rearranged some of the European art. One such room (Gallery 613) is now called “The Salon on the Eve of the Revolution.” Here, I happened across a painting I had either never seen before or just never noticed, Carle Vernet’s The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus (1789).

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Carle Vernet’s The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

 I was immediately struck by how similar the triumphal parade in this painting is to that in Cole’s The Consummation of Empire.

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Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire [New-York Historical Society] (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

The similarities of which I speak are more evident after zooming in on the triumphs/parades taking place in the two paintings.

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Detail from Carle Vernet’s The Triump of Aemilius Paulus [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

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Detail from Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire [New-York Historical Society]

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Detail from Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire [New-York Historical Society]

Clearly, they are not identical, but Cole’s triumphal parade with its ostentatious display of wealth to show his imagined empire at its peak and an honored hero holding a scepter in one hand and a tree branch in another is reminiscent of the parade in Vernet’s painting. I have no idea if Thomas Cole saw Vernet’s The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus when he was in Paris in 1831–32 or if the paintings by Vernet and Cole were both inspired by an earlier work, but the two appear remarkably similar in my inexpert opinion. (In my searches, I have been unable to find anyone else comparing these two paintings.)

Art experts, feel free to comment on the similarities and differences between these two painting or to suggest common inspiration for both works.

N.B. Thank you to art historian Dianne Durante for your critique and advice.

Alexander Hamilton’s Participation in the Newburgh Conspiracy Reexamined

The following essay is based on a speech, my first public speech about Alexander Hamilton, given on July 28, 2013, at the New Windsor Cantonment in conjunction with the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society. It is reproduced below after some editing and links added to the relevant sources. An inquiry by Dianne Durante, who is writing a series of blog posts linking primary sources to lyrics in Hamilton: An American Musical, reminded me of this speech and I was prevailed upon to make it available to others researching this important topic. 

The Newburgh Conspiracy

Throughout the War for Independence, Congress and the various states were unable or unwilling to provide for the army. The soldiers often went without clothing, without food, and without pay. Some in the Continental Congress wanted to do justice for the men who sacrificed so much for their countrymen, but the national government lacked the power of taxation and therefore never had enough money to provide for the soldiers.

Upset at the neglect of them and fearing that the end of the war would mean being sent home without receiving what was owed to them, army discontent rose. Mutinies were common. Many soldiers talked of refusing to disband after peace was declared and some threatened to revolt against Congress.

General Washington sympathized with his men. A look through his writings reveals that much of his correspondence dealt not with military matters but with the inability of the continental and state governments to properly provide for the army. Despite this, Washington believed strongly in civilian control of the army.

In March 1783, an anonymous “Address to the Officers” circulated through the army camp at Newburgh. It called for a meeting to discuss the the demands of the soldiers and decide how to pursue their rightful claims. Fearing a mutiny or a coup against himself or Congress, Washington canceled the unauthorized meeting and called one of his own. At Washington’s meeting, which took place right here [at the New Windsor Cantonment], Washington pledged to do all he could to help the men of the army and urged them to be patient. Washington was at his best. He begged the assembled crowd, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” Upon hearing these words and recognizing the sacrifice General Washington made for his country and fellow Americans, many officers were brought to tears and the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy evaporated.

Hamilton advising Washington

By early 1783, Washington and Hamilton had not written to each other for over a year. In February, Hamilton broke the silence, providing his former boss with valuable information regarding the growing unrest in the army, of which the Commander-in-Chief was not aware. Hamilton then advised Washington:

The claims of the army urged with moderation, but with firmness, may operate on those weak minds which are influenced by their apprehensions more than their judgments; so as to produce a concurrence in the measures which the exigencies of affairs demand. They may add weight to the applications of Congress to the several states… But the difficulty will be to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation. This Your Excellency’s influence must effect. In order to it, it will be adviseable not to discountenance their endeavours to procure redress, but rather by the intervention of confidential and prudent persons, to take the direction of them… Your Excellency should preserve the confidence of the army without losing that of the people. This will enable you in case of extremity to guide the torrent, and bring order perhaps even good, out of confusion.

Hamilton as a conspirator?

Some believe that Hamilton encouraged mutinous behavior in the army to pressure Congress into establishing funds for the continental government. For example, Ron Chernow writes, “Hamilton was coaxing Washington to dabble in a dangerous game of pretending to be a lofty statesman while covertly orchestrating pressure on Congress. The letter shows Hamilton at his most devious, playing with combustible forces.” (Chernow, Alexander Hamilton 177.)

But Washington did not see things this way. Replying to Hamilton, Washington wrote that he was “pursuing the suggestions of your letter, which I am happy to find coincides with my own practice for several months past, & which was the means of directing the business of the Army into the Channel it now is, leaves me under no great apprehension of its exceeding the bounds of reason & moderation, nothwithstanding the prevailing sentiment in the Army is, that the prospect of compensation for past Services will terminate with the War.”

