Editors' Note: This piece originally ran in late 2008, but with all the Tea Party talk of the founding fathers lately, it seems appropriate to rerun it.
Conservative American historians reserve a closet that's deeper and darker than usual, for any "founding father" who wasn't a Bible-quoting Protestant heterosexual. And some odd boys can definitely be glimpsed through the cannon smoke of our Revolution. Among them was soldier and statesman Alexander Hamilton.
It's a challenge to get beyond Hamilton's image in the familiar John Trumbull portrait -- the imperial posture, the powdered wig and stern expression. Indeed, Hamilton is often derided as an "aristocratic elitist." But the real Hamilton had deeply romantic and tender sensibilities about everything from love of freedom to love of men.
Born in 1755 in the West Indies, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton, an emigrant merchant. James descended from Scotland's Hamiltons, an old aristocratic family. Abandoned by his father, then orphaned by his mother's death, Alexander was able to put his checkered childhood behind him. Determined and brilliant, he got an education, immigrated to America in 1772, and passed the New York bar as a lawyer. At the outbreak of the Revolution, he was already a star of political debate and a commander of New York militia as an artillery captain. Now 20, he was short, slight, and (some thought) a bit feminine-looking. But he had a warrior's willingness to charge into combat, so everybody nicknamed him "the Little Lion."
By 1777, Hamilton was tapped by George Washington -- one of 32 aides-de-camp that served the General during the war. Since he could be affable, witty, and a loyal friend, he was an instant hit with the other aides, and shortly rose to be Washington's chief of staff and think tank.
One of the aides was John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens, a Carolina planter who was also president of the Continental Congress. Young Laurens was another hard-charger, and would become the love of Hamilton's life. Many historians have discussed whether the two were actually intimate. If they were, extreme discretion was needed. Despite ideals of "religious liberty" filtering into their world, sodomy was still a capital crime. General Washington might be forced to have them hanged if there was ever a scandal.
The Boys of War
According to Arthur S. Lefkowitz in his study George Washington's Indepensable Men, the 32 aides were a unique little corps of middle-class and upper-class men -- a world unto themselves. Most were 20-something; a few were older. Many, like Washington, were Freemasons -- educated in the liberationist Masonic political ideas that were sweeping the West. The General called them his "military family," and they were on call day and night, sleeping on camp beds near his room.
The Continental army was long on patriotism, but short on pennies. The revolutionary government had no power to collect taxes or appropriate funding. So the army had to support itself. Washington's overworked staff (several aides at any one time) did many tasks that didn't involve fighting. Laboring with goose quills and homemade ink, Hamilton wrote thousands of letters and reports to other generals and to Congress. His writing talents helped Washington to articulate ideas relating to the war. The aides also carried messages, did intelligence and diplomatic work, arranged prisoner exchanges, even interrogated prisoners. Food, weapons, clothing and horses were scarce -- the aides cadged what they could.
The army couldn't even afford a regulation uniform. But a tailor designed one for Washington, and his aides lovingly copied it. Ham (as his buddies called him) must have looked fierce in that blue coat with epaulets, the buff vest and breeches, the cocked hat at a rakish angle, and the coveted green ribbon across the chest that showed his status as aide-de-camp.
Washington was probably a heterosexual (his adored wife Martha served as one of his aides). But the General was soft on the type of passionate and emotional "friendship" that 18th-century upper-class men often favored -- not only closeted gay men for whom "friendship" cautiously shaded over into intimacy but often straight men as well. As combat veterans like gay historian Paul Hardman tell us, men at war often slip into this physical and emotional closeness as they live on the edge of life and death. Washington's aides walked on eggs where his bad temper was concerned. But they knew the General loved having their brains, brawn, and bravery around him.
Hamilton did have his proud prickly side, so he didn't enjoy the same degree of warmth with Washington as a few other aides did. But for many years, he did have utmost trust and respect from the General, who called him "my boy."
A Patriotic Pair
As aides, Ham and Laurens were inseparable -- a fireworks couple, always coming up with explosive new ideas for the cause. Both were Freemasons who believed in a Supreme Deity (not necessarily the Christian God). Both were also educated in classical culture and government, going back to the Greeks and Romans. So they probably had a lot to talk about, as they planned for their country's future.
