Alexander Hamilton: “I just need to write something down.”

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Alexander Hamilton. Painting by John Trumbull (copy). (National Archives Identifier
532853)

I will always take advantage of any opportunity to promote Alexander Hamilton, and this June I have the perfect one. In conjunction with the three-month showing of Hamilton the musical in Washington, DC, this summer (and yes, I have tickets), we’re having a special exhibit of Hamilton-related documents in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building.

Even better, the documents are paired with lyrics from the musical!

From June 7 through September 19, 2018, you can see several of my very favorite documents in our holdings, including Hamilton’s handwritten Statement of Property and Debt, which he wrote just days before he died from wound inflicted by Aaron Burr in their famous duel.  

For this story, the best place to start is at the end. When Alexander Hamilton was killed in 1804, he was severely in debt. One of the many ironies about Hamilton—the first Secretary of the Treasury and the man who created the economic foundation of the United States—was that he had trouble managing his personal finances.

The document—handwritten by Hamilton himself on July 1, 1804, just 10 days before his duel—sheds light on his financial situation. In it he explained, “if an accident should happen to me,” even the sale of his land wouldn’t cover his debt. He goes on to explain his dire financial circumstances, one of which is, “That my public labours have amounted to absolute sacrifice of the interests of my family.” He had spent his entire life in service to his country at the expense of his and his family’s financial welfare. 

Hamilton had not accepted any of the benefits that should have been afforded to him from his military service. He had served in the Continental Army in many capacities, most notably as aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

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Alexander Hamilton’s Commission to take rank as Colonel, October 28, 1783. (National Archives Identifier 306689)

Hamilton also had been a member of the Confederation Congress that passed legislation establishing Revolutionary War pensions. In fact, he was a member of the committee and key supporter of the legislation, and for ethical reasons had relinquished his claim to a pension.

He also did not seek an allowance of land from the state of New York for his service in the New York militia.

At the time of his death, Hamilton was enjoying a very comfortable lifestyle. He bought his home in Harlem, “The Grange”—named after the estate of his Scottish grandfather—plus the surrounding 32 acres for $22,220 (about $425,000 in today’s money) which he mostly paid for with borrowed funds. Furnishing and maintaining The Grange and living that lifestyle required servants, which dug him even further into debt.

However, Hamilton’s decisions regarding land speculation may have been his biggest downfall— he invested in land in undeveloped areas outside the city, which did not gain in value before he died. 

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Statement by Nathaniel Pendleton regarding Alexander Hamilton. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives)

As a consequence, Hamilton’s expenses were much higher than the income he earned working long hours as a New York City lawyer notorious for undercharging his clients. One of my favorite Hamilton quotes is from the French diplomat Talleyrand, who saw Hamilton working late into the night and remarked, “I have seen a man who made the fortune of a nation laboring all night to support his family.”

According to Nathaniel Pendleton, lawyer and the “second” (assistant) in Hamilton’s duel with Burr, “Shortly after the death of General Hamilton I received a packet, Sealed and address to me, which enclosed a note from him, in substance among other things importing that that packet would only be delivered in the case of his death.”

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Statement by Nathaniel Pendleton regarding Alexander Hamilton. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives)

In the packet was the statement, along with a will and other papers, which Pendleton subsequently gave to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth  (“Eliza”). 

For Eliza this statement proved the Federal government owed Hamilton, and after his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, left office, she petitioned Congress for a pension based on her husband’s military service. As part of the documentation, she sent in the statement as well as his Commission to be Colonel. While her initial attempt to secure a pension failed, in 1816 she tried again, and Congress passed a bill granting her a full pension.

Eliza Hamilton then spent the rest of her life—and she lived until 1854, so it was a long life—defending and promoting Alexander Hamilton and preserving his legacy.

Visit the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, between June 7 and September 19, 2018, to see Alexander Hamilton’s Statement of Property and Debt and other Hamilton documents.  

Watch our Facebook live sneak peek at the exhibit:

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