The secret gay history of Hamilton and 4th July

Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway production of Hamilton.

One of the pitfalls of bringing the past to the stage is the desire to reinvent it to serve some myopic purpose.

Hamilton, the hit Broadway musical, follows the career of one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, Alexander Hamilton. He fought alongside George Washington and died scandalously in a duel with fellow revolutionary Aaron Burr in 1804.

To say that this historical concoction heteronormalizes its subject is a bit of an understatement.

The centre of Hamilton’s drama is its hero’s relationship with his wife, Elizabeth. The real Hamilton wrote about her rather coolly: ‘Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good-hearted girl… though not a genius, she has the good sense to be agreeable’.

Hardly the stuff of the passionate love depicted on Broadway. But then, there’s a reason for that.

The recipient of this letter was John Laurens, abolitionist, revolutionary, fellow officer on George Washington’s staff, and Hamilton’s lover at the time of his marriage.

Both men had spent the winter of 1777-78 with Washington’s dilapidated army at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. They were allocated their own cosy cabin and seconded to the staff of General Frederick Wilhelm von Steuben, the master trainer of Washington’s troops that winter, recently arrived in America.

Steuben was a stickler for drilling men, on and off the parade ground. In fact, he had fled Prussia on a sodomy charge. When he met Benjamin Franklin in Paris, the American was warned about his unabashed ‘affections’ towards ‘members of his own sex’.

Von Steuben arrived at Washington’s headquarters in an extravagant sleigh, its 24 bells jingling, dressed in silk and fur, a miniature greyhound in his lap and his pretty young French secretary with a retinue of exotics in tow.

The 20-something lover boys, Hamilton and Laurens, naturally became favorites.

None of this seemed to bother Washington, though. Loyalty and skill were more important to him than who slept with whom. The great man is known to have been lenient towards soldiers holed up on sodomy charges.

One lieutenant who was caught with his breeches down among the rank and file, was only dismissed by Washington because Aaron Burr (the villain in Hamilton’s story) insisted. And so, reluctantly it seems, the great man signed the first discharge for homosexuality in the history of the US Army.

On more than one occasion, however, conduct unbecoming was conduct condoned, and might result in no punishment at all, unless the fastidious Burr was involved.

The cast of Hamilton.
The cast of Hamilton.

Hamilton and Laurens continued their love affair when Laurens left Valley Forge, their letters suggesting a life-between-the-lines relationship.

In September 1779, for example, Hamilton rebuked Laurens’ apparent silence in the language of the jilted:

‘Like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued. I had almost resolved to lavish no more of them upon you and to reject you as an inconstant and an ungrateful…’

…the handwriting becomes so illegible here you have to finish the thought yourself!

Another 1779 quote reads: ‘I wish, my dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you.’

It seems Laurens suggested Hamilton cure himself of his love by marrying: ‘A strange cure by the way’, Hamilton wrote petulantly, ‘as if after matrimony I was to be less devoted than I am now.’

Half-jokingly, he suggested that Laurens himself act as go between, urging him to give an account of ‘his size, make, quality of mind and body’ (the emphasis was Hamilton’s).

I suppose all this could be put down to boys being boys in the drifting snow of a Pennsylvania winter, but Hamilton’s love for Laurens lasted long after. He was deeply upset when Laurens was killed in a skirmish towards the end of the War of Independence.

Though he may have settled down with his ‘agreeable’ wife, his correspondence shows he continued to think about men. When he faced Burr on the banks of the Hudson River, there was something suicidal in the way he purposely shot wide. He wouldn’t be the first gay man to seek oblivion.

Steuben, by contrast, wasn’t short of consolations. The French architect of the Federal Capital, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, had also been there at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, falling under the spell of Washington’s Prussian parade master. After the war he would join the Baron’s exclusive society of men.

Even the son of John Adams, second US President, became a long-term visitor to Steuben’s Manhattan estate, The Louvre. Charles Adams lived there in a sort of ménage with another of the old general’s protégés, John Mulligan. So scandalous was Adams Junior’s life in fact, his father finally disowned his son as the young man lay dying in 1800.

The queerness of America’s Revolution and fledgling Republic wasn’t confined to men. Every war has its female warriors, even in the 1700s.

Amongst others, Deborah Sampson joined the Continental Army in 1782 and served 17 months as ‘Robert Shurtliff’ (you couldn’t make it up), living, dressing and fighting as a man, and raising the odd camp-follower’s skirts, if her memoir is anything to go by.

She once carved a bullet from her thigh to avoid detection, before being rumbled by a surgeon and honourably discharged by Washington himself at West Point.

After the war Sampson was arrested for wearing men’s clothing, but her younger contemporaries, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Blake, could live openly together for 44 years in a small community in Vermont without family or neighbours complaining.

Steuben could retire to his own ephebic Eden and is known as the creator of the US military. Hamilton, arguably the architect of America’s free market, had to content himself with only dreaming in the public sphere.

So two of the foundations of the US state – defense and commerce – are down to the efforts of two LGBTI men. And the USA has Hamilton – a bisexual – on its $10 bill. Now that’s something to celebrate on Independence Day.

Kevin Childs is on Twitter here. You can find more fascinating stories about LGBTI history from Kevin here.