Home » Perils of Posterity: Alexander Hamilton and a Sex Scandal: Doug Ambrose at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Perils of Posterity: Alexander Hamilton and a Sex Scandal: Doug Ambrose at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Doug Ambrose – TRANSCRIPT

We are in an Alexander Hamilton moment. Not only do we have the musical that you all – I hope, have heard of. That little showdown in New York. But to show that we are really in that moment, he has a bobblehead. And I didn’t even bring this, this was hanging out in the green room, so he is everywhere. But I want to talk about an episode from Hamilton’s life that is at the center of the musical. And one that many of you have heard about, which is this first great sex scandal in American history, – the Reynolds affair.

And what I am fascinated by, about the Reynolds affair, is the way in which it sort of works on two levels that we as historians or students of history, or people who want to think historically work with. First, is the universal transhistorical way in which, just basic human emotions and actions, allow us to sort of meet people from the past in a very intimate, familiar way. This doesn’t need any historical context. This is Maria Reynolds on the left, and that’s Alexander Hamilton — Lin Manuel Miranda portraying Alexander Hamilton. Here it is.

This is the lust, the betrayal, the heartbreak of Eliza. And if you know the musical, she sings this beautiful song called “Burn”, where she talks about he broke her heart, he broke her heart. And again, this is something where we just empathize without even thinking. There’s the person done wrong, there’s the man who broke his vows. There’s the spouse who strayed.

That doesn’t require us to think historically. It allows, it requires us to think as human beings. Right? That we empathize with this tragic thing. This, which is the Reynolds Pamphlet. It’s not called the Reynolds Pamphlet, but Observation of Certain Documents. This requires to exercise our historical imagination.

And there’s nothing, someways, more difficult to do because one thing is that when we encounter people from the past, even from the recent past, since this is only a couple hundred years ago, they baffled us. Had they behaved in ways that don’t seem logical to us. They proceed upon assumptions, and pre-perception, and world view, and beliefs, and fears, that are foreign to us. And it’s what we need to do, students of history, is imagine a different world that is operating on different principles. And that’s what this is about, because this bizarre thing, this pamphlet.

Just to show you, I brought one of the originals with me from the Hamilton’s special collection. This is from 1797. This is given to Hamilton college by one of the direct descendants of Alexander Hamilton. Please don’t spill your coffee on it. When I was given it to by the special collections guy, he said, this is your job on the line. This is, this is the pamphlet.

But look, it’s a long pamphlet. He wrote the seventy-two page pamphlet to refute these charges. That he was. The charge of speculation. Again, it’s Alexander Hamilton when he was secretary of treasury. Now one of these things bizarre about this is this was 1797. He’s no longer secretary of treasury, he’s not seeking political office. He’s a private individual in New York, and these were old charges that back when he was secretary of treasury, he had colluded with this guy called James Reynolds, and he had used his position as secretary of treasury to sort of enrich himself. Alright? These charges had been investigated.

In other words, most of his friends said, “just leave it alone, leave it alone”, and instead he writes a seventy-page pamphlet in which he publicly humiliates his wife, in which he basically informs his wife that he had conducted this wrong affair with this woman, Maria Reynolds, while she was actually pregnant with one of their children, and he sent her back up to Albany. It’s a incredibly tragic story, and we have to ask ourselves, why did he do this? The answer, at least I think one of the main answers, because God knows there could have been a lot, one of them is that Hamilton and Eliza, this is what’s interesting is that, she shared with him this – what she calls, Eliza calls it in the song “obsession with his legacy.” That he was concerned with how posterity, not his contemporaries so much, but how posterity, us, future generations were going to remember him. And what he couldn’t abide by, what he couldn’t live with was the notion that anybody in this room would think that he had used his public office for his own personal enrichment.

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That he would have taken that public trust and violated it in this vulgar way to enrich himself. So what he do instead, “All I did was have an affair, and got blackmailed for it, right? That’s what I did. But I didn’t abuse the public trust. I have to do this because I have to make sure that future generations know what I was about, and this is something that again, is a historically specific kind of idea. Hamilton once said. Look at this, he lives in an age in which the belief in a heavenly reward, that one lives one’s life to achieve a heavenly reward. It’s losing its hold on a lot of people Hamilton being one of them. Right? He was not a very serious religious man until later in his life, especially after the death of his son, Philip.

