July 20, 2004

Alexander Hamilton in Search of a Wife

From Ron Chernow (2004), Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin: 1594200092). Alexander Hamilton searches for a wife:

"She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape), sensible (a little learning will do), well-bred (but she must have an aversion to the word ton, chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness), of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist). In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of (I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion, a moderate streak will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention to this article in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to purgatory for my avarice, yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world--as I have not much of my own and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry--it must needs be that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies."

Posted by DeLong at July 20, 2004 08:45 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

I already disliked Hamilton's policies, now I'm revolted by his sexism as well. Though in fairness to him, the attitudes he expresses were probably very common in his day.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD on July 20, 2004 09:13 PM


I just got off a Southwest flight out of Portland. Across from us (this plane had seats facing backward) was a cute young lesbian couple. One was reading the Economist and talking to her lover about how she couldn't see how the country could survive another four years of Bush.

I don't know why the topic of Hamilton looking for a fiscally liberal wife made me think of that. I'm sure there's a punchline in there somewhere.

Posted by: Alan on July 20, 2004 09:20 PM


"I already disliked Hamilton's policies, now I'm revolted by his sexism as well. Though in fairness to him, the attitudes he expresses were probably very common in his day."

His day?

Posted by: Petey on July 20, 2004 09:33 PM


And ? What did he get ?

Posted by: Hans Rudolf Suter on July 20, 2004 09:56 PM


Far from being sexist, Hamilton strikes me as being eminently sensible. Finding a mate is darned near a requirement for humans to be happy, but ending up with a mate with whom we are temperamentally incompatible is an even worse fate. Thus Hamilton setting down his “wish list” and trying to find a mate who has the qualities he is looking for strikes me as sane to the extreme...

Perhaps I’m biased-- I’ve got my own list of qualities I look for in a woman. I’ll note that “she must be hot” isn’t on the list as a deal breaker-- but it certainly is on the “would be nice” side of things...

Posted by: Andrew Cory on July 20, 2004 09:59 PM


Sexism? If that's sexism, then we are all sexists, now and forevermore.

Posted by: Paul on July 20, 2004 10:02 PM


'Tis said Americans don't do irony. The comments here clearly suggest that they currently don't - but the Hamilton quote itself makes it clear they once did.

People, Hamilton is satirizing himself - he's lampooning his own sexism.

Posted by: derrrida derider on July 20, 2004 11:28 PM


He struck me as very, very honest about exactly what he needed. I thought it was kind of cute, that he said he wanted her to be generous as opposed to a scold and a termagant (love the old vocab) and then several sentences later he mentions that he needs her to bring a fortune. So, he wants her to give him money, and not bring it up after that. OK. If he were alive today what would he be doing I wonder, and what sort of woman would he have married?

Also it does make me want to go read a bio and see what sort of woman he married after writing down all these prerequisites.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo on July 20, 2004 11:29 PM


Apparently she (at least) remained very much in love with him until the day she died. Several decades after he did...

Posted by: Andrew Cory on July 21, 2004 03:26 AM


"Apparently she (at least) remained very much in love with him until the day she died"

Which, however, did not prevent him from carrying on an adulterous affair which he was forced to confess publically while Secretary of the Treasury (accused of speculating in currency, his defense was that he was really making blackmail payments to the husband of his lover).

Posted by: rea on July 21, 2004 05:03 AM


I don't think Hamilton's calculating tone is a self-parody. Compare another voice from the 18th century, that of Dr. Primrose in Oliver Goldsmith's 'Vicar of Wakefield':

"I had scarcely taken orders a year, before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife, as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well."

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on July 21, 2004 06:43 AM


Jane Austin clearly thought it was a good thing that Mr Darcy had certain qualities. While Ms Austin made her herione level-headed and initially unmoved by Darcy's wealth, Austin certainly had a set of qualities in mind. He was handsome, tall, rich, and in the end, personable. Must we despise Ms Austin for her implicit sexism, or is discernment actually a good thing in choosing a mate?

Posted by: kharris on July 21, 2004 06:53 AM


In order to judge the parodical qualities of this text, we would need to know when and in what context it was written. Whether it was a private letter or a public announcement, say. Whether it was written before or after, for example, Elizabeth Bennet's famous take-down of Mr. Darcy's similar wish-list...

I found the list hilarious, but more context would be necessary before I could try to extrapolate my reaction into a general rule.

Posted by: Jackmormon on July 21, 2004 06:55 AM


Compare Hamilton's thinking (which DD insists is self-mocking) to that of a thoughtful contemporary (who may have had his tongue deeply in his own cheek, as well) --


Posted by: kharris on July 21, 2004 07:17 AM


What's "the word ton" and why have an aversion to it?

Posted by: paulo on July 21, 2004 07:23 AM


"ton" is a french word for "stylish, in fashion" or for the "fashionable set". It can cover vast territories, such as "good taste," "refined," and so forth.

The quote marks are intentional parody.

