The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
In the early morning Hamilton still sauntered beneath the college trees or those of Batteau Street, pondering on his studies, and abstracting himself from the resting city, but in the evenings and during half the night he inhaled the hot breath of rebellion; and the flaring torches, the set angry faces, the constant shouting, the frightened pallor of the women at the windows of the great houses on the line of march, the constant brawls with British soldiers, stormed the curb he had put on his impatient spirit. He realized that the colonies were not yet prepared to fight, and he had no thought of doing anything rash, but it was his propensity to do a thing at once if it were to be done at all, and this last indignity should result in something except talk. He was present at the meeting in the Exchange and listened carefully to all that was said, feeling that he could add to that whirlwind of ideas, but forbearing on account of his youth. His mind, by now, was so mature that he reminded himself, with some difficulty, that he was but seventeen. He was as lively and as happy as ever, but that was temperamental and would endure through all things; mentally he had no youth in him, had had little since the day he began to ask questions.
The meeting in the Fields--at which it was hoped to effect a choice of delegates by the people at large--was called for the 6th of July, and a great multitude assembled. Alexander McDougall, the first patriot to have suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Tyrant, presided, and celebrated speakers harangued. It was here that Hamilton's impatience got rid of its curb. He heard much that was good, more that was bad, little that was new; and he found the radicals illogical and the conservatives timid. Nicolas Fish and Robert Troup pushed their way through the crowd to where Hamilton stood, his uplifted face expressing his thoughts so plainly to those who knew him that these friends determined to force him to the platform.
At first he protested; and in truth, the idea, shaping concretely, filled his very legs with terror; but the young men's insistence, added to his own surging ideas, conquered, and he found himself on the platform facing a boundless expanse of three-cornered hats. Beneath were the men who represented the flower as well as the weeds of the city, all dominated by the master passion of the civilized world. There was little shade in the Fields and the day was hot. It was a crowded, uncomfortable, humid mass whose attention he was about to demand, and their minds were already weary of many words, their calves of the ruthless mosquito. They stared at Hamilton in amazement, for his slender little figure and fair curling hair, tied loosely with a ribbon, made him look a mere boy, while his proud high-bred face, the fine green broadcloth of his fashionably cut garments, the delicate lawn of his shirt and the profusion of lace with which it was trimmed, particularly about his exquisite hands, gave him far more the appearance of a court favourite than a champion of liberty. Some smiled, others grunted, but all remained to listen, for the attempt was novel, and he was beautiful to look upon.
For a moment Hamilton felt as if the lower end of his heart had grown wings, and he began falteringly and in an almost inaudible voice. Pride hastened to his relief, however, and his daily debates in college had given him assurance and address. He recovered his poise, and as ideas swam from his brain on the tide of a natural eloquence, he forgot all but the great principle which possessed him in common with that jam of weary men, the determination to inspire them to renewed courage and greater activity. He rehearsed their wrongs, emphasized their inalienable rights under the British Constitution--from which the ministerial party and a foolish sovereign had practically divorced them. He insisted that the time had come in their history to revert to the natural rights of man--upon which all civil rights were founded--since they were no longer permitted to lead the lives of self-respecting citizens, pursuing the happiness which was the first instinct of the human intelligence; they had been reduced almost to the level of their own slaves, who soon would cease to respect them.
He paused so abruptly that the crowd held its breath. Then his ringing thrilling voice sounded the first note of the Revolution. "It is war!" he cried. "It is war! It is the battlefield or slavery!"
When the deep roar which greeted the startling words had subsided, he spoke briefly of their immense natural advantages, in the event of war, the inability of England to gain any permanent advantage, and finally of the vast resources of the country, and its phenomenal future, when the "waves of rebellion, sparkling with fire, had washed back to the shores of England the wrecks of her power, her wealth, and her glory."
His manner was as fiery and impetuous as his discourse was clear, logical, and original. The great crowd was electrified. It was as if a blade of lightning had shot down from the hot blue sky to illuminate the doubting recesses of their understandings. They murmured repeatedly "It is a collegian," "a collegian," and they thundered their applause when he finished.
Troup and Fish bore him off in triumph to Fraunces' Tavern, where Stevens joined them immediately, hot, but exultant.
"I've just passed our president, looking like an infuriated bumblebee," he cried. "I know he heard your speech from some hidden point of vantage. It was a great speech, Alec. What a pity Hugh Knox, Mr. Lytton, and Benny Yard were not there to hear. I'll write them about it to-night, for St. Croix ought to burn a bonfire for a week. It was a hurricane with a brain in it that whirled you straight to these shores--as opportune for this country as for your own ambitions, for, unless I'm much mistaken, you're going to be a prime factor in getting rid of these pestiferous redcoats--we've a private room, so I can talk as I please. One tried to trip me up just now, thinking I was you."