Thus, according to Washington, he and Hamilton were in complete agreement about the course to follow: pushing for a funding system and trying to keep the anger of the army within “the bounds of reason & moderation.”

On March 12, Washington again wrote to Alexander Hamilton:

After the arrival of a certain Gentleman, who shall be nameless at present, from Philadelphia, a storm very suddenly arose with unfavourable prognostics… There is something very misterious in this business. It appears, reports have been propagated in Philadelphia, that dangerous combinations were forming in the Army; and this at a time when there was not a syllable of the kind in agitation in Camp… From this, and a variety of other considerations, it is firmly believed, by some, the scheme was not only planned but also digested and matured in Philadelphia; but in my opinion shall be suspended till I have a better ground to found one on.

Was there a conspiracy originating in Philadelphia? If so, Washington refused to believe it without further evidence. Was Hamilton a conspirator? If so, Washington did not say so. Rather, Washington asked Hamilton to continue on the same course he had been pursuing so far.

Let me beseech you therefore, my good Sir, to urge this matter earnestly, and without further delay… To prevail on the Delegates of those States through whose means these difficulties occur, it may, in my opinion, with propriety be suggested to them, if any disastrous consequences should follow, by reason of their delinquency, that they must be answerable to God & their Country for the ineffable horrors which may be occasioned thereby.

So who is Washington blaming for the ineffable horrors that may result? Definitely not Hamilton. In fact, he relied on Hamilton to “urge this matter earnestly.” Instead, Washington blamed “the Delegates of those States through whose means these difficulties occur.”

Upon receiving this letter, Hamilton replied, “I am happy to find You coincide in opinion with me on the conduct proper to be observed by yourself. I am persuaded more and more it is that which is most consistent with your own reputation and the public safety.” Yet again, Hamilton and Washington were in complete agreement and were working together to prevent “dangerous combinations.”

For the next month, Hamilton and Washington corresponded about how to promote the funding system and keep the army in check.

On April 4, Washington wrote to Hamilton, “Some men (& leading ones too) in this Army, are beginning to entertain suspicions that Congress, or some members of it” were using them “as mere Puppits to establish Continental funds.” Washington warned Hamilton “that the Army…is a dangerous instrument to play with.” The critics cite this as proof that Washington was disappointed with Hamilton’s playing with the army to promote a stronger national government. As Ron Chernow comments, “Washington must have seen that Hamilton, for all his brains and daring, sometimes lacked judgment and had to be supervised carefully” (Chernow, Alexander Hamilton 179-180).

But Washington had not accused Hamilton of playing with the army. Washington wrote his warning generally and never implied that Hamilton was one of those men under suspicion. In fact, in that letter, Washington called out “the Financier,” Robert Morris, as the one “suspected to be at the bottom of this scheme.” He made no mention of Hamilton being involved in any way.

Less than two weeks later (April 16), George Washington apologized to Alexander Hamilton: “My last letter to you was written in a hurry, when I was fatigued… possibly, I did not on that occasion express myself (in what I intended as a hint) with so much perspicuity as I ought—possibly too, what I then dropped, might have conveyed more than I intended; for I do not, at this time, recollect the force of my expression.” Washington then noted, “To Mr. Morris…or rather to Mr. G[ouverneur] M[orris] is ascribed, in a great degree, the ground work of the superstructure which was intended to be raised in the Army by the Anonymous Addresser.” Yet again, Washington did not accuse Hamilton of being involved in this conspiracy nor did he say that others had mentioned him as a conspirator. Rather, it was Gouverneur Morris who stood accused of egging on the discontented. But this accusation against Morris came not from Washington himself but from the very men who had threatened a mutiny against Washington and an overthrow of Congress and who now argued that they had been used as “Puppits.” Perhaps Morris had indeed encouraged these men. Or perhaps these men were now trying to shift the blame in an attempt to exonerate themselves.

At this point, there is no evidence Hamilton was involved in any conspiracy. Some members of Congress had been accused of using the army as “Puppits,” but those were unsubstantiated accusations and only Robert Morris and Gouvernour Morris had been named as possible conspirators. No one pointed a finger at Hamilton.

Historiography: 1820

In 1820, a man going by the name of John Montgars, who claimed to have “been employed, for several years, upon a history of the United States,” was now looking into the Newburgh Conspiracy. Montgars wrote that “a letter was received by the Commander-in-Chief from a Mr. Hardy [later changed to a Mr. Harvie], of Virginia, then a member of Congress, advising him that a conspiracy of the very worst character, having for object the demolition of our free constitutions, and the destruction of the General’s authority, was in embryo, and would soon show itself in some overt act; and that Robert and Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton, &c, were at the bottom of the plan.”

Here we have the first accusation against Hamilton of not only encouraging a conspiracy to overthrow Washington and the civilian government but that he was “at the bottom of the plan.” Yet again, the two Morrises also stood accused of being “at the bottom of the plan” alongside Hamilton.

