Douglas Southall Freeman’s tips for historians and biographers.

Douglas Southall Freeman (1886-1953) was one of America’s best historians and biographers. Widely known for his in-depth, comprehensive research, he was among a small group that brought historical research into the modern era (but pre-computer/digital research). He is best known for his four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, three volumes on Lee’s Lieutenants, and his seven-volume biography of George Washington (the last volume written by John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, based on Freeman’s research). He won a Pulitzer for his Lee biography and won another posthumously for his Washington series.

I had previously read the 2 1/2 volumes of George Washington related to the American Revolution but now decided to attempt the entire seven volumes. This is partly for research into my next Hamilton tome but also for enjoyment as most of the series is not directly related to my current project.

I was pleasantly surprised by the “Introduction” to the first volume. In addition to explaining the purpose of the series and a bit about Washington’s early life and ancestry, he goes into his perspective on how history and biographies should be written when there is doubt regarding the facts. As any reader of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years knows, the doubts regarding Alexander Hamilton’s life and predecessors are even greater than those with Washington.

Here are some quotes from Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Introduction” to the first volume of his seven-volume George Washington biography, which I think are great tips for any historian or biographer to follow:

It has seemed best to confine the narrative to the passing event and neither to refer to later occurrences in the life of Washington nor to make comparisons with them. The aim has been to portray him, year by year, through each new experience, as if nothing were known and nothing were certain about his future. If this has excluded some analogies that might be interesting, it likewise has saved on from an overready assumption of cause and effect. When one does not anticipate, one is less apt to theorize. (p. xviii)

Regarding “traditions and myths” that may be “valid, probable or manifestly untrue,” Freeman concludes:

It is better to disappoint than to deceive. (p. xx)

In other words, Freeman disagrees with those biographers who to sell books present every fascinating tale without regard to truth. Accuracy is primary, telling a good story is secondary.

Freeman then discusses the trouble of how to present uncertainties:

The mildest signpost of the probable, as set off from the known, was the use of “apparently,” “doubtless,” “it seems,” or “no doubt.” These monitory words are embarrassingly few in the English language and they are employed with tedious frequency in this work… The alternative was the worse fault of failing to draw the line between fact and what one believed to be fact. With respect to some issues, it has been necessary to enter a blunt caveat because the evidence is disputable or contradictory. (p. xxi)

There is much more in Freeman’s “Introduction” that the historian/biographer may find of interest, including his thoughts on when and how to modernize archaic spelling, grammar, and punctuation; the term(s) to be used when speaking of the book’s subject (Washington, George, the General, etc.); when and how to introduce supporting characters in the story.

I am pleased that I find myself largely in agreement with Freeman on all these points. This could partly because I had already read 2 1/2 volumes of his work a few years back and was highly impressed. It could also be because I have discovered these same difficulties in researching and writing about Hamilton, and like Freeman decided that accuracy and precision is more important than including fictional or dubious stories. Even if you don’t like Freeman’s matter-of-fact writing style or believe that telling a good story is more important than accuracy, you certainly will learn a thing or two by reading some Douglass Southall Freeman.

Big Government and Demagoguery: Are We on the Path to Tyranny?

I recently gave a speech (twice) about how demagogues use the promise of big government to gain power. Here it is:

A “forgotten” essay by Alexander Hamilton? Reasons to be cautious.

Today, Stephen Brumwell presents a “forgotten” essay possibly written by Alexander Hamilton. Brumwell argues “there’s compelling evidence” that Hamilton penned this essay. According to Brumwell:

A long article…appeared on Thursday October 12 in The New-York Packet, and the American Advertiser… The essay of October 12, 1780, which sought to exploit the widespread anger over Arnold’s treason to revitalize the flagging and divided Patriot war-effort, was anonymous, but carried the bold, capitalized pseudonym “PUBLIUS.” Typical for that era, the same piece was swiftly re-published by other newspapers, making the front page of The Pennsylvania Gazette of October 18, 1780 (“From the New York Packet, Fishkill, October 12”) and later surfacing in The Norwich Packet, and the Weekly Advertiser on Tuesday October 24 (“From the Fish Kill Papers”).

