The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book III. The Little Lion
Hamilton's body succumbed to the climax of Trenton and Princeton upon months of hardship and exposure, and he was in hospital for a week with a rheumatic fever. But Troup, whose exchange had been effected, was with him most of the time, and his convalescence was made agreeable by many charming women. He was not the only brilliant young man in the army, for Troup, Fish, Burr, Marshall, were within a few months or, at most, a year or two of his age, and there were many others; men had matured early in that hot period before the Revolution, when small boys talked politics, and even the women thought of little else; but Hamilton, through no fault of his, had inspired his friends with the belief that he was something higher than human, and they never tired of sounding his praises. Moreover, Washington had not hesitated to say what he thought of him, and the mere fact that he had won the affection of that austere Chieftain was enough to give him celebrity. At all events, he was a dazzling figure, and pretty women soothed many a weary hour. As for Troup, who was unpleasantly anatomical, he had a fresh story for every day of the horrors of the prison cattle-ship Mentor, where half the prisoners had died of filth, starvation, and fever, from putrid water and brutal treatment.
But never was there a more impatient invalid than Hamilton. He was astonished and disgusted that his body should defy his mind, and at the first moment possible he was up and about his duties with the army at Morristown. Troup was ordered to join the army under Gates in the North.
Morristown was a natural fortress, a large fertile valley, protected by precipitous hills and forests, yet with defiles known to the Americans, through which they could retreat if necessary. It was within striking distance of New Brunswick and Amboy, in which towns Washington kept the British cooped up for months, not permitting them to cut a stick of forest wood without fighting for it. "Here was seen," to quote Hamilton, "the spectacle of a powerful army straitened within narrow limits by the phantom of a military force, and never permitted to transgress those limits with impunity; in which skill supplied the place of means, and disposition was the substitute for an army."
Congress had invested Washington with such extraordinary powers after the brilliant exploit at Trenton, that in Europe he was called "The Dictator of America." Therein lay the sole cause of the ultimate victory of the Revolutionists, and had the States been more generous, and less jealous of delegating powers to Congress, he would have driven out the British in short order.
Mrs. Washington had joined her General--she kept an eye on him--at Freeman's Tavern, which had been converted into comfortable headquarters, and he was happy in his military family: Colonel Harrison, indefatigable and fearless, affectionately known as "Old Secretary"; Tench Tilghman of Maryland, young, accomplished, cheerful, devoted to Washington and serving without pay, for his fortune was considerable; Richard Kidder Meade, sprightly, enthusiastic, always willing to slave; and John Fitzgerald,--all in an attitude of perpetual adoration. But he lacked a secretary of the requisite ability, and as soon as he heard of Hamilton's return to camp he sent for him.
Hamilton was feeling almost well, and he walked rapidly across the village green to headquarters, delighted at the prospect of seeing Washington again. He had acquired a military air and walked more erectly than ever, for he was somewhat sensitive of his juvenile appearance. He found Washington in a front room on the second floor. The General wore his usual blue and buff, and looked less harassed and worn than when he had last seen him. He rose and shook hands warmly with Hamilton, who thanked him again for the messages he had received while in hospital.
"I would have had you brought here if there had been any place to make you comfortable; and I am going to ask you to come and live with me now--as my aide and secretary."
Hamilton sprang to his feet impetuously. "Oh, sir!" he exclaimed, "I don't want to leave the regular line of promotion! I don't want to leave my men. I'm much attached to them. And I'll not deny my ambition, sir; I want opportunities to distinguish myself. I've already refused two generals. This war will last for years. There is no reason in the world why I should not be a general in three."