But in this time, he and a bunch of people in this generation – again, this is happening in the greater Atlantic world, this is the Enlightenment, this is the age in which again, the idea of a divine judge who’s going to determine whether your actions were virtuous or vicious. That’s kind of fading away, and what they, what these people are searching for is well, “what do we put in its place?” “What is going to allow us to behave in a way that is virtuous?” if it’s not for satisfying some divine judge. And what a lot of these guys did, and women, is that they put posterity in that place. Diderot, the French philosopher, he said, “posterity is to the philosopher, to the statesman, what the afterlife is to the believer.” It’s what you live for.

You don’t live for the moment, you don’t live for celebrity or popularity. Alexander Hamilton would never win in a popularity contest. But he didn’t care. That’s not what he was doing what he was doing to achieve. That’s not what he sought.

What he sought was that we would be remembering him, as somebody who contributed to something beyond himself, and beyond his own immediate gratification, his own immediate context. This is what he lived for, and in many ways it’s what Eliza shared with him, that his name would be remembered. There’s where we need to look at this pamphlet. We need to look at what he says in the pamphlet. One of the things that he hated, was the idea that his name would be passed on with what he called “dishonour” “dishonour”.

Look at this. These guys they sought glory, and they sought fame. Hamilton once said that the love of fame is the ruling passion of the noblest minds. Now, again, that’s a line if you know “The love of fame is a ruling passion.” Okay, we can see that. Everybody wants to be famous, right? They want celebrated, they want the paparazzi, that guy down there, taking your picture, right? But for him it was a noble mind. So that means, we got to historicise “fame.” It was not celebrity. It was not popularity. It was not notoriety. It wasn’t success. It wasn’t financial gain.

Fame was being remembered. Being remembered again as somebody who put the public good above their private interest, who didn’t use power to engrandize the self, right? To make him the center of it. That’s why he loathed Burr Aaron. Burr to him was a guy who wanted power for Burr’s sake. Hamilton wanted power.

Hamilton wanted fame in order to do something that future generations would look back with reverence, with respect. And the contrary was true as well, right? If you used your public office, if you used this power that you were given because of your merit or because of whatever reason. If you used it to advance yourself, to enrich yourself, to indulge your own private pleasure then history will look at you with contempt. You’ll be dishonoured, and this is what this thing, this is why he has to answer this.

He has to refute this charge because what this pamphlet was trying to say, this that had accused him, he says that these pamphlets, this new kind of scurrilous media, this print journalism, kind of what we’d called muckraking, you know, scandal sheets, right? This thing that’d accused Hamilton of while you’re secretary of treasury of using his position, again, to enrich himself, to speculate, insider trading, insider information, and he was doing with this guy James Reynolds, and what Hamilton did was that, this whole type of journalism, this is what it seeks to do.

Just listen to this. It seeks to do to people like Hamilton, to arouse to the jealousy and distrust of the present generation. Right? So they want, you know “Hamilton is a dishonest guy. He’s a corrupt official.” But listen to this, and if possible, to transmit their names with dishonor to posterity. That’s — that’s worse. It’s one thing if my contemporaries think I am a corrupt guy, but I can’t live with the assumption that my name to be transmitted to posterity with dishonor.

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After all, that’s why I live. That’s why I’m doing what I am doing. So he has to, he has to address this, and he does so in a way that is mind-boggling. Right here. Here’s the key part. “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for the purpose of improper, pecuniary speculation. My real crime is amorous connection with his wife.” He doesn’t sort of sugarcoat it. Right? There it is, right? “Amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.” Okay, there it is.

So this is a blackmail scheme, and I was going to see this guy to pay him the blackmail money, because he was going to tell my wife if I didn’t pay him. It’s – that’s what it is. Seventy more pages to substantiate that claim. But this is the passage we have to, that’s the easy part. Okay, there he is, confessing it.

Right? But the next paragraph, this is the one that really makes us have to sort of say, “This is a different world, something else was going on here than just a guy fessing up to infidelity. It’s a guy who is expressing this motion that he and his wife agree on mind going to public with this humiliation of her, and the humiliation of myself. “This confession”, he writes, “is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardour of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang, which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love.” How nice.

But then listen to this, “but that bosom, Eliza Hamilton, my wife, whom I am just telling everybody I cheated on for a considerable period of time. But that bosom will approve, that even at so great an expense, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness.” She will approve because there’s a more serious stain than me being a cheating bastard, and that she cannot live with that name being soiled with that more serious stain. The public too will I trust excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.” It has all that 18th century you get the point.