Fish leaned across the table and looked penetratingly at Hamilton, who was flushed and nervous. The young New Yorker had a chubby face, almost feminized by a soft parted fringe, but his features were strong, and his eyes preternaturally serious.
"You've committed yourself, Hamilton," he said. "That was no college play. Whether you fight or not doesn't so much matter, but you must give us your pen and your speech. I'm no idle purveyor of compliments, but you are extraordinary, and there isn't a man living can do for the cause with his pen what you can do. Write pamphlets, and they'll be published without an hour's delay."
"Ah, I see!" cried Hamilton, gaily. "I was a bit bewildered. You think my new patriotism needs nursing. 'After all, he is a West Indian, born British, brought up under Danish rule, which is like being coddled by one's grandmother. He sympathizes with us, his mind is delighted with a new subject for analysis and discourse, but patriotism--that is impossible,' Is it not true?"
"You have read my thought," said Fish, with some confusion. "And you have a great deal to occupy your mind. I never have known anyone whose brain worked at so many things at once. I am selfish enough to want you to give a good bit of it to us."
"I never was one to make fierce demonstrations," said Alexander; "but fill up another bumper--the first has calmed my nerves, which were like to jump through my skin--and stand up, and I'll drink you a pledge."
The three other young men sprang to their feet, and stood with their glasses raised, their eyes anxiously fixed on young Hamilton. They had believed him to be preparing himself for a great career in letters, and knowing his tenacity and astonishing powers of concentration, had doubted the possibility of interesting him permanently in politics. They all had brains and experience enough--it was a hot quick time--to recognize his genius, and to conceive the inestimable benefit it could confer upon the colonial cause. Moreover, they loved him and wanted to see him famous as quickly as possible.
"Stand up on the table," cried Troup. "It is where you belong; and you're the biggest man in New York, to-day." As Hamilton, although self-confident, was modest, Troup put down his bumper, seized the hero in his big arms and swung him to the middle of the table. Then the three, raising their glasses again, stood in a semi-circle. Hamilton threw back his head and raised his own glass. His hand trembled, and his lips moved for a moment without speaking, after his habit when excited.
"The pledge! The pledge!" cried Fish. "We want it."
"It is this," said Hamilton. "I pledge myself, body and soul and brain, to the most sacred cause of the American colonies. I vow to it all my best energies for the rest of my life. I swear to fight for it with my sword; then when the enemy is driven out, and all the brain in the country needed to reconstruct these tattered colonies and unify them into one great state, or group of allied states, which shall take a respectable place among nations, to give her all that I have learned, all that my brain is capable of learning and conceiving. I believe that I have certain abilities, and I solemnly swear to devote them wholly to my country. And I further swear that never, not in a single instance, will I permit my personal ambitions to conflict with what must be the lifelong demands of this country."
He spoke slowly and with great solemnity. The hands of the three young men shook, as they gulped down a little of the wine. Hamilton rarely was serious in manner; even when discussing literature, politics, or any of the great questions before the world, his humour and wit were in constant play, a natural gift permitting this while detracting nothing from the weight of his opinions. But his words and his manner were so solemn to-day that they impressed his hearers profoundly, and they all had a vague presentiment of what the unborn Country would owe to that pledge.
"You'll keep that, Alexander," said Fish. "Perhaps it were better for you had you not made it so strong. I burn with patriotism, but I'd not have you sacrificed--"
"I've made my vows," cried Hamilton, gaily, "and I'll not have you mention the fact again that I'm not an American born. Here's not only to liberty, but to a united people under the firmest national constitution ever conceived by man."
"Amen," said Troup, "but that's looking well ahead. Hard as it will be to get England out, it will be harder still to make New York and New England love each other; and when it comes to hitching Massachusetts and Virginia about each other's necks, I vow my imagination won't budge."
"It will come," said Hamilton, "because in no other way can they continue to exist, much less become one of the nations of the earth. This war is but an interlude, no matter how long it may take. Then will come the true warfare of this country--the Great Battle of Ideas, and our real history will begin while it is raging, while we are experimenting; and there will be few greater chapters in any country. I shall take part in that battle; how, it is too soon to know, except that for union I shall never cease to strive until it is a fact. But it has grown cooler. Let us ride up to the village of Harlem and have supper under the trees."