The Adams Family’s Revenge Against Alexander Hamilton

The Adams Family’s Revenge Against Alexander Hamilton

‘Hamilton: An American Musical’ echoes John and Abigail Adams’s accusations that Alexander Hamilton was a serial adulterer. He wasn’t.
Stephen F. Knott
By

Broadway’s hottest show is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical,” an unlikely hit about the nation’s first treasury secretary. Unfortunately, this impressive show circulates a lie, a somewhat minor one, but Alexander Hamilton’s critics have used it for more than a century to defame the man.

At one point in the musical, as Miranda recently observed, “Aaron Burr says of Hamilton, ‘Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him,’ and Hamilton goes, ‘That’s true!’ That kind of, ‘I can’t wait to tell you all the shit I learned in writing this story’ really carries across the footlights, because I was learning this stuff in order to write it.”

Unfortunately, Miranda learned some inaccurate shit. The notion that Hamilton was a serial philanderer, a “tomcat,” was a lie first disseminated by his wartime British enemies and later circulated by his domestic political opponents.

Alexander Hamilton Did Cheat

That Hamilton cheated on his wife is beyond question. Unlike some of his contemporaries, and many contemporary politicians, he admitted to it, in excruciating detail. In the summer of 1791, Hamilton was visited by Maria Reynolds, who introduced herself to him as someone in an abusive marriage and dire financial straits. Hamilton decided to provide Reynolds with money, and more.

Historians who should know better continue to spread rumors regarding Hamilton’s insatiable appetite for women.

The affair lasted for almost a year. Hamilton’s wife forgave him, and his mentor, George Washington, remained a steadfast supporter. Nonetheless, the Reynolds affair damaged Hamilton’s reputation (deservedly so) and opened him up to the widely circulated allegation that he was a serial adulterer, which he did not deserve.

Historians who should know better continue to spread rumors regarding Hamilton’s insatiable appetite for women, including the previously mentioned myth about Martha Washington’s amorous tomcat. To assume that Martha Washington, of all people, would do such a thing reveals a complete lack of understanding of her character. The “source” for the tomcat tale was a British “Captain Smythe” (possibly a pen name) who wrote a satirical piece in 1780 designed to embarrass the American revolutionaries.

But Alexander Hamilton Was Not a ‘Tomcat’

“Smythe” also claimed that George Washington had 13 toes, the extra three grown since the 13 colonies declared independence. Despite clearly being a joke, the “tomcat” has been incorporated into the nation’s most popular Broadway show, and is repeated by historians and biographers, generally without citation. These writers include Ron Chernow (the apparent source of Miranda’s misguided shit), John Ferling, Michael Beschloss, William Hogeland, Arnold Rogow, Thomas J. Fleming, Cokie Roberts (who claimed Hamilton was a “world-class philanderer”), and many others. Mount Vernon’s official website includes the tale, keeping the myth alive at Martha Washington’s own home.

Adams observed that he was repulsed by the Caribbean immigrant’s ‘superabundance of secretions’ that led him into whoring.

Many of the fables surrounding Hamilton can be traced to Thomas Jefferson’s lieutenants, including James Monroe, or to John and Abigail Adams. Jefferson’s minions leaked the Reynolds story in 1797 to a noted scandalmonger of the day, James Callender. (As justice would have it, Callender would later publish allegations of Jefferson’s alleged affair with his slave, Sally Hemings).

John and Abigail Adams, ensconced in bitterness at their ironically named home, “Peacefield,” were determined to settle a score with Hamilton after the latter undermined President Adams’ re-election in 1800. Adams observed that he was repulsed by the Caribbean immigrant’s “superabundance of secretions” that led him into whoring. Abigail Adams once remarked that she had “read his [Hamilton’s] heart in his wicked eyes” and the “very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”

After Hamilton was killed in his duel with Burr, Abigail made a point of refusing to wear black, in part due to her obsession with Hamilton’s sexual conduct. “Why then idolize a man,” she asked, “who show[e]d on many occasions that he was a frail, weak man subdued by his passions.”

At This Point, It’s More than a Grudge

The semi-puritanical Adams family was obsessed with Hamilton’s sex life and held a nativist disdain for immigrants, particularly immigrants who were not from Western Europe. According to John Adams, Hamilton was a “bastard brat,” a “debauched” “Creole,” born of a harlot on an obscure “speck” of an island in the West Indies, whose natives were slaves to a regime of relaxed sexual mores. John Adams was so deranged in his assessment of Hamilton that at one point he implied Hamilton might have been a drug addict whose written and spoken work was the result of a “bit of opium in his mouth.”

Alexander Hamilton was the nation’s first victim of the politics of personal destruction.

Alongside the tomcat tale lurks another myth, this one contending that Hamilton considered the American people to be a “great beast.” Once again, a member of the Adams family set out to tarnish Hamilton’s reputation; in this instance, it was John and Abigail’s great-grandson, Henry Adams.

Adams’ “History of the United States During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (1889) shaped the perspectives of generations of historians. Adams claimed (without citation) that Hamilton had referred to the people as a “great beast,” apparently basing this quotation on the “Memoir of Theophilus Parsons” (1859) written by his son Theophilus Parsons Jr. Both men were close acquaintances of the Adams family.

Parsons junior recounted a story told to the elder Parsons by a friend who knew someone who said he heard Hamilton make the comment at a dinner in 1799. The alleged quotation was published 60 years after the dinner, 55 years after Hamilton died, and 46 years after the elder Parsons died. In other words, it was hearsay four times removed—or, as some might call it, fiction. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s “great beast” lives on, as a simple Google search reveals.

Alexander Hamilton was the nation’s first victim of the politics of personal destruction. At various times Jefferson and Adams considered him to be a power-hungry, people-hating plutocrat (who, ironically, died without wealth and left his widow and his seven children reliant on the charity of friends), or an immigrant of questionable loyalty (who had fought with honor for his country’s independence), or a serial womanizer, or all three at once. Jefferson and Adams continued to spin the public record long after Hamilton died in 1804, and their campaign paid handsome dividends. It is long past time to euthanize the tomcat and the beast, along with the other defamatory tales kept in circulation by historians and biographers who should know better.

Stephen F. Knott is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. His books include "Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth" and "Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics." His most recent book, "Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America," was published in September 2015.

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