Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

4.
The Quarrel with Washington

War and finance were not the only
subjects on Hamilton's mind in 1780-81. At headquarters, particularly during
the long inactive winters, he had ample time to plan his future, and, as
with most soldiers, his thoughts turned to what he would do when the war
was over and he was out of uniform. Never in these daydreams did his
thoughts stray far from the necessity of establishing a connection with a
rich and influential family.

The kind of connection Hamilton had in mind was, of course, marriage. While his charm, good looks and ability had taken him a long way, Hamilton was under no illusion that he could attain the summit with their aid alone. To reach the heights to which he aspired, he knew that family backing was essential. He was not one to lose the world for love and deem it well lost. There was little likelihood that he would throw himself away on a tavernkeeper's daughter; the insistent voice that reminded him that he bore the bar sinister, that he was poor, and that his abilities were not given full scope constantly kept before him the importance of marrying well.

By thus making marriage serve ambition, Hamilton revealed how well he understood the aristocratic bias of eighteenth-century society. To rise in politics or law, family connection was well-nigh indispensable; and nowhere was this more true than in New York, where a few families held the keys to political power. In that state, certainly, family ties were as important as talent; and so Hamilton, who had no intention of making his rise more difficult than need be, appraisingly surveyed the field of eligible young ladies. To his mind, there was nothing mercenary in this procedure: he did not intend to marry anyone he did not love, but he did not intend to love anyone who was not a good match for a young man on his way to the top. As between a great love and a great career, Hamilton would no doubt have chosen the career. Happily for him, he was never called upon to make the choice.

Hamilton's requirements in a wife were so exacting that he was in serious danger of condemning himself to bachelorhood. "She must be young," he

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