I was in Greenwood Cemetery with someone today on what was a glorious spring day. Often in the cemetery we wander with no set objective but today set out to see John Church Hamilton, one of the children of Alexander Hamilton. This mausoleum is a tad off the beaten path, but not so much so that one can’t find it without undue difficulty. John had quite a career in his own right as a soldier in the War of 1812 (thus the flag), lawyer, and prolific historian. He lived until 1882, six years after the centennial. That the offspring of the Founding Generation continued on well into the Gilded Age is a reminder that one is not talking all that long ago.
I was telling someone last night that yesterday was the first time since beginning to shelter in place last month that I felt hemmed in and claustrophobic. Apparently I was not the only one feeling like such; my friend replied that he left the house and went for a drive to clear his head. Las week another friend, an intelligent and thoughtful high school history educator who recently returned to school for another graduate degree, asked me if I am keeping any type of journal or diary during the health pandemic. I actually do keep a journal and while I cover events of the day and the like, it is more for where I am on certain projects at home, work, and in my writing. Of course the outside world touches on all those things, so it is a sort of chronicle of the time.
I was thinking about all these things when I was getting ready for bed last night after watching last week’s premier episode of the National Council for History Education (NCHE) series with Yale history professor Joanne Freeman History Matters (…and so does coffee!). It is a weekly online series in which Professor Freeman shares a primary resource and explains how it is relevant to today’s times. History is always relevant to current times, which the wise among us understand. Last week’s document was a letter written by Alexander Hamilton in late September 1787 a week or so after the September 17 ratification of the Constitution. Ratification at the Convention was hardly the end of the story; from there the document went to the Confederation Congress, and from there to the states for a vote. Dr. Freeman read Hamilton’s letter, in which he cast doubt that the Constitution would come to pass enough states. The title of the episode was “Contingency Matters.” Freeman was trying to show that nothing is ever a done deal or set in stone. Far from being a sure thing, the Constitution hung tenuously in the balance. That was why Hamilton, Jay, and Madison soon wrote The Federalist Papers, each article of which was printed in newspapers and other venues to be read aloud in coffeeshops and other public spaces to sway public opinion.
Closely related to contingency is agency. It is important in these trying times, with the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and seemingly failing leadership on certain levels, to realize that one has more more agency than one might believe. Nothing is set in stone and circumstances change, often when we least expect. That is where contingency and our own agency come in. This was one of the points of the episode.
Check out History Matters at the NCHE website. Each broadcast appears live Thursdays from 10:00-10:30 am Eastern time, but is also available for viewing afterward.
(image/Views in New-York and its Environs, from Accurate, Characteristic & Picturesque Drawings, Taken on the Spot, Expressly for this Work; New York: Peabody & Co., 1831.
Today, September 17, is Constitution Day. It was on this date in 1787 that the Framers met for the final time to sign the document they had written over that contentious summer. It was never a sure thing and was still not a done deal; after that the Constitution went to the states for ratification, a process that took several years as state delegates argued for and against. It was in this period that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison authored The Federalist.
Constitution Day is one of those holidays, like Flag Day and Evacuation Day, that used to be a significant part of American culture but that are hardly remembered today. We would do wise to keep in mind what we stand to lose; if we have learned anything over the past few years it is that our world is more fragile than we would like to think. Many thousands used to turn out in places like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Borough Hall for speeches and parades. There is still some of that. The Rufus King Manor in Queens, for instance, is having its annual observation and fundraiser today. King himself was one of the drafters of the Constitution and was there in Philadelphia for most of the convention. Other events are undoubtedly taking place elsewhere.
Here are two images from the 1937 Constitution.Day. President Roosevelt spoke that evening at the base of the Washington Monument. One can see the seriousness on his face. That is because this event came during his notorious Courting Packing controversy and he was trying to rally support. The thing never went his way and it is justifiably seen as a low mark in his twelve year presidency.
(images/Library of Congress)
It was a good day yesterday when I both downloaded the Hamilton soundtrack and found the Fall 2019 Mount Vernon program booklet in the mailbox. At Federal Hall this summer there were many patrons visiting the site either after or before going to see the Broadway musical. Most of them were not New Yorkers, but individuals and families from across the country who came to the city for the express purpose of attending. They are always fun to talk to, not least because they are so excited. Usually they do Federal Hall, Hamilton’s resting place in the Trinity Church cemetery down Wall Street, and the Grange in Northern Manhattan. A few of the more adventurous even take the trip to Weehawken to see the dueling, though from what I understand there is not much to see. Still, there is that notion of place. I’m listening to it right now as I wrap up my coffee.
Catalogs such as this one from George Washington’s Mount Vernon are coming, in the mail and online, from various places. With summer winding down and people returning from vacation, institutions are rolling out their fall programming.
In the manuscript of Incorporating New York, the book I have been writing about Civil War Era New York, I mention the July 26, 1788 New York State ratification of the U.S. Consecution. Isaac Roosevelt joined other Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others in voting for the Constitution’s passage. Until this past Friday when at the New-York Historical Society, I had not heard of the Grand Procession that took place in New York City on July 23, 1788 in support of the Constitution. New York’s was not the first such procession; other locales had held them previously, some of them large, such as Philadelphia’s on July 4. New York had intended to hold its procession weeks earlier but the thing kept getting pushed back. By the time the procession rolled along on July 23 ten states had ratified the Constitution, one more than need to make it legally binding. Still, there was the significant issue of whether or not New York would join the republic.
The image we see here is from a mid-nineteenth century history book and is not entirely accurate, though they did pull a frigate called the Hamilton through the streets during the procession. We see it here passing through Bowling Green. On the left one can see the fence that is still there. On the left is Fort George, which was torn down in 1790. Cass Gilbert’s 1907 Hamilton Custom House, now home to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is there today. What I do not understand is the caption where it mentions the president and legislators watching from atop the fort. The First Congress would not sit, and Washington would not be sworn in as president, until April 1789. Perhaps these are the re-enactors of their time? Or maybe a projection to show what could be if New York ratifies? I do not know.
New York ratification of the Constitution was no sure thing. That is why things were dragging out for several weeks at the meeting in Poughkeepsie. This is an extraordinary moment in both New York and American history
(engraving/History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, Volume II via NYPL)
Alexander Hamilton, grandson and namesake of the first Treasury Secretary, was born on this date in New York City in 1816. Hamilton was the younger brother of Eliza Hamilton Schuyler, which thus makes him the uncle of Louisa Lee Schuyler. Hamilton served in Spain as a diplomat on the staff of his friend Washington Irving in the late 1840s and early 1850s. When the American Civil War broke out a decade later he and his brother-in-law George Lee Schuyler served on the staff of General John E. Wool in Virginia and elsewhere. It is lost on us sometimes how close to the Revolutionary War was the Civil War; many of the figures on both sides of the Rebellion were the grandchildren of the first generation of Americans and were convinced that they were fulfilling the wishes of the Founders. It is a theme I expand upon in Incorporating New York, my book manuscript about the Civil War Era generation that came of age in the mid-1850s and lived on through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Alexander Hamilton was a Civil War officer, prominent lawyer, and founding member & eventual president of the Knickerbocker Club. He died 130 years ago this year and is buried in the Hamilton-Schuyler plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery north of New York City, up the hill from the final resting place of his friend Washington Irving. I took the photo above when a friend and I visited early this past December.
(top image/D. Appleton & Co.: A.A. Turner, photographer)