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George Washington and New York as the “Empire” State

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It is believed that the source of New York’s moniker as “The Empire State” is from a 1785 letter from George Washington to the City of New York. Mayor James Duane sent Washington “an Address of the City, and the freedom thereof in a very handsome golden Box.”

Subsequently, this is the letter that Washington wrote “To The Honble the Mayor, Recorder, Alderman & Commonalty of the City of New York:”

Gentlemen, I receive your Address, and the freedom of the City with which you have been pleased to present me in a golden Box, with the sensibility and gratitude which such distinguished honors have a claim to. The flattering expression of both, stamps value on the Acts; & call for stronger language than I am master of, to convey my sense of the obligation in adequate terms.

To have had the good fortune amidst the viscissitudes of a long and arduous contest ‘never to have known a moment when I did not possess the confidence and esteem of my Country.’ And that my conduct should have met the approbation, and obtained the Affectionate regard of the State of New York (where difficulties were numerous & complicated) may be ascribed more to the effect of divine wisdom, which had disposed the minds of the people, harrassed on all sides, to make allowances for the embarrassments of my situation, whilst with fortitude & patience they sustained the loss of their Capitol, and a valuable part of their territory—and to the liberal sentiments, and great exertion of her virtuous Citizens, than to any merit of mine.

The reflection of these things now, after the many hours of anxious sollicitude which all of us have had, is as pleasing, as our embarrassments at the moments we encountered them, were distressing—and must console us for past sufferings & perplexities. “I pray that Heaven may bestow its choicest blessings on your City—That the devastations of War, in which you found it, may soon be without a trace—That a well regulated & benificial Commerce may enrichen your Citizens. And that, your State (at present the Seat of the Empire) may set such examples of Wisdom & liberality, as shall have a tendency to strengthen & give permanency to the Union at home—and credit & respectability to it abroad. The accomplishment whereof is a remaining wish, & the primary object of all my desires (1)

George Washington, “From George Washington to James Duane, 10 April 1785,” Note 1, National Archives Founders Online, last accessed January 6, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-02-02-0347.

Alexander Hamilton’s 1772 Hurricane Letter

Alexander Hamilton

This is a very impressive and precocious letter written by Alexander Hamilton in St. Croix on September 6, 1772, to his father who at the time was in St. Kitts. It is about a devastating hurricane that took place on August 31, 1772. The letter was subsequently published in the Royal Danish American Gazette on October 3, 1772, If Hamilton was born, as he claimed, in 1772, he would have been fifteen when he composed the letter.

On publication this text prefaced the letter:

“The following letter was written the week after the late Hurricane, by a Youth of this Island, to his Father; the copy of it fell by accident into the hands of a gentleman, who, being pleased with it himself, shewed it to others to whom it gave equal satisfaction, and who all agreed that it might not prove unentertaining to the Publick. The Author’s modesty in long refusing to submit it to Publick view, is the reason of its making its appearance so late as it now does.” (1)

This is the letter:

“To The Royal Danish American Gazette

Honoured Sir,

I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of one of the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night.

It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction. Its impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country. A strong smell of gunpowder added somewhat to the terrors of the night; and it was observed that the rain was surprizingly salt. Indeed the water is so brackish and full of sulphur that there is hardly any drinking it.

My reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy occasion, are set forth in the following self-discourse.

Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements—the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise3 thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken—in Omnip[o]tence I trusted.

He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage—even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed—and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys.

But alas! how different, how deplorable, how gloomy the prospect! Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke. On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds. And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulph of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge—the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself? Thou canst not call upon thy God; thy life has been a continual warfare with him.

Hark—ruin and confusion on every side. ’Tis thy turn next; but one short moment, even now, Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!

Thus did I reflect, and thus at every gust of the wind, did I conclude, ’till it pleased the Almighty to allay it. Nor did my emotions proceed either from the suggestions of too much natural fear, or a conscience over-burthened with crimes of an uncommon cast. I thank God, this was not the case. The scenes of horror exhibited around us, naturally awakened such ideas in every thinking breast, and aggravated the deformity of every failing of our lives. It were a lamentable insensibility indeed, not to have had such feelings, and I think inconsistent with human nature.

Our distressed, helpless condition taught us humility and contempt of ourselves. The horrors of the night, the prospect of an immediate, cruel death—or, as one may say, of being crushed by the Almighty in his anger—filled us with terror. And every thing that had tended to weaken our interest with him, upbraided us in the strongest colours, with our baseness and folly. That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity. Our imagination represented him as an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants. The father and benefactor were forgot, and in that view, a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair.