Considering this coverage, including a conspicuous slot in one of early America’s best-known newspapers, it is surprising that neither Hamilton’s biographers nor the editors of his writings have noted this article, if only to eliminate it as the work of some other, less celebrated, “Publius.”

Publius, of course, is the pseudonym Hamilton, Madison, and Jay used to write the Federalist essays in 1787–88. Hamilton had also used it in 1778 to criticize Samuel Chase for “allegedly deploying insider knowledge in an unfair – and unpatriotic – bid to monopolize the flour market.” Read Brumwell’s post for this and more evidence he presents.

As I had done in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years regarding other essays attributed to Hamilton, I decided to do a simple stylometric analysis of this Publius essay, the complete text of which Mr. Brumwell was kind enough to provide in a link. Looking at word length and sentence length compared to known Hamilton essays, here are the results:


It clearly appears based on sentence length that Hamilton did not pen this essay. Although it is possible that Alexander Hamilton chose to write this essay in a different style, this is strong evidence against Hamilton’s authorship.

Of course, I also read this Publius essay and I think it does not read like something Hamilton wrote, but that is just the personal opinion of one person.

Mr. Brumwell also writes of an essay by A.B. that Hamilton may have also authored:

Previously unrecorded, however, is the fact that “A. B.” had also been used by the anonymous author of an article published in Loudon’s newspaper on April 20, 1780. Written at a time when Hamilton was with Washington at Morristown, New Jersey, this essay tackled a topic close to his heart: the worsening state of his country’s finances as the paper currency issued by Congress fueled rampant inflation. In particular, it criticized Congress’s decision of March 18 to fix “Continental money at forty to one.”

“A.B” was the pseudonym Hamilton used for his Continentalist essays and he may have also used it to try to convince British General Henry Clinton to trade Benedict Arnold for John André. Unfortunately, Mr. Brumwell did not provide the complete text of this essay for analysis.

I salute Mr. Brumwell for his great find and surely hope other evidence can be found regarding the authorship of these essays, but until then we must be cautious when trying to attribute anonymous works to certain people without any direct evidence.

Michael E. Newton interviewed on Gene Pisasale’s “Living History” Program

On December 2, 2015, Gene Pisasale interviewed Michael E. Newton, author of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years, about Hamilton’s wartime service on his “Living History” radio show.

“Alexander Hamilton’s Revolutionary War Service” by Michael E. Newton at Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown, NJ

The AHA Society presents a talk by author and historian Michael E. Newton on Alexander Hamilton’s indispensable services during the Revolutionary War, followed by a book signing of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. The talk took place at Washington’s Headquarters Museum, Morristown – NJ, as part of the third day of Events of the CelebrateHAMILTON 2015.

Michael E. Newton talks about ‘Alexander Hamilton Before the American Revolution’ on C-SPAN American History TV

My apologies for posting this at such a late date but I only now noticed that I never shared this on my blog (you may have seen it on my other social media sites).

C-SPAN’s description: “Michael E. Newton talked about his book, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years, about the early life of the Founding Father from the West Indies. Mr. Newton talked about his research process and how Hamilton’s early experiences helped prepare him to become one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers.”

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The Hamilton Musical: Let’s not confuse art with history

In a piece about the Hamilton musical, The New Yorker gave examples of how Republican presidential candidates can learn from it. Of course, the musical is not 100% historically accurate, so it may not be wise to learn from it rather than from real history. Here are two quotes from the musical which were included in the article as lessons for the candidates:

“Everything is legal in New Jersey.” Duelling was not legal in New Jersey. New Yorkers chose Weehawken for their duels not because it was legal but because it was a secluded spot (a beach backed by a cliff).

Hamilton and Lafayette declare, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” Lafayette was not an immigrant. He came to fight in the Continental Army and spent much time in the US during and after the war, but he never moved to the US or set up residency here. But there were many Europeans who did stay in the US after the war, most notably the Baron von Steuben.

There is no doubt we can learn much from art such as the Hamilton musical, but let’s be sure we don’t confuse a musical based on history, which uses much poetic license, and real history.