This more serious stain, this more heinous crime is this speculation. Is this, violating my public office for my enrichment. And why is this a more serious stain? Because that’s one that history shouldn’t forgive me for. History might forget or forgive my infidelity, but it should not, and he would say “it cannot”, excuse my abuse of my public office for my personal enrichment. So he writes the pamphlet, painful pamphlet, and Eliza stays with him.

A little different from the musical, she stays with him. Their marriage doesn’t just survive, it continues to be this joint project to make Alexander Hamilton a man that posterity is going to remember. Fast forward a little bit 1804, as he’s getting ready to go across to the Jersey side, and face this guy Aaron Burr up on the cliffs of Weehawken, you all know about that? Doesn’t turn out too well, right? He writes the last letter to his wife. It’s a fascinating letter, it’s a great letter, it’s a short letter, and it was written on July 4th, just for that “woo”, you know.

Remember Jefferson and Adams both die on the 50th anniversary on July 4th, you know that, okay right. Hamilton writes his last letter to his wife, and listen to this first part. The first part of the letter is exactly what we started with. This is a human being, who again, you need no historical understanding to get what he’s getting at, to understand what he’s expressing. “This letter, my dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you unless I’ve shall first terminated my earthly career.”

Again, that means “I”m dead” “To begin as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview,” aka the duel, again, “the interview.”

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If I could have avoided the interview, listen, “my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive.” You all feel that, right? Can anyone not be moved by this expression of love for his wife and his children? Then it strikes you. He’s writing this letter because he’s getting ready to go across the river, and exchange gunshots with a guy who despises him. So you love your wife and kids so much, don’t do that It’s risky business.

Why in God’s name would you do this? Remember, he has seven kids. He had eight, and one died in a duel! The play, break your heart. You watch the play, that scene Philip dying, it breaks your heart. And yet, here he is, saying “I’m going to leave you, and the six the oldest daughter is mentally unstable after the death of her brother, and then there are six minor children. I’m going to go shot that Aaron Burr.” What in God’s name is he doing? But then you read on, and that first paragraph, love, children, wife, okay, we get that. The next paragraph, you got to use your historical imagination. You got to go into that world, into that code, into those assumptions, those believes, those fears, those expectations, that are so radically different than what made most of us today.

“But it was not possible to avoid the interview, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem.” You get it? You wouldn’ t respect me if I didn’t do this. You know how important it is for my name to stand up to Burr, to risk my life in defence of my honour. If you don’t do this, you’re dishonoured. You’re a cowar.d

You’re — you’re a selfish person. Worried about the security and safety of your body, rather than the integrity of your name. So you know why I’m going across the river, Eliza “I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.”

I mean, he knows, the risk of dueling. Why do it? Because there’re something more important, her esteem, which is tied to that name, which is tied to that character, which is tied to that notion that history would remember him as a man of honour, of nobility, of virtue “The consolations of Religion.” This part you’ve got to read because it’s so great “The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world Adieu, best of wives and best of Women. Embrace my darling Children for me Ever yours, AH.” And he dies. You know he dies.

We all know that. But remember to that, Eliza lives for 50 years 50 years! And what did she do? Nothing is more. She does a lot. There was the orphanage.

But nothing matter to her more during those 50 years, than preserving and promoting the reputation of her beloved Hamilton. She takes on the project. She makes it her personal mission to make sure that history will remember what my husband did as a public servant, what he did to building up this nation. She never forgets the infidelity, but she doesn’t want us to focus on that. That’s not what he was about.

Her life’s work was bound up in that project. She spends 50 years getting it right, so that history will always remember him in his public capacity as a faithful servant of the public, as a man of integrity and honour, as a public official. In our time, where “fame” has a different meaning than it did for Hamilton and Eliza, we may do well to record, to think about what our public servants seek. What ambition fuels them, and that may remind us that we still have stuff to learn from that generation of imperfect men and women like Hamilton and Eliza, whose personal lives were filled with moral lapses, flaws, and sin, but who tried to live public lives of integrity, and honour, who wanted to be remembered as worthy guardians of the public’s trust. That is a legacy that we ought to remember.

That’s a story that we should tell. Thank you very much.

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