Sunday, January 25, 2015

Alexander Hamilton's Scandals

Alexander Hamilton is one of the most powerful politicians in U.S. history to have never held the title of President of the United States. Some of the highlights of Hamilton's illustrious political career include:
  • Signing the U.S. Constitution
  • Shaping American economic policy as the first Secretary of the Treasury in U.S. History
  • Masterminding the Bank of the United States
  • Founding America's first political party, the Federalists
Hamilton is so beloved that he is one of only two non-Presidents currently featured on U.S. currency (Benjamin Franklin being the other). His mythos is only furthered by his untimely demise in a legendary duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr.

Hamilton has been featured on the ten dollar bill since 1861.

Yet, Hamilton's story is much more complex than that of an accomplished politician who meets a tragic end. While Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, Hamilton's career was rocked by a pair of scandals that nearly cut his political career short.

In 1791, Hamilton began what would amount to a three-year extramarital affair with one Maria Reynolds (and perhaps even her sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, too!). Such arrangements were not entirely uncommon in the late eighteenth century. What was unusual was how Maria Reynolds' husband handled the situation when he found out his wife was sleeping with the Secretary of the Treasury. Rather than seeking to restore his honor through a duel, James Reynolds decided to take advantage of Hamilton's wealth and public status by blackmailing him. Mr. Reynolds charged Hamilton a fee to see his wife; in exchange, it was agreed that no news would surface concerning the high-ranking official's scandalous behavior.

Elizabeth Hamilton remained loyal to her husband throughout his affairs.

To make matters worse, Hamilton was accused of abusing his power as Secretary of the Treasury by providing insider information concerning bond-buying auctions to certain acquaintances - including James Reynolds. Ironically, Hamilton decided to provide his political enemies with the love letters he wrote to Maria Reynolds as evidence that he was not engaged in insider trading. Of course it was only a matter of time before news of both the extramarital and financial scandals became public.

Hamilton's legacy might have been overshadowed by these scandals had a powerful friend not publicly voiced his support. That man was non-other than the hero of the Revolutionary War and First President of the United States - George Washington. After Washington vocally supported Hamilton at his lowest, the scandals all but vanished from the public mind. And so it is that Hamilton is remembered for his accomplishments, rather than his indiscretions. As the expression goes, "It pays to have friends in high places."

Additional Resources

Alexander Hamiltonby Ron Chernow

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Benjamin Franklin's Dating Advice

Benjamin Franklin is known to have been a man of many talents. Statesman, scientist, diplomat, postmaster, printer, and horticulturist were just some of his titles. Franklin's diverse life experiences also made him a great source of wisdom, much of which he compiled in (Poor Richard's Almanac). One of the most fascinating yet often overlooked topics within the Almanac is that of love.

Franklin's conflicted attitude towards love and marriage was reflected both in his writings and in his personal life. Franklin opted to forgo a ceremonious marriage and instead participated in a common law marriage. He had two children with his common law spouse, Deborah Read. Although Franklin only publicly acknowledged having one illegitimate son, it was widely rumored that there were more, both at home and abroad. His wariness of traditional marriage can be seen not just in his affairs, but also in his writings. "He that goes far to marry, will either deceive or be deceived," and, "Where there's marriage without love, there will be love without marriage" are just two of his aphorisms that express an ambiguity towards the institution of marriage (Poor Richard's Almanac). Franklin even seemed to express mixed feelings towards love. "If you would be loved, love and be lovable," was tempered by, "If Jack's in love, he's no judge of Jill's beauty."

Franklin's  complex views on love and marriage are further evidenced in his 1745 letter entitled, "Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress." Franklin begins by encouraging the unknown reader to opt for a traditional marriage. If he insists on maintaining his sexual freedom, however, then Franklin recommends the company of older women. Franklin's seven reasons why he prefers older women to their younger counterparts are as follows:

1. They are smarter, more worldly and better conversationalists.

2. As older women become less attractive with age, they become more subservient and useful to men.

3. One need not worry about impregnating an older woman (and illegitimate children are an "inconvenience").

4. They are more skilled at maintaining secrecy during an affair.

5. Although the face and upper body are the first to droop with age in women, their lower bodies are still "firm." Thus, simply place a basket over the woman's face and upper body and "regarding only what is below the girdle, it is impossible of two women to know an old from a young one."

6. It is less sinful to have an affair with an older woman.

7. Sleeping with an older woman will make her happy, whereas sleeping with a younger woman might make her feel guilty.

Benjamin Franklin: Proof-reading the Declaration of Independence or editing a dating advice letter?

Despite listing no less than seven (quite scandalous) advantages to sleeping with older women, Franklin is careful to cover his tracks by concluding his letter, "But I still advise you to marry directly."