But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer. The Lightning ceases. The winds are appeased. The warring elements are reconciled and all things promise peace. The darkness is dispell’d and drooping nature revives at the approaching dawn. Look back Oh! my soul, look back and tremble. Rejoice at thy deliverance, and humble thyself in the presence of thy deliverer.

Yet hold, Oh vain mortal! Check thy ill timed joy. Art thou so selfish to exult because thy lot is happy in a season of universal woe? Hast thou no feelings for the miseries of thy fellow-creatures? And art thou incapable of the soft pangs of sympathetic sorrow? Look around thee and shudder at the view. See desolation and ruin where’er thou turnest thine eye! See thy fellow-creatures pale and lifeless; their bodies mangled, their souls snatched into eternity, unexpecting. Alas! perhaps unprepared! Hark the bitter groans of distress. See sickness and infirmities exposed to the inclemencies of wind and water! See tender infancy pinched with hunger and hanging on the mothers knee for food! See the unhappy mothers anxiety. Her poverty denies relief, her breast heaves with pangs of maternal pity, her heart is bursting, the tears gush down her cheeks. Oh sights of woe! Oh distress unspeakable! My heart bleeds, but I have no power to solace! O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withold your compassion. What are you[r] sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely. Succour the miserable and lay up a treasure in Heaven.

I am afraid, Sir, you will think this description more the effort of imagination than a true picture of realities. But I can affirm with the greatest truth, that there is not a single circumstance touched upon, which I have not absolutely been an eye witness to.

Our General [Ulrich Wilhelm Roepstorff] has issued several very salutary and humane regulations, and both in his publick and private measures, has shewn himself the Man.” (2)

  1. Alexander Hamilton, “From Alexander Hamilton to The Royal Danish American Gazette, 6 September 1772,” National Archives Founders Online, last accessed December 30, 2021, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0042.
  2. Ibid.

The Stamp Act in New York, 1765, Part III

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 In solidarity with the radical Sons of Liberty, women in New York and other colonies organized as the Daughters of Liberty, using the power of the purse to reject English goods such as tea and cloth.  Wives, mothers and daughters created a sisterhood of solidarity: they advertised in newspapers and organized “spinning bees” to create homespun and teach the craft to the uninitiated.[i]  Together with “a fighting army of amazons…armed with spinning wheels” they hoped to found “a new Arcadia.”  This was the aspirational language used by Charity Clarke, a young lady in New York City to describe her vision to a cousin in London.[ii]  “Though this body is not clad with silken garments,” she wrote to him, “these limbs are armed with strength, the Soul is fortified by Virtue, and the Love of Liberty is cherished with this bosom.”[iii]  The idealism of women like Clarke expressed feminine empowerment in this new political arena.

In 1767, the New-York Gazette published the “Address to the Ladies” originally circulated in Boston.  In response to the recent Townsend Acts, it encouraged women to take action, to do their own “Manufact’ry,” make that the new fashion, and choose Labradore North American herbal tea over British East India tea.  Playing into gender roles of the era, the writer promises an amorous reward for compliance:

Throw aside your Bohea, and your green Hyson tea,

And all things with a new fashion duty;

Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,

For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye; . . .

These do without fear and to all you’ll appear

Fair, charming, true, lovely and clever;

Tho’ the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish

And love you much stronger than ever. [iv]

Though humorous, these creative submissions encouraged women to change their habits in service to the cause of liberty.

            Once the war began in 1775, women became even more vital to the Patriot cause by producing saltpeter for gunpowder, holding scrap drives, melting down metal from pewter plates, lead window weights, and a statue of King George III in New York’s Bowling Green into ammunition, fundraising for the army, and spinning soldiers’ uniforms on their wheels and looms.  In 1778 and 1779, compliance became law as New York passed emergency legislation called an “Act to Procure Shoes and Stockings for the New York Troops.”  Patriotism was now compulsory as fines were imposed on women who did not meet their quotas.[v] 

            Women in New York, like their New England counterparts, were leaders in supporting the war effort until the British occupation of the city at the end of 1776.  Their participation was acknowledged along the way.  For example, a 1769 accolade in a New York newspaper credits the efforts of women: “[their participation] kindled a spirit of generous Emulation” and they hoped that “the same Spirit will spread thro’ the Continent.. . .That the Ladies while they vie with each other in Skill and Industry…may vie with the men, in contributing to the Preservation and Prosperity of their Country, and equally share the Honour of it.”[vi]  Just a few years before, a public statement acknowledging and commending the participation of women in service to their country would have been almost unimaginable.  While these women participated as civilians, other women served the military—this being a homefront war—and the next stop will cover many of their contributions.


