Monday, July 13, 2015

Queer as a $10 Bill?



You’ve probably all heard the phrase “Queer as a $3 bill,” which was originally “Queer as a Clockwork Orange.” Though originally it was meant as a way to claim something was strange, it has taken on more meaning today as someone who is homosexual. But maybe the phrase would be more accurate as "Queer as a $10 bill."  Most people think of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton as the face on the $10 bill (which now has a pinkish hue to it), but would he have been better suited for the $3 bill? There's some evidence in his letters that he may have been bisexual. Come to think if it, if he was bisexual, maybe he belongs on the $2 bill. Sorry, it's late as I write this, and I can be a bit silly late at night.
Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780 and fathered a total of eight children, but some historians believe Hamilton had a romantic relationship with fellow solider and aristocrat John Laurens while both men were aide-de-camps to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Washington’s concern for his male colleagues clearly extended to their personal lives. This was especially true of Hamilton, who he brought with him to Valley Forge, giving Hamilton a cabin to share with his then-lover, John Laurens, to whom Hamilton had written passionate love letters which are discussed below.
Maj. Gen. Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian military genius Washington enlisted to help him strategize at Valley Forge, was a known homosexual (he'd been expelled from the court of Frederick the Great for sodomy) and came to the Continental Army with his young French assistant, Pierre Etienne Duponceau, who was presumed to be his lover and shared a bed with von Steuben at Valley Forge. Since von Steuben’s English was limited, but his French was perfect, Washington assigned his own secretary and one of his aides-de-camp to von Steuben, Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton and Lt. Col. John Laurens, who shared a cabin at Valley Forge at Washington’s bequest. Washington, who had to have known the nature of their relationship due to his own closeness with Hamilton, situated the two together at Valley Forge and then connected them with von Steuben and Duponceau--a gay foursome working directly with the leader of the Continental Army.
The evidence of Hamilton’s and Laurens’ relationship is found in a series letters written by Hamilton to Laurens shortly after Laurens left Washington’s military family for South Carolina, where he worked to recruit African American troops to fight against the British.
In a letter dated April 1779, Hamilton begins:
Cold in my professions, warm in my friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by action rather than words to convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ’til you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You should not have taken advantage of my sensibility to steal into my affections without my consent.
Though most people in the 18th century wrote with a very flowery language that to modern ears may sound gay, but was actually innocent. However, sometimes things are exactly what they appear to be and this doesn't seem like mere flowery language.
The letter continues:
But as you have done it, and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have artfully instilled into me.
At the time, romantic relationships between members of the same sex were considered taboo, and sodomy was a punishable offense in all 13 colonies and men were subject to imprisonment, castration, and even death. Which raises the question of what sort of “fraud” Hamilton might be referring to.
In another letter, dated September 1779, Hamilton describes himself as a “jealous lover” after Laurens failed to respond to any of his missives:
Like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued. I had almost resolved to lavish no more of them upon you and to reject you as an inconstant and an ungrateful ____.
At that point, the handwriting becomes illegible, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination what the Founding Father may have written.
Later in the letter, Hamilton talks about his new fiancé, Elizabeth Schuyler, in language that makes her sound more like a beard than a wife:
Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes – is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. And believe me, I am lover in earnest, though I do not speak of the perfections of my Mistress in the enthusiasm of Chivalry.
One year later, in a letter dated September 1780, Hamilton again wrote to Laurens about his wife:
In spite of Schuyler’s black eyes, I have still a part for the public and another for you; so your impatience to have me married is misplaced; a strange cure by the way, as if after matrimony I was to be less devoted that I am now. Let me tell you, that I intend to restore the empire of Hymen and that Cupid is to be his prime Minister.
He signed the letter:
Adieu, be happy, and let friendship between us be more than a name.
It’s been reported that after his death, Hamilton’s family crossed out sections of the letters. Their reasons for doing so are unknown, though some speculate it was because the notes contained suggestive language that might have confirmed a romantic relationship between the two men.
Interestingly, in his 2003 essay “Slavery and Liberty in the American Revolution,” historian Gregory D. Massey notes that of all the surviving letters written by Hamilton, the only other ones that show the same level of sentiment are those penned to his wife.
Of course, we’ll probably never know for sure. But one thing is for certain: Whatever feelings Hamilton had towards Laurens were unique, as evidenced in a letter he sent to General Greene in 1782 after Laurens was killed in the Battle of the Combahee River:
I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and inestimable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end…. I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.

3 comments:

Susan said...

Hi Joe,

Being shown history by someone with such an obvious love for it is an absolute delight. Your history lessons remind me anew that I would have loved sitting in your class, even now, knowing you may not have truly wanted to be there yourself.

When reading about long-ago history, I always find it fascinating that on a level not as prevalent as more recent history, gays accepted the inevitability of marriage to a woman, rather than considering the prospect of living alone.

Btw, my remembrance of your quote was, Queer as a $2 bill. That of course was before one actually existed! :) Thanks for another interesting post, Joe.

Jay M. said...

Thank you for an interesting look at our history that is NEVER taught in schools! I enjoyed this, not just because of the gay component, but for the whole picture.

Peace <3
Jay

Ron said...

It's no exaggeration to say that we owe the survival of the Republic to Hamilton. Without his financial genius the whole thing would have collapsed. If he found a measure of happiness in Laurens' arms, I don't begrudge him that.