Soldier, Secretary, Icon

Hamilton the Soldier

Essentially an orphan, and with few influential connections, Hamilton saw the American Revolution as an opportunity for rapid social advancement. At twenty-one, while still a student at King’s College (now Columbia University), he persuaded New York’s Provincial Congress to commission him as an artillery captain, then recruited sixty-eight men and raised the money to outfit the company.

Hamilton attracted George Washington’s attention and joined the general’s “military family” as his private secretary at age twenty-two. By war’s end he was a full colonel. Most importantly, he had acquired important personal connections and a respectable military reputation that would be vital to his future political career.


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The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce by Malachy Postlethwayt and Jacques Savary des Brûlons (London edition, 1774)

Eighteenth-century warfare featured long periods of inactivity when muddy roads or frigid temperatures prevented military campaigns. Officers had considerable free time to socialize, write, and read.

Young Hamilton preferred reading economic philosophy over military manuals. Throughout the revolution he carried a two-volume treatise called The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, first published in 1757. Replete with advice on customs duties, coinage, and public credit, Postlethwayt’s Dictionary was the perfect tutorial for a future secretary of the treasury.

Hamilton probably read a 1774 edition of Postlethwayt similar to the one shown here. He referred to it extensively in his early political pamphlet The Farmer Refuted, and its influence is discernable sixteen years later in his famous 1791 Report on the Establishment of a Mint and Report on Manufactures.

Loan from Smithsonian Libraries

 

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3¢ Battle of Brooklyn, 1951

After British and American forces clashed at Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, the defeated Americans evacuated across the East River to Manhattan. The British chased Washington’s army—including Hamilton’s New York Provincial Company of Artillery—from Harlem Heights to White Plains and across the Hudson River into New Jersey. Hamilton would not see New York City again for seven years.

 

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2¢ Battle of White Plains, 1926

This stamp celebrates the legend that Hamilton’s artillery unit single-handedly saved Washington’s army at White Plains in October 1776. Although this part of Hamiltonian lore may be exaggerated, his later bravery is well-documented. At New Brunswick on December 1 and Trenton on December 26, his company held critical positions that prevented the enemy from advancing on the American lines.

 

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3¢ Nassau Hall large die proof, 1956

Following the British surrender at Trenton, Washington marched his army to Princeton. Hamilton found himself encamped in front of Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), a college that had rejected his admission application just five years earlier.

Loan from United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection

 

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13¢ Washington Reviewing His Ragged Army at Valley Forge, 1976

The desperate 1777-1778 winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania convinced Hamilton of the need for stronger central government. The Continental Congress had no taxation powers, so tattered uniforms were not replaced and food supplies were inadequate. A quarter of Washington’s troops died from smallpox and pneumonia.

Loan from United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection

 

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Major General Nathanael Greene free frank folded letter, April 2, 1778

Greene was one of Washington’s ablest lieutenants and an admirer of Hamilton; it was probably he who recommended the young artillery captain for promotion. In this letter written from Valley Forge, Greene asks a merchant to send “Portmanteaus and Valeeses” as well as fabric for tents and knapsacks.

 

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2¢ General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, 1930

A former Prussian Army officer, Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778. Although he spoke no English, Washington placed him in charge of training the army. Steuben and Hamilton conversed in French, and Hamilton translated his drill manual into English. The two were for many years leading members of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati.

 

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13¢ Marquis de Lafayette reverse impression, 1977
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13¢ Marquis de Lafayette normal stamp
 

The young Marquis de Lafayette joined the Revolution at nineteen and developed a lifelong friendship with Hamilton. Both were similar in age, revered Washington, and harbored deep antislavery sentiments. When Lafayette fled France during the French Revolution and was imprisoned in Austria, Hamilton took in his son and aided a plot to free his friend.

 

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18¢ Battle of Yorktown-Battle of the Virginia Capes, 1981

Although joining Washington’s general staff brought him prestige, Hamilton longed for personal honor won on the battlefield. He got his wish at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia when a light infantry battalion under his command captured “Redoubt 10,” one of Lord Cornwallis’s last remaining holdouts, in hand-to-hand combat.

Loan from United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection

 

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13¢ Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, 1976

Hamilton is at lower right, the fourth figure in from the border, wearing the uniform of a New York artillery colonel.

Loan from United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection

 

The Society of the Cincinnati

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Rev. Dr. William Linn (1752-1808), oil on canvas by John Wesley Jarvis, circa 1805
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of DeWitt Linn Sage

The Society of the Cincinnati, formed at the end of the American Revolution, took its name from an ancient Roman general who retired back to farming after having been dictator of the republic. The namesake evoked patriotism without ambition, and a bald eagle decorated with vignettes from Cincinnatus’s life became the society’s insignia.

Membership was open to Revolutionary War commissioned officers and their male descendants. Hamilton frequently defended the society against detractors who criticized its hereditary membership as undemocratic, and he succeeded Washington as its second president general.

An honorary membership in the New York State Society of the Cincinnati was awarded to Rev. Dr. William Adolphus Linn for his eulogy to George Washington, delivered before the society on February 22, 1800. Hamilton—who sat through more than one funeral oration for Washington—found “an originality of thought, an energy of expression, and a genius displayed in” Linn’s speech.

Created by New York goldsmith John Cook, Linn’s eagle is a rare early example of an American-made society insignia. Hamilton was almost certainly in attendance when it was presented to Linn on July 4, 1800.

Loan from the Society of the Cincinnati

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Society of the Cincinnati eagle insignia, 1800
Loan from the Society of the Cincinnati
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Illustration of the Cincinnati insignia from Collection Historique des Ordres de Chevalrie, 1820
Image courtesy Smithsonian Libraries