A Hamilton Revelation

13, June 2016

Confession time? Here’s what I got: I’ve always loved and been fascinated by history, but I tend to be drawn more to European and ancient Egyptian history than American history. There’s just more of it to appreciate and try to understand.

Then I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton: An American Musical, and I finally got it through my head that although American history is shorter, it’s just as incredible as that of other parts of the world, if not more so. Aside from appreciating Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stunning wordplay, I began to appreciate the passion, courage, wit, perseverance, and risk it took to build our country.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Because the Missouri Historical Society possesses the third-largest collection of Jeffersoniana, I knew I could find original documents signed or written by Thomas Jefferson. But what about Alexander Hamilton, the protagonist of Broadway’s revolutionary musical? Turns out, we have a letter signed by Alexander Hamilton in our collection, and it’s from a time period not touched on in the show.

Although Hamilton retired to the private sector in 1795, he returned to public service in 1798 during the Quasi-War, a short-term naval war between the United States and France that was never officially declared. Upset over America’s friendlier relations with Britain in the late 1700s, French ships interfered with American ships attempting trade with Britain. President John Adams sent representatives to France to attempt to resolve the issue, but the men were asked to pay a bribe and provide a small loan in exchange for leaving the American ships alone. President Adams and Congress balked at these demands and began preparing for war. On July 16, 1798, they authorized a buildup of the army. Hamilton was appointed major general and inspector general, charged with rallying soldiers—who never actually saw battle.

Letter signed by Alexander HamiltonClick the image to see a larger version of this letter signed by Alexander Hamilton. From the collections of the Missouri Historical Society.

The letter signed by Hamilton in our collection is addressed to Major Jacob Kingsbury of Franklin County, Connecticut. Major Kingsbury had been serving in the army for nearly 14 years straight, and earlier in 1799 he had requested permission to take an extended leave of absence of 12 to 14 months. But this request came during the Quasi-War—bad timing on Kingsbury’s part. Below is a transcription of Hamilton’s response on December 2, 1799, courtesy of Archivist Molly Kodner:

New York
Decemr 2nd 99

I have received your letters of the thirtieth of September and of the thirtieth of November, and am obliged by the polite expressions which are personal to me.

It is impossible that you should have leave of absence for so long a period as that you speak of – You will therefore hold yourself in readiness to enter upon service on the first of April next – At that time you will report yourself to me.

Envelope of Hamilton letter Click the image to see a larger version of the exterior of the letter.

With great considn
I am, sir
Yr. obt Ser

A. Hamilton

The Quasi-War ended in 1800 when the United States and France agreed to a truce, and we all know the next chapters in Hamilton’s story. Even if that knowledge comes only from the musical, I’m thankful that more and more Americans (myself included!) are engaging with our shared history.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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