Conservative American historians reserve a closet that’s deeper and darker than usual, for any “founding father” who wasn’t a Bible-quoting Protestant heterosexual. And some odd boys can definitely be glimpsed through the cannon smoke of our Revolution. Among them was soldier and statesman Alexander Hamilton.
It’s a challenge to get beyond Hamilton’s image in the familiar John Trumbull portrait — the imperial posture, the powdered wig and stern expression. Indeed, Hamilton is often derided as an “aristocratic elitist.” But the real Hamilton had deeply romantic and tender sensibilities about everything from love of freedom to love of men.
Born in 1755 in the West Indies, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton, an emigrant merchant. James descended from Scotland‘s Hamiltons, an old aristocratic family. Abandoned by his father, then orphaned by his mother’s death, Alexander was able to put his checkered childhood behind him. Determined and brilliant, he got an education, immigrated to America in 1772, and passed the New York bar as a lawyer. At the outbreak of the Revolution, he was already a star of political debate and a commander of New York militia as an artillery captain. Now 20, he was short, slight, and (some thought) a bit feminine-looking. But he had a warrior’s willingness to charge into combat, so everybody nicknamed him “the Little Lion.”
By 1777, Hamilton was tapped by George Washington — one of 32 aides-de-camp that served the General during the war. Since he could be affable, witty, and a loyal friend, he was an instant hit with the other aides, and shortly rose to be Washington’s chief of staff and think tank.
One of the aides was John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens, a Carolina planter who was also president of the Continental Congress. Young Laurens was another hard-charger, and would become the love of Hamilton’s life. Many historians have discussed whether the two were actually intimate. If they were, extreme discretion was needed. Despite ideals of “religious liberty” filtering into their world, sodomy was still a capital crime. General Washington might be forced to have them hanged if there was ever a scandal.
The Boys of War
According to Arthur S. Lefkowitz in his study George Washington’s Indispensable Men, the 32 aides were a unique little corps of middle-class and upper-class men — a world unto themselves. Most were 20-something; a few were older. Many, like Washington, were Freemasons — educated in the liberationist Masonic political ideas that were sweeping the West. The General called them his “military family,” and they were on call day and night, sleeping on camp beds near his room.
The Continental army was long on patriotism, but short on pennies. The revolutionary government had no power to collect taxes or appropriate funding. So the army had to support itself. Washington’s overworked staff (several aides at any one time) did many tasks that didn’t involve fighting. Laboring with goose quills and homemade ink, Hamilton wrote thousands of letters and reports to other generals and to Congress. His writing talents helped Washington to articulate ideas relating to the war. The aides also carried messages, did intelligence and diplomatic work, arranged prisoner exchanges, even interrogated prisoners. Food, weapons, clothing and horses were scarce — the aides cadged what they could.
The army couldn’t even afford a regulation uniform. But a tailor designed one for Washington, and his aides lovingly copied it. Ham (as his buddies called him) must have looked fierce in that blue coat with epaulets, the buff vest and breeches, the cocked hat at a rakish angle, and the coveted green ribbon across the chest that showed his status as aide-de-camp.
Washington was probably a heterosexual (his adored wife Martha served as one of his aides). But the General was soft on the type of passionate and emotional “friendship” that 18th-century upper-class men often favored — not only closeted gay men for whom “friendship” cautiously shaded over into intimacy but often straight men as well. As combat veterans like gay historian Paul Hardman tell us, men at war often slip into this physical and emotional closeness as they live on the edge of life and death. Washington’s aides walked on eggs where his bad temper was concerned. But they knew the General loved having their brains, brawn, and bravery around him.
Hamilton did have his proud prickly side, so he didn’t enjoy the same degree of warmth with Washington as a few other aides did. But for many years, he did have utmost trust and respect from the General, who called him “my boy.”