Both men hated slavery, especially Laurens, who'd seen it in action on his father's plantation. When Laurens' state was invaded by the British, the two suggested that a regiment of Carolina slaves be armed and trained to fight. Washington and Congress thought it was a great idea. South Carolina leaders, including Laurens' father, disagreed. But Laurens and Hamilton kept lobbying for a black regiment to be raised from other states.
The two were always going over the top with gestures of gallantry that were typical of the period. During the battle of Monmouth in July 1778, when the bungling of Washington's 2nd in command, Gen. Charles Lee, put the American army in jeopardy, Hamilton got carried away with emotion. He leaped off his horse and drew his sword, getting ready to make a last stand on foot, and shouted at Washington, "We are betrayed, Your Excellency! The army are betrayed! The moment has arrived when every true friend of America and her cause must be ready to die in their defense!"
Washington must have rolled his eyes. All he said was, "Colonel Hamilton, get back on your horse."
During the post-Monmouth uproar, with efforts to court-martial Lee going forward, Laurens himself went over the top and challenged Lee to a duel. Dueling was outlawed, but the two men went off somewhere and exchanged two rounds with their fancy pistols. Lee was wounded slightly, so Laurens won.
Later, as a show of power by favored aides, Hamilton and Laurens helped see to it that Lee was convicted and disgraced.
More Attractive Men
Hamilton and Laurens weren't the only "passionate romantics" in Washington's posse of charismatic men.
Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was a young French officer who showed up on the revolution's doorstep to offer his personal services as a fighter. Lafayette's family descended from one of the captains in Joan of Arc's army -- hence his dedication to ideals of national liberty. Since Ham spoke French, Washington detailed him to look after Lafayette. Ham, Laurens and Lafayette became such friends that a later writer called them "the three musketeers."
It was Lafayette who helped the army end its desperate deficit, at least temporarily. In 1781 Congress sent Benjamin Franklin and aide Laurens on a mission to Europe, armed with effusive letters of introduction from Lafayette. Back they came with 16 million livres loaned by France and the Dutch republic.
Another colorful figure was Baron Friederich von Steuben. The young Prussian noble came to Washington's headquarters with a recommend by Benjamin Franklin. Steuben had skills and experience from serving in Frederick the Great's famed professional army. Washington hired Von Steuben to smarten up his own troops. The General may or may not have known that Friederich had been quietly cashiered out of the Prussian army because of indiscretions with other males. Hamilton and Von Steuben became friends.
Now and then, Hamilton apparently felt the tug of attraction to other men besides Laurens. For instance, in 1780, he went heartsick over British spy John André, who was captured during the Benedict Arnold treason episode. André was gay, as most historians admit. He was also so handsome and charming that even Washington heaved a sigh of regret as he ordered that André be hanged. During the death watch, Hamilton visited André in his cell. When the execution took place, Washington and his aides couldn't bear to watch, so they went in their headquarters and closed the shutters.
But John Laurens was clearly the sunlight in Hamilton's day. When Laurens went home to South Carolina to fight, Hamilton got himself detached from Washington's staff so he and Laurens could serve together in cavalry combat. Finally Washington decided he couldn't do without Hamilton and ordered him back.
Through it all, Ham wrote his buddy some fervid letters that survive today. In one of them, he confessed, "I wish, my dear Laurens ... it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you." Lauren's own letters to Hamilton were warm, but a shade less frank.
A Hail of Bullets
Meanwhile, a man of those times had to perform as a pater familias. Hamilton was good at courting young ladies -- a skill that he may have cultivated as camouflage. In 1779, Hamilton asked Laurens to help him find a wife. Eventually, in 1780, Hamilton found one on his own. She was Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of a prominent New York Dutch family. Laurens approved.
In 1781, hungry for more battlefield glory and feeling he should be promoted to field commander, Hamilton had a meltdown with Washington over this issue. Eventually Washington gave in. On July 31, 1781, at the battle of Yorktown, the Little Lion commanded three battalions in a key action that turned the tide of battle. Yorktown effectively ended the British war effort in the colonies.