[i] Ibid, 18.

[ii] Charity Clarke, “Charity Clarke to Joseph Jekyll, June 16, 1768,” Letter, Course Packet, Women in the American Revolution, Pace University, Spring 2020, 44.

[iii] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 216.

[iv] De Pauw, Four Traditions, 15.

[v] Ibid, 16; Emergency Legislation Passed Prior to December, 1917, United States Department of Justice (Washington Government Printing Office, 1918), 2.

[vi] De Pauw, Four Traditions, 16.

Burr & Hamilton – Dream Team

Hamilton Burr NYC Tour

While many people know about the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and Hamilton’s unfavorable opinion of Burr as a public and private man, it is less known that they were on the same legal team in the scandalous trial of Levi Weeks in 1800. Weeks was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Elma Sands, by throwing her down a well, in what is today SoHo, in December 1799. Weeks retained Burr, Hamilton and Henry Brockholst Livingston, all well-known lawyers to defend him. Weeks was acquitted after only a few minutes of jury deliberation. With strong public sentiment against the verdict, Weeks left New York for Mississippi where he became a builder and architect. His Auburn Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi is National Historic Landmark. Burr and Hamilton would engage in a duel in Weehawken a little over four years later in July 1804. The portrait is of Aaron Burr.

Locks of George Washington’s Hair for $35,000!

Best Revolutionary War Tour New York

Best Revolutionary War Tour New York

In George Washington’s era, a lock of hair was an ultimate keepsake.  Washington’s hair seems to be in a lot of places, even three Topps baseball trading card packs!  Recently, it was found in a 1793 book that belonged to Phillip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law.  Even more recently, in a Leland’s auction, 5.31-inch locks of his hair were attached to a March 20, 1871 letter from Secretary of State, James Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s third son) to Eleanor G. Collins, in “respect and regard.”  The locks were given to James by his mother, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton.  The starting bid was $2,500, and the locks fetched $35,763.60 when the auction was completed.

Alexander Hamilton’s Pamphlet on John Adams, October 24, 1800

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Best Alexander Hamilton Walking TourBefore the presidential election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton wrote an essay (or what was known as a “pamphlet”) about John Adams, the leader of Hamilton’s Federalist party and the President of the United States called Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States that took a disparaging view of his tenure and character.  It was sent out to many prominent Federalists.   As it goes, the competing Democratic-Republican acquired a copy and publicly published it thereby affecting Adams chance of winning reelection in 1800 and affecting the Federalist Party’s (and Hamilton’s) prominence in the political scene.  This led to the Jefferson presidency and Aaron Burr vice-presidency.   Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the pamphlet:

Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States

Sir,

Some of the warm personal friends of Mr. Adams are taking unwearied pains to disparage the motives of those Federalists, who advocate the equal support of Gen. Pinckney, at the approaching election of President and Vice-President. They are exhibited under a variety of aspects equally derogatory. Sometimes they are versatile, factious spirits, who cannot be long satisfied with any chief, however meritorious:—Sometimes they are ambitious spirits, who can be contented with no man that will not submit to be governed by them:—Sometimes they are intriguing partisans of Great-Britain, who, devoted to the advancement of her views, are incensed against Mr. Adams for the independent impartiality of his conduct.

In addition to a full share of the obloquy vented against this description of persons collectively, peculiar accusations have been devised, to swell the catalogue of my demerits. Among these, the resentment of disappointed ambition, forms a prominent feature. It is pretended, that had the President, upon the demise of General Washington, appointed me Commander in Chief, he would have been, in my estimation, all that is wise, and good and great.

It is necessary, for the public cause, to repel these slanders; by stating the real views of the persons who are calumniated, and the reasons of their conduct.

In executing this task, with particular reference to myself, I ought to premise, that the ground upon which I stand, is different from that of most of those who are confounded with me as in pursuit of the same plan. While our object is common, our motives are variously dissimilar. A part, well affected to Mr. Adams, have no other wish than to take a double chance against Mr. Jefferson. Another part, feeling a diminution of confidence in him, still hope that the general tenor of his conduct will be essentially right. Few go as far in their objections as I do. Not denying to Mr. Adams patriotism and integrity, and even talents of a certain kind, I should be deficient in candor, were I to conceal the conviction, that he does not possess the talents adapted to the Administration of Government, and that there are great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit him for the office of Chief Magistrate.

To give a correct idea of the circumstances which have gradually produced this conviction, it may be useful to retrospect to an early period.