Who was this John Montgars? Was he a trustworthy, non-biased historian, as he claimed? And what was the source for his information?

It turns out that Montgars invented this story, or at the least he never provided any evidence in support of it. Timothy Pickering, Nicholas Fish, John BrooksDavid Cobb, Ebenezer Huntington, James Thacher, and others all said that they were eyewitness to the events that day or talked to those who had been and that Washington received no such letter from a Hardy, Harvie, or anyone else implicating Hamilton and the Morrises.

Furthermore, it just so happens that this John Montgars was none other than John Armstrong. (Montgars is an anagram for Armstrong, except one “r” has been dropped.) Armstrong had been one the worst offenders in the Newburgh Conspiracy. He had written the anonymous “Address to the Officers,” though he denied it for decades, leading a number of historians to believe that someone else, possibly Gouverneur Morris, had been the author. Armstrong had also been an aide to Major General Horatio Gates, an old rival of Washington who had falsely accused Hamilton in 1777 of stealing a letter he had received from Thomas Conway attacking Washington. It was Gates who would have probably become commander-in-chief had Washington been overthrown or forced to resign. Thus, the long-lasting enmity between Gates and Armstrong on one side and Hamilton and Washington on the other reappeared during the Newburgh Conspiracy. Armstrong renewed this rivalry in 1820 as he tried to change the narrative of the affair in which he was involved.

With Montgars’s identity revealed and his account refuted by other eyewitnesses, there is good reason to believe that the Newburgh conspirators, including Armstrong, were merely trying to shift the blame off themselves and onto Washington’s supporters—i.e., Hamilton and the Morrises. Certainly, their accusations against Hamilton and others remain meager and unsubstantiated.

Historiography: 1970

That is how things stood for the next 150 years. John Armstrong was known as the author of the “Address to the Officers” and one of the leaders of the conspiracy. The idea that Hamilton and the Morrises were involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy was occasionally mentioned, but was not believed by most because the evidence was meager and unreliable. Just read any Hamilton biography written prior to 1970. Few, if any, mention Hamilton’s involvement in any sort of conspiracy. In fact, the term “Newburgh Conspiracy” was rarely used in Hamilton bios prior to 1970. Thus, up until 1970, for all intents and purposes, Hamilton had no role in the Newburgh Conspiracy and was not only completely innocent, but was often commended for being a great help to Washington in preventing a disaster by warning him and providing him with solid advice.

Then, in 1970, Richard Kohn wrote an essay called “The Inside History of the Newburgh Conspiracy.” In this essay, Kohn argued that Hamilton and the Morrises organized the Newburgh Conspiracy. Ever since, this version of history has become mainstream and Kohn’s essay is cited by nearly all who write on this subject.

The essay is too long (34 pages) and complex to quote here in full or to provide the relevant excerpts. I thoroughly encourage you to read Kohn’s essay and decide for yourself whether Hamilton was culpable. But I will give you a few short quotes from the essay to give you the gist of Kohn’s argument.

“This is speculation.”
“My speculation.”
“could imply”
“imply to me”
“does not imply.”
“in no way implies.”
“There is no direct evidence”
“circumstantial evidence”
“The evidence…is circumstantial.”
“The evidence cited, as I admitted, was circumstantial.”
“The exact nature of the group and its plans will probably never be known.”
“no proof”
“strong hints.”
“an educated guess.”
“cannot be gauged with certainty.”

There you have it! The argument that Hamilton was a leading participant in the Newburgh Conspiracy is based on speculation, implications, circumstantial evidence, and hints.

Even Richard Kohn admitted that he cannot prove his case because this conspiracy was “an event that never even happened, using evidence that probably never existed, or was immediately destroyed.”

(Richard Kohn followed up his 1970 essay with another in 1974, coauthored by C. Edward Skeen, entitled “The Newburgh Conspiracy Reconsidered” and repeated the same arguments in a 1975 book, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America.)

Hamilton as a Hero

Although John Armstrong, Richard Kohn, and their historical heirs accuse Hamilton of being involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy, there are a number of facts that are known with certainty that shows Hamilton to be blameless and even deserving of credit. We know that Hamilton forewarned Washington. We know that Washington and Hamilton were in agreement on the course to pursue. We know that Washington followed Hamilton’s advice. We know that Washington encouraged Hamilton to continue on the same course he had been pursuing in Congress. We know that Hamilton and the two Morrises became leading advisers to Washington after the conspiracy had ended, which Washington would not have done if he believed they encouraged a conspiracy to overthrow the civilian government and replace it with a military one.

As the man to warn and advise Washington, as one who fought for truth and justice throughout the affair, Hamilton deserved the utmost credit, second only to Washington for his role in quelling this conspiracy.

It is a real shame that Alexander Hamilton has been portrayed by so many biographers and historians as a villain or as an unsuspecting contributor to the Newburgh Conspiracy when, in reality, he was one of the heroes who helped Washington save the infant United States of America from impending collapse.