With British forces starting to surrender, Hamilton looked forward to reunion with Laurens, who was still fighting in the Carolinas. In July 1782, Hamilton was appointed to the Continental Congress. He goose-quilled a letter to Laurens: "Quit your sword, my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress... We have fought side by side to make America free. Let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy."
But a month later, during a last skirmish with the British, Laurens made one of his own grabs for glory, and charged when he could have slipped away unscathed. Amid a hail of bullets, he fell from his horse. Laurens was only 27.
This death was deeply felt everywhere -- Laurens had been viewed as one of the brightest stars among the younger revolutionaries, with a great future in government. Indeed, some historians think that slavery might have been abolished earlier if Laurens had lived. Off the record, a few officers did comment unkindly on how rash Laurens had always been.
But Hamilton was devastated, and made no secret of his grief. He wrote: "I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved."
Shopping for a Government
Through the war, the "United States of America" had operated haphazardly as thirteen cantankerous little countries loosely joined by the 1775 Articles of Confederation. The confederacy was overseen by the Congress of the Confederation, which was governed by a president elected by Congress. This president had roughly the same power as today's Speaker of the House.
Now it was time to build a better government. So Hamilton poured all his old passions into his new role as statesman. He was "making America happy," but doing it without Laurens.
Conventional history would have us believe that our founders were crystal clear and visionary about what they wanted to do. But actually our post-Revolution era was a time of controversy. Nobody was sure how the new country could best be run. Old-world history offered several options. But Protestant- and Catholic-style monarchy, paired with state religion, didn't appeal to the majority of our founders. More attractive was the Roman-style republic with its constitution and its balance between legislative and executive power-- as revived by the Dutch in 1581. So was the idea of a monarch elected by a legislature, as anciently done in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Hamilton emerged as a key thinker, laboring tirelessly with more goose quills and homemade ink, writing commentaries that were widely circulated, now known as the Federalist Papers. He believed in the need for a strong central government, a strong written constitution and a powerful executive officer. Among other things, he knew that slavery could never be ended as long as the states had too much independence. As he scribbled away by candlelight, Hamilton surely felt Laurens' spirit hovering near.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Hamilton argued that the Congressional President should become the head of state -- something like a monarch, but one who was elected. He would govern for life on condition of "good behaviour," and be impeached if he misbehaved. But the Convention was leery of a lifetime President, and opted for a four-year term, and a balance of power with Congress. The constitution, as they framed it, made the United States a Roman-style republic. The Little Lion was one of the signers.
On April 17, 1788, George Washington was elected our first President.
With the passing years, as Hamilton morphed into that stern portrait image, he kept busy. He worked towards an end to slavery. He started the Coast Guard, served as Secretary of the Treasury. Ever concerned that the country could finance itself, he founded the U.S. Mint, organized the first federal bank, established import tariffs. Meanwhile, he worked in New York as a constitutional lawyer and had eight children with Mrs. Hamilton.
But I imagine that, in his heart, beneath all the flash and thunder of statesmanship, Hamilton often felt the deep heartache of that old loss.
In 1804, in one of his proud prickly moments, and as a result of a bitter political dispute, Hamilton made his own last gesture of gallantry -- one that seemed like a throwback to that wartime moment when he jumped off his horse and said he was ready to die for his country. He got into a pistol duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, and was shot. On the following day, July 12, Hamilton died. He was only 49.
Today, LGBT women and men in uniform have reclaimed the "Little Lion" who fought for freedom. Gay war veteran Paul Hardman, who wrote feelingly about Hamilton in his history title Homoeffectionalism, was instrumental in founding the Alexander Hamilton Post 448 in San Francisco, and became its first commander. Despite protests from the Legion's more conservative members, the American Legion granted a charter to Post 448 in 1985. Today Post 448 lives and thrives, as its members -- and all the rest of us -- fight in another, newer revolution.
Hardman, Paul D. Homoaffectionalism: Male Bonding From Gilgamesh to the Present. GLB Publishers, 1993.
Lefkowitz, Arthur S. George Washington's Indispensable Men. Stackpole Books, 2003.
Vile, John R. The Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of America's Founding. ABC-CLIO, 2005.