Posted by: Carol on July 21, 2004 07:28 AM


Did Hamilton leave two left parentheses open, or is that Brad's typo? First I wondered if it was common to nest parenthetical comments at the time. But I guess there should be a right parenthesis after "ton" and another after "convert her to mine".

Posted by: Paul Callahan on July 21, 2004 07:29 AM


Surely, he didn't write "believe in God and hate a saint" with a straight face.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on July 21, 2004 07:49 AM


> Surely, he didn't write "believe in God and hate a saint" with a straight face.

I read that as anti-Catholic (or "anti-Papist"). That is, believing in God, but rejecting prayer to saints as idolatry.

Am I reading too much in?

Posted by: Paul Callahan on July 21, 2004 09:16 AM


What I wonder is what kind of a list of qualities Hamilton's wife had?

Posted by: Wilber Chaffee on July 21, 2004 09:25 AM


I think this was a letter to a male friend and it was not entirely serious in tone.

And I don't know if Hamilton was forced to admit to an affair with Reynolds at the time and in the splashy way he did. Hamilton wrote an elaborate and detailed confession and published it while in one of his panicked funks, and I believe that his friends advised that he didn't need to, and certainly said that he was admitting far too much.

I also think the real inner Hamilton was a sucker for cute chicks. He was taken in by Benedict Arnold's wife when she tried to act her way out of her complicity in her husband's plot when few if any other people bought that story. Hamilton's letter he wrote to Elizabeth describing the sorrow he felt watching the wretched Mrs. Arnold's beautiful heaving breast while she wept was not a product of artful calculation. And unless Hamilton is a very great liar, Reynolds was probably out to seduce Hamilton -she was certainly involved in some sort of scheme with her husband and maybe Duer.

And there is a later letter Hamilton wrote to his future wife near the end of the Revolutionary War -written in another one of his funks- where he exclaims that his post-war fortunes look so low that he might end up life as a turnip puller and if she is willing to stay with a man who's future is so bleak.

So the is more to Hamilton that what you see in this letter.

Posted by: jml on July 21, 2004 09:40 AM


Why so judgemental? 200 or more years have passed. A spouse that is good looking and rich is better than one that isn't, all other things being equal. Which, of course, they never are.

The remark "She must believe in God and hate a saint" strikes a chord with me. I see it as not so much anti-papist as anti-self-righteousness. He prefers the publican to the pharisee. He's probably the kind of guy who hates folks who wear their credentials on their sleeves. You know, the kind that put "PhD" in their signature to a comment on a weblog.

Posted by: Jay Gischer, PhD on July 21, 2004 12:04 PM


Rebecca Allen:

You prefer the policies of the underage slave raper Jefferson?

Posted by: epistemology on July 21, 2004 12:22 PM


Andrew Cory:

The evidence is otherwise. Finding a wife is near essential for the happiness (and longevity) of men, but it doesn't do much for women.

Posted by: epistemology on July 21, 2004 12:24 PM


I took the "believe in god but hate a saint" to be indicative of a man who took his religion in moderation.

Posted by: epistemology on July 21, 2004 12:28 PM


Hamilton was an Episcopalian and believed in the saints -- the comment wasn't anti-Catholic. But in the slang of the day a saint was an ostentatiously pious person -- someone who wouldn't dance or drink, or read novels, or wear low-cut gowns, and who would insist on attending church twice on Sunday. "She must believe in God and hate a saint" is a clever way of saying that she must be conventionally religious but know how to have a good time.

Posted by: JR on July 21, 2004 12:52 PM


If nothing else, I should think we might all nod our heads in agreement with "I dislike equally a termagant and an economist"...

Posted by: Anurag on July 21, 2004 02:37 PM


I'm sure I'm not the only one who noticed that Elizabeth Bennett's aversion to FitzWilliam Darcy started to soften precisely when she first saw his grand estate.
She might have been perfect for Hamilton.
But if you want more advanced thinking about the sexes from a contemporary of Hamilton's, look at Aaron Burr's upbringing and treatment of his daughter.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci on July 21, 2004 02:49 PM


btw, as all students of period literature know, Hamilton's phrase "a good shape" means big tits.

Posted by: dsquared on July 21, 2004 03:07 PM


wow, dsquared, I didn't know that. Opportunity for some historical research there, I suppose.

As for Colucci's comment: was Burr's behavior with all the women he seduced also advanced? That is an honest question, since I have not read a biography of Burr. Was he a cad or considerate, or what exactly?

Was Hamilton's possible (and I think very probable) intimate behavior with his sister-in-law Angelica Church advanced?

Posted by: jml on July 21, 2004 04:06 PM


"...believe in god and hate a saint..."

Fine advice, even in these tasteless days, when the legions of the self-canonized are rushing hither and yon, demanding belief at the pistol's point.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on July 21, 2004 05:47 PM


> But in the slang of the day a saint was an ostentatiously pious person -- someone who wouldn't dance or drink, or read novels, or wear low-cut gowns, and who would insist on attending church twice on Sunday.

This makes more sense than my original understanding, and fits with the immediate context. But Hamilton's phrasing is confusing. Maybe the idiom was better understood at the time.