Franklin's attitude towards love was conflicted. He praises the virtues of marriage and encourages his friend to wed, yet also provides detailed advice on having affairs. He was married with two children, yet he engaged in affairs and fathered illegitimate children. Through these actions and writings, Franklin perhaps reveals the true nature of love and marriage - that they are indeed paradoxical.

Additional Resources

"Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress" (Benjamin Franklin)

Poor Richard's Almanac (Benjamin Franklin)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

George Washington's Lie

If George Washington really did declare, "I cannot tell a lie, father," he was lying. George Washington led a military detachment which murdered a French ambassador and his men, a fact which he both admitted and denied (How you ask? Just wait and see...). It is this little known massacre, known as Jumoville's Glen, that contributed to the start of the Seven Years War in Europe (called the French and Indian War in America). Washington's actions were so significant that they led the French philosophe Voltaire to remark, "Such was the complication of political interests that a cannon-shot fired in America could give the signal that set Europe ablaze."

Jumonville's Glen (also called Jumonville's Clearing) took place before Washington was the least bit famous. He was a Virginia land surveyor who volunteered to lead a mission into the Ohio River Valley. The year was 1753 and the British and French were officially at peace with one another. Washington's task was twofold. His primary objective was to deliver a letter to the commander of the French army on behalf of King George ordering the French to withdraw from the Ohio River Valley. His second goal was to map the Ohio River Valley and report on French military strength and troop movements.

The British and French were both interested in the Ohio River Valley because of its rich natural resources, namely fur and timber. Control over the Ohio River was also a concern for both countries. On his expedition, Washington recruited Iroquois Chief Tanaghrisson and his men to escort him to the French (called "Half King" by the British).

Washington was welcomed by the French in their first encounter. The two parties dined and drank before Washington set out to Fort Le Boeuf, where the French General was located. Upon delivering King George's Letter, the French General curtly replied that the Ohio River Valley belonged to the French and that all Brits were considered trespassers.

When Washington returned to Virginia with the the French General's reply, he was ordered back to the Ohio River Valley to construct a British fort. The fort was to be located near the French Fort Duquense, which was already under construction. Once Washington returned to the Ohio River Valley Half King informed him that a party of thirty Frenchmen was camped near the construction site of the British fort.

Half King's intention was vengeance. His parents had supposedly been cooked and then eaten by the French, and he was looking to settle the score by killing as many Frenchmen as possible. It is unsurprising then that Half King encouraged Washington to ambush the French campsite. Fred Anderson's assessment of the situation reveals the twenty-two year old's inexperience and poor-decision making skills.

"Overlooking the fact that England and France were not officially at war, forgetting that the French had not attacked the party at the Forks and that Dinwiddie [Washington's commander] had ordered him to warn all Frenchmen away before he engaged in hostilities, Washington allowed himself to be persuaded to use the Indian tactic of a surprise attack."
The surprise attack lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. One of Washington's men died while 14 of the French lay dead or wounded. Joseph de Jomenville, the leader of the French outfit, lay wounded and waving a letter in the air when the firing had ceased. The letter was from the French governor of Canada and stated that the British must vacate the Ohio River Valley because it belonged to the French. In other words, Washington had launched surprise attack on a French diplomatic envoy.

In response to the wounded Jomenville's frantic waving, Half King rushed and decapitated him. At that moment, the Iroquois fell on the wounded French, murdering, scalping, and stripping any survivors. One Frenchman's decapitated head was even impaled on a stick.

Jumonville Glen, where Washington led a surprise attack on a French diplomatic envoy

Realizing the gravity of his actions, Washington scrambled and constructed what was aptly named "Fort Necessity." The "fort" was no more than a series of vertical logs surrounding an ammunition and weapons cache in the form of a shed.

Reconstruction of Fort Necessity at Fort Necessity National Battlefield
When the fort was soon thereafter surrounded by French troops from Fort Duquesne, Washington surrendered (the date was July 4!). The French General, none other than the brother of Joseph de Jomenville, allowed Washington and his men to return to Virginia under one condition: that Washington sign an agreement stating that neither he nor his men would take up arms for the next year. Washington gladly signed the document. What Washington would later claim that he did not "understand" was that the document also stated he had "assassinated" Joseph de Jomenville. Washington denied this point until his death. He claimed he didn't not understand the document and admitted no wrongdoing. In written accounts of his time in the Ohio River Valley, Washington consistently omitted the actions of the Half King and Iroquois. Moreover, Washington's entire account of Jumonville Glen differed significantly from that of the lone French survivor.

The truth may be buried with Washington, but the events in this saga raise important questions, such as:

"Should one be held accountable for signing a document they do not understand?" and

"Was Washington telling the truth, or protecting his reputation?"