I was one of that numerous class who had conceived a high veneration for Mr. Adams, on account of the part he acted in the first stages of our revolution. My imagination had exalted him to a high eminence, as a man of patriotic, bold, profound, and comprehensive mind. But in the progress of the war, opinions were ascribed to him, which brought into question, with me, the solidity of his understanding. He was represented to be of the number of those who favored the enlistment of our troops annually, or for short periods, rather than for the term of the war; a blind and infatuated policy, directly contrary to the urgent recommendation of General Washington and which had nearly proved the ruin of our cause. He was also said to have advocated the project of appointing yearly a new Commander of the Army; a project which, in any service, is likely to be attended with more evils than benefits; but which, in ours, at the period in question, was chimerical, from the want of persons qualified to succeed, and pernicious, from the peculiar fitness of the officer first appointed, to strengthen, by personal influence, the too feeble cords which bound to the service, an ill-paid, ill-clothed, and undisciplined soldiery.

It is impossible for me to assert, at this distant day, that these suggestions were brought home to Mr. Adams in such a manner as to ascertain their genuineness; but I distinctly remember their existence, and my conclusion from them; which was, that, if true, they proved this gentleman to be infected with some visionary notions, and that he was far less able in the practice, than in the theory, of politics. I remember also, that they had the effect of inducing me to qualify the admiration which I had once entertained for him, and to reserve for opportunities of future scrutiny, a definitive opinion of the true standard of his character.

In this disposition I was, when just before the close of the war, I became a member of Congress.

The situation in which I found myself there, was far from being inauspicious to a favorable estimate of Mr. Adams.

Upon my first going into Congress, I discovered symptoms of a party already formed, too well disposed to subject the interests of the United States to the management of France. Though I felt, in common with those who had participated in our Revolution, a lively sentiment of good will towards a power, whose co-operation, however it was and ought to have been dictated by its own interest, had been extremely useful to us, and had been afforded in a liberal and handsome manner; yet, tenacious of the real independence of our country, and dreading the preponderance of foreign influence, as the natural disease of popular government, I was struck with disgust at the appearance, in the very cradle of our Republic, of a party actuated by an undue complaisance to foreign power; and I resolved at once to resist this bias in our affairs: a resolution, which has been the chief cause of the persecution I have endured in the subsequent stages of my political life.

Among the fruits of the bias I have mentioned, were the celebrated instructions to our Commissioners, for treating of peace with Great-Britain;which, not only as to final measures, but also as to preliminary and intermediate negotiations, placed them in a state of dependence on the French ministry, humiliating to themselves, and unsafe for the interests of the country. This was the more exceptionable, as there was cause to suspect, that in regard to the two cardinal points of the fisheries and the navigation of the Mississippi, the policy of the cabinet of Versailles did not accord with the wishes of the United States.

The Commissioners, of whom Mr. Adams was one, had the fortitude to break through the fetters which were laid upon them by those instructions; and there is reason to believe, that by doing it, they both accelerated the peace with Great-Britain, and improved the terms, while they preserved our faith with France.

Yet a serious attempt was made to obtain from Congress a formal censure of their conduct. The attempt failed, and instead of censure, the praise was bestowed which was justly due to the accomplishment of a treaty advantageous to this country, beyond the most sanguine expectation. In this result, my efforts were heartily united.

The principal merit of the negotiation with Great-Britain, in some quarters, has been bestowed upon Mr. Adams; but it is certainly the right of Mr. Jay, who took a lead in the several steps of the transaction, no less honorable to his talents than to his firmness. The merit, nevertheless, of a full and decisive co-operation, is justly due to Mr. Adams.

It will readily be seen, that such a course of things was calculated to impress me with a disposition friendly to Mr. Adams. I certainly felt it, and gave him much of my consideration and esteem.

But this did not hinder me from making careful observations upon his several communications and endeavoring to derive from them an accurate idea of his talents and character. This scrutiny enhanced my esteem in the main for his moral qualifications but lessened my respect for his intellectual endowments. I then adopted an opinion, which all my subsequent experience has confirmed, that he is a man of an imagination sublimated and eccentric; propitious neither to the regular display of sound judgment, nor to steady perseverance in a systematic plan of conduct; and I began to perceive what has been since too manifest, that to this defect are added the unfortunate foibles of a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object.

Strong evidence of some traits of this character, is to be found in a Journal of Mr. Adams, which was sent by the then Secretary of Foreign Affair to Congress. The reading of this Journal, extremely embarrassed his friends, especially the delegates of Massachusetts; who, more than once, interrupted it, and at last, succeeded in putting a stop to it, on the suggestion that it bore the marks of a private and confidential paper, which, by some mistake, had gotten into its present situation, and never could have been designed as a public document for the inspection of Congress. The good humor of that body yielded to the suggestion…

 

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