Posted by: Paul Callahan on July 21, 2004 07:06 PM


The sexist part is that it doesn't matter what her views are, because she'll be taking his anyway.

The letter sounds more like Mr. Collins than Mr. Darcy to me.

Posted by: Emma Anne on July 21, 2004 08:04 PM


Well, Hamilton thought he could convince anybody of his views, man or woman. That is why he thought Jefferson a contemptable hypocrite and Adams a nutcase ..they were smart enough to be swayed by his arguments, but were not. So I am not sure that is sexist.

Anyway, he is better than Jefferson. At least Hamilton didn't thought it would be a waste of time and dangerous experiment to even talk about politics with a woman.

"In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of (I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine..."

Posted by: jml on July 21, 2004 08:39 PM


I didn't think Hamilton got religion in the serious sense until after his son Philip was killed in a duel?

Burr was always a cad; married a widow for her money when he was in his 70s. But Burr was way ahead of his time in the way he raised his daughter, Theodosia.

Hamilton was a b*stard, and so disadvantaged from the start in the prudish era; the United States at that time was a very closed society at the upper class level (not that it's greatly different now). For Hamilton to prevail he *had* to commit hypergamy. So he married a Schuyler. At that time, if one wanted to get ahead in New York, one had better have been born a Schulyer, a Clinton or a Livingston or marry into them -- or work for them (which is what the aristocratic New Jerseyan Burr exactly did).

Posted by: RETARDO on July 21, 2004 11:49 PM


Since Hamilton is the father of the modern welfare state (broad reading of the 'general welfare' clause), I think that's why the Reaganauts want him on the $10 bill...

Posted by: Troy on July 22, 2004 01:52 AM


"....Since Hamilton is the father of the modern welfare state (broad reading of the 'general welfare' clause), I think that's why the Reaganauts want him on the $10 bill..."

When using currency as a memorial, one wants to use the denomination that has the widest use, so as to place the image of the one honored in as many hands and pockets as possible.

The current $10 bill is the lowest denomination that does not already bear the image of a president.

Posted by: George Zachar on July 22, 2004 07:12 AM


IMHO, all the presidents who are more important than Hamilton are already on a bill or a coin. So keep him there on the tenner.

What do people mean when they say Burr was ahead of his time in the way he raised his daughter? That he educated her well, or gave her property, or what?

Jefferson was ahead of his time in the way he educated some of his womenfolk. He thought one of them was flat out brilliant. I forget her name, and whether she was a granddaughter or a niece, but Jefferons taught her classics, math, history, just about everything. Jefferson said that she would have been "great" and "preeminent" IF ONLY she had been a man. He wasn't ahead of his time there.

Posted by: jml on July 22, 2004 11:26 AM


Actually thought it was a fair list, and one that could easily be the same today ... although I must say Lincoln's letters as a young man reveal a far more poetic and romantic soul.

It might be the fashions of the age, of course. Hamilton's time was that of Jane Austen, Lincoln's that of the romantic poets. Austen would certainly have disapproved of Walt Whitman, and he of her.

Disconcerting to realize that even people like Hamilton and Lincoln who justly deserve the reputation of great and independent thinkers subscribe to all the styles of their era ...

Posted by: Diana on July 22, 2004 02:23 PM


"Burr was always a cad; married a widow for her money when he was in his 70s. But Burr was way ahead of his time in the way he raised his daughter, Theodosia."

Burr was most assuredly not a cad. He was one of the preeminent catches of his day. And he chose Theodosia (the mother), a poor widow with five children who was well-known for being brilliant and a great conversationalist. He was faithful to her until her relatively early death. Burr loved women, but they also clearly loved him. This does not make him a cad. He never wrote about them in the manner that Hamilton did. He supported women voting. Even Abigail Adams never had a bad word to say about Burr. On the contrary, according to her letters, she quite liked and approved of him.

Posted by: A Burrista on July 22, 2004 05:13 PM


Jefferson's vendetta against Burr is one of his many bad judgments. He was saved by John Marshall's conduct of Burr's treason trial. As a Federalist, Marshall would have been Hamilton's ally, and he might have been tempted to favor the prosecution. No writers I'm aware of accuse Marshall of breaking any rules, but he made sure the defense got a good hearing and his evidentiary rulings set the bar very high for the prosecutors. Jefferson was furious, but his reputation is better for the acquittal.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on July 22, 2004 07:12 PM


It seems that even a single man NOT in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on July 22, 2004 11:20 PM


Modern day Hamilton:

At last I've found the perfect girl,
I could not ask for more.
She's death and dumb and oversexed,
And owns a liquor store.

Posted by: the-wag on July 23, 2004 09:01 AM


Looks like Hamilton had a sense of his own shortcomings but was also quite contemporary in that when you get right down to brass tacks he wanted a wealthy woman, who liked sex, would tolerate his politics and his peculiarities -- one of which was, Alex Hamilton liked to have sex with as many ladies as he could.

He was amongst the most brilliant of the founders and also the most openly flawed.

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