The wind is picking up. It woke me up. So far nothing too unusual, some garbage cans careening down the sidewalk in the darkness, but the storm got me thinking about Alexander Hamilton (of course it did), and the first famous letter he wrote in what would be a lifetime (all-too-short) of famous letters.
Alexander Hamilton was either 15 or 17 when he wrote the following letter to his father, describing a ferocious hurricane that hit the West Indies in 1772. Hamilton was cagey about his age, and lied about it so much that there will always be a question mark about his actual years on the planet. He liked to seem younger than he was, which “upped” the “OMG, are you a prodigy??” factor, which would already have been in operation with him, regardless of whether he was 15 or 17. Guy was a prodigy from any angle. Even with the more strenuous definitions of “literacy” in existence during the 18th century (for the elite class, that is, of which Alexander Hamilton was most definitely not a member), the letter below is an extraordinary document. Written to his father (a rather useless fellow), it got the attention of a preacher who had taken the young Hamilton under his wing and the preacher managed to get it published. This got Hamilton a bunch of attention which eventually led to Hamilton’s leaving the West Indies to travel up to the “colonies” to go to college. He had hoped to go to Princeton. At his first meeting with the Princeton officials, the arrogant (I would say confident) young teenager said that he wanted to be allowed to go at his own pace with his studies (which, for Hamilton, meant going faster than everyone else. He did not want to be held back, retarded in his progress by the conventional schedule of universities. If he could complete his studies in two years, or less, he wanted the freedom to do that.) Princeton said, “No.” So Hamilton found himself at the more flexible King’s College on the island of Manhattan (“flexible” meaning “they let Hamilton do what HE wanted to do”), a monarchist and loyalist institution (clearly, the name itself tells us that), which ended up being a fortuitous choice for the young immigrant. It put him in the center of revolution. This was, after all, the same teenager who had written a lonely yearning letter to a good pal when he was back in the West Indies, and after going on and on about his plans and frustrations, ended with, “I wish there was a war.” Well, he got one.
Hamilton showed many talents, early. He had to. He was, to quote John Adams’ unkind comment, “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” He was a gifted writer, a gifted accountant, a gifted leader. There were many clues that Hamilton was bound for greater things than running the books in a shipping company on a slave-trade island.
His “Account of a Hurricane”, written at age 15, 16, 17 (what’s the dif?) was a harbinger of things to come.
Account of a Hurricane
To the Royal Danish American Gazette
Saint Croix, September 6, 1772
I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account 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 m the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction—it’s 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 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 keenness of water and air—without a bed to lie upon—or a dry covering to their bodies—our harbour is 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 surprisingly 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 following self-discourse.
Where now, Oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? what is become of thy 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 the elements—the discord of clouds? Oh, impotent presumptuous fool! how darest 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. Despise 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 omnipotence I trusted.
He who gave the winds to blow and the lightnings to rage—even him I have 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 fulness 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 ten-fold 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, distress of all kinds.—And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulf of eternal mystery 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 suggestion of too much natural fear, or a conscience overburdened 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 a 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 everything 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 prayers—the Lightning ceases—the winds are appeased—the warring elements are reconciled, and all things promise peace.—The darkness is dispelled—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 as 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 wherever 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 to the mother’s knee for food!—see the unhappy mother’s 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!—Oh ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity, and bestow your superfluity to ease them.—Say not, we have suffered also, and with-hold your compassion. What are your sufferings compared to these? 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 has several very salutary and human regulations, and both in his public and private measures has shown himself the Man.