"No," said Washington, "there is none; there is every possibility of your becoming one of the most brilliant figures on the revolutionary battlefields. I admit that, and I understand your ambition. Nevertheless, I think I can prove to you that there is another way in which you can serve your country better. I know your uncompromising sense of duty and your high patriotism, and I am sure you will accept my invitation when I prove to you that while there are hundreds to fight valorously, even brilliantly, there is scarcely a man I can get to write my letters who can do more than punctuate properly or turn a sentence neatly. You must know the inexpressible value of a brilliant accomplished versatile secretary, with a brain capable of grasping every question that arises--and you can imagine how many of that sort have come my way. I have been driven nearly distracted, dictating, explaining, revising--when I have so much else to think of. Besides the constant correspondence with the Congress and the States, something else is always turning up--to-day it is the exchange of prisoners, a most important and delicate matter. Were you my secretary, you would also be my brain: a word would be sufficient. I could trust you so implicitly that if matters pressed I could confidently sign my name to whatever you wrote without reading it over. There is no one else living of whom I can say that. You are the most useful young man in America, and if you will give your great brain to this country from this time on, she will be far more grateful to you than if you merely continued to fight, splendidly as you have done that. And I need you--I have no words to tell you how much."
"Sir," said Hamilton, deeply touched, "no human being could withstand such an appeal, and your words of praise are glory enough. I will come as soon as you say, and do the best I can."
"Come at once. The British persist in treating us as rebels. It is for you, with your inspired pen, to force and coax them to regard us with the respect an educated thinking people--not a horde of ignorant rebels, as they imagine--deserve. If you do that, you will do a greater service to your country than if you rose to be first in military rank. Here are some notes. When you have finished, write to Congress and ask for the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel; and move up here to-day, if possible. I cannot tell you how happy I shall be to have you a member of my family."
Washington had won his point. A shrewd judge of men, he had calculated upon Hamilton succumbing to an appeal to his sense of patriotic duty--the strongest passion in his passionate nature. Much as he loved Hamilton, he had no hesitation in using him, and our petted young hero was to learn what work meant for the first time in his life. He wrote most of the day, often half the night; but although he chafed angrily at the confinement, beat many a tattoo on the floor with his heels, and went for a hard ride more than once that he might keep his temper, the result was that mass of correspondence, signed "George Washington," which raised the commander of the American forces so high in the estimation of Europe, adding to his military renown the splendour of a profound and luminous intellect.
There was, also, some correspondence with the Congress regarding the disposition of his artillery men. He insisted upon definite provision for them, and they were permitted to enlist in the Continental Army. They loved him, and the final parting on March 18th, with cannon as well as men!--made him ill for half a day.
Otherwise his life at Headquarters was very pleasant Tilghman and Meade became two of the most congenial friends he ever made. The tavern was comfortable, and he had a room to himself for a time. The dining room reunions were agreeable in spite of their formality. Besides the amiable military family, and the most motherly of women, who knit him stockings and kept his wardrobe in order, there were frequent visitors. The Livingston girls were spending the winter with their aunt, Lady Sterling, and, with their beautiful cousin, the Lady Kitty Alexander, often drove over to a five o'clock dinner or the more informal supper. The Boudinots and Morgans, the generals in camp at Morristown and their wives, and the more distinguished officers, were frequently dined at Headquarters. Washington sat halfway in the table's length, with Mrs. Washington opposite. Hamilton was placed at the head of the table on the day of his arrival, a seat he retained while a member of the family. The Chief encouraged him to talk, and it must be confessed that he talked from the time he sat down till the meal finished. His ideas were always on the rush, and talking was merely thinking aloud. As he expressed himself with wit and elegance, and on subjects which interested them all profoundly, illuminating everything he touched, old men and young would lean forward and listen with respect to the wisdom of a young man who was yet an infant in the eyes of the law. How he escaped being insufferably spoiled can only be explained by the ceaseless activity of his brain, and the fact that the essence of which prigs are made was not in him. That he was utterly without commonplace conceit is indisputable, for he was the idol of the family. Harrison christened him "The Little Lion," a name his friends used for their aptest designation as long as he lived, and assumed a paternal relation which finished only with the older man's death. The Lady-in-chief made such a pet of him that he was referred to in the irreverent Tory press as "Mrs. Washington's Tom-cat."
"Alexander," said Kitty Livingston to him, one day, "have a care. You are too fortunate. The jealous gods will smite you."
But Hamilton, thinking of those terrible months in the previous year, of mental anxiety and physical hardship, when, in bitter weather, he had often gone hungry and insufficiently clothed, and of his present arduous duties, concluded there was a fine balance in his affairs which doubtless would placate the gods.