Additional Resources

George Washington : Writings (Library of America)

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

America's Hidden History (Kenneth C. Davis)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Napoleon's Wives

Napoleon was a brilliant military, political, and marriage strategist. Yes, marriage strategist. The famous Frenchman married twice - first to Josephine de Beaumarchais, a widow whose husband was murdered in the Reign of Terror, and then to Marie Louise, daughter of Austrian Emperor Francis I. Both of Napoleon's marriages were predominantly governed by political and social calculations.

Napoleon and his first wife seem to have been motivated to marry by more than just love. Josephine de Beauharnais was a widow in search of a husband, father to her children, and a financier for her well-known shopping habit. In her relationships with the upper echelon of French society, Josephine was never able to satisfy all of her needs - until she met Napoleon, a major-general in the French Army.

In Josephine, Napoleon saw a mother to his future heir and a public showpiece whom he could mold to his liking. Napoleon began and ended his relationship with Josephine on his terms. He forced her to change her name from "Rose" to "Josephine" shortly after meeting her. Letters written between Napoleon and Josephine reveal sparks of love, but only amidst jealousy and a desire for control on the part of Napoleon. Perhaps his true emotions towards Josephine were expressed when she failed to bear him a son - and Napoleon proceeded to divorce her.

This image of Napoleon and Josephine captures the spirit of their marriage.
Once Napoleon was Emperor, his quest for a second marriage was governed totally by political savvy. Marie Louise was a pawn in the chess match being played amongst the leaders of Europe. Whereas Napoleon may have at least initially felt some attraction towards Josephine, he did not mince words regarding Marie Louise. Of his second wife he remarked, "I have married a womb." In fact, Napoleon was not even present for the marriage ceremony! Marie Louise's uncle represented Napoleon in the marriage which took place in Austria.

Marie Louise's interest in the marriage was one of survival. She did not wish to disrupt the delicate transaction in which she was involved. Had she rebuffed Napoleon's proposal, she would have disgraced both her family and country. Indeed, when Marie Louise was asked how she felt about Napoleon's proposal, she diplomatically responded: "I wish only what my duty commands me to wish."

Napoleon's second marriage was a much cleaner transaction than his first - for both parties. Napoleon was now allied with Austria. He also got an heir. As for Marie Louise, she reportedly found Napoleon more attractive in person than in portrait. She even became Empress of the French Empire. When things went sour for Napoleon and he was exiled to Elba, Marie Louise was made Duchess of Parma.

Additional Resources

Napoleon's Women (Christopher Hibbert)

Friday, July 6, 2012

William Henry Harrison - Shortest Presidency and Much More

William Henry Harrison is perhaps best remembered for his death. Harrison was the first President to die in office, just 30 days after giving his inaugural address in 1841. He chose to not wear a hat or overcoat during his record-setting 1 hour and 45 minute inaugural address (which remains the longest to date). The day of the inaugural address has been described as windy, cold, and wet. Despite feeling quite ill after the address, Harrison still attended three inaugural galas before retiring for the evening. Over the next few weeks, Harrison's condition deteriorated from a cold to pneumonia, eventually resulting in his death. Harrison's Presidency still stands as the shortest in U.S. History.

Yet, Harrison's presidency is remarkable for more than just its brevity, untimely end, and record-setting inaugural address. At 68 years of age, Harrison became the oldest person to assume the office of President, a title which he kept until Ronald Reagan was elected at 69 some 140 years later. Harrison was also the last President born prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He probably seemed even older when standing next to his Vice President John Tyler, who was 18 years his junior. This remains the largest age gap between a President and Vice President.

It is tempting to link two of Harrison's records - namely the oldest President and the shortest Presidency. Perhaps his old age made him more susceptible to becoming ill. One wonders if 48 years later, Benjamin Harrison connected those two of his grandfather's records when he decided to run for President at the (relatively) young 55 years of age. Much like his grandfather's inauguration day, March 4, 1889 was marked by torrential rainstorms in Washington, D.C. The older Harrison's inauguration must have been on his mind when Benjamin decided to wear a coat and utilize outgoing President Grover Cleveland as an umbrella man during the speech. Yet, with such cautionary measures in place, Benjamin reverted to the Harrison way and delivered what stands as the third-wordiest inaugural address of all time - behind only his grandfather and James Monroe.

Benjamin Harrison's Inaugural Address.

Additional Resources

Image and Brief Account of William Henry Harrison's Inauguration (Library of Congress)

Account of William Henry Harrison's Death (U.S. Senate)

William Henry Harrison: The Presidents Series: The 9th President, 1841 (Edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger & Sean Wilentz)