Tag Archives: history

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/

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.

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.

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.

http://wche1520.libsyn.com/living-history-12-2-15

Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for sale.

The wait is over. After four years of hard work, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for sale.

The print edition of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years can be purchased at:
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The ebook of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years can be purchased and downloaded from:
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Leonard Zax’s review of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years

“We now live in the America that Alexander Hamilton launched. Just as Hamilton’s star continues to rise, Michael E. Newton has moved forward with a painstakingly researched and carefully documented biography of the most remarkable of our Founding Fathers. Hamilton’s life story is complex, richly layered, and deserving of the meticulous attention to detail that Michael E. Newton’s work will provide for generations of Americans.”

~ Leonard A. Zax is President of the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson. Mr. Zax is is a lawyer and a city planner with more than thirty years of experience in community development and historic preservation projects throughout the United States. A former partner in the law firm of Latham & Watkins, he has taught a course on Historic Preservation and Urban Revitalization at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Eastside High School, the University of Chicago, the city planning program at Harvard Design School, and Harvard Law School. William Paterson University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 2010.

Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for pre-order.

“Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years” Synopsis

Michael E. Newton's Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years

Even though Alexander Hamilton was among the most important Founding Fathers, less is known about his early life than that of any other major Founder. Relatively few records have been found regarding Hamilton’s birth, childhood, and origins in the West Indies. Alexander Hamilton “rarely . . . dwelt upon his personal history” and never recorded his life’s story. Most of Hamilton’s correspondence prior to 1777 was lost during the American Revolution. This has resulted in many gaps in Alexander Hamilton’s biography, which has given rise to much conjecture regarding the details of his life. Relying on new research and extensive analysis of the existing literature, Michael E. Newton presents a more comprehensive and accurate account of Alexander Hamilton’s formative years.

Despite being orphaned as a young boy and having his birth be “the subject of the most humiliating criticism,” Alexander Hamilton used his intelligence, determination, and charisma to overcome his questionable origins and desperate situation. As a mere child, Hamilton went to work for a West Indian mercantile company. Within a few short years, Hamilton was managing the firm’s St. Croix operations. Gaining the attention of the island’s leading men, Hamilton was sent to mainland North America for an education, where he immediately fell in with the country’s leading patriots. After using his pen to defend the civil liberties of the Americans against British infringements, Hamilton took up arms in the defense of those rights. Earning distinction in the campaign of 1776–77 at the head of an artillery company, Hamilton attracted the attention of General George Washington, who made him his aide-de-camp. Alexander Hamilton was soon writing some of Washington’s most important correspondence, advising the commander-in-chief on crucial military and political matters, carrying out urgent missions, conferring with French allies, negotiating with the British, and helping Washington manage his spy network. As Washington later attested, Hamilton had become his “principal and most confidential aid.” After serving the commander-in-chief for four years, Hamilton was given a field command and led the assault on Redoubt Ten at Yorktown, the critical engagement in the decisive battle of the War for Independence. By the age of just twenty-five, Alexander Hamilton had proven himself to be one of the most intelligent, brave, hard-working, and patriotic Americans.

Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years tells the dramatic story of how this poor immigrant emerged from obscurity and transformed himself into the most remarkable Founding Father. In riveting detail, Michael E. Newton delivers a fresh and fascinating account of Alexander Hamilton’s origins, youth, and indispensable services during the American Revolution.