“I put your letter into his hands . . . “

For this post I am opting out of my mission of bringing readers the words of women from the American Revolution and the early national period. Instead I am posting a letter that Alexander Hamilton wrote not to Lady Kitty Alexander Duer (see previous post) but to another Kitty, this one CATHARINE LIVINGSTON (1751-1813), daughter of the Governor of New Jersey, sister of Sarah Livingston Jay and cousin to Lady Kitty. Coincidentally, Kitty Livingston, like her cousin, was concerned with a flag of truce, not for herself but for some friends who wanted to leave British occupied New York City to pay a visit to New Jersey. Kitty Livingston made her appeal to her friend Alexander Hamilton, who gave it to General George Washington for whom he was an aide de camp. Hamilton was instructed by Washington to reply to Kitty’s letter. His response is mildly flirtatious, flattering, fanciful, and wordy. In fact it is the longest letter I have come across that can be summed up as “No”. There was an exception, as you will discover.

Headquarters, March 18, 1779.I can hardly forgive an application to my humanity to induce me to exert my influence in an affair in which ladies are concerned, and especially when you are of the party. Had you appealed to my friendship or to my gallantry, it would have been irresistible. I should have thought myself bound to have set prudence and policy at defiance, and even to have attacked wind-mills in your ladyship’s service. I’m not sure but my imagination would have gone so far as to have fancied New York an enchanted castle—the three ladies so many fair damsels ravished from their friends and held in captivity by the spells of some wicked magician— General Clinton, a huge giant, placed as keeper of the gates—and myself, a valorous knight, destined to be their champion and deliverer.

But when, instead of availing yourself of so much better titles, you appealed to the cold, general principle of humanity, I confess I felt myself mortified, and determined, by way of revenge, to mortify you in turn. I resolved to show you that all the eloquence of your fine pen could not tempt our Fabius [Washington] to do wrong; and, avoiding any representation of my own, I put your letter into his hands and let it speak for itself. I knew, indeed, this would expose his resolution to a severer trial than it could experience in any other way, and I was not without my fears for the event, but if it should decide against you, I anticipated the triumph of letting you see your influence had failed. I congratulated myself on the success of my scheme; for, though there was a harder struggle upon the occasion between inclination and duty, than it would be for his honor to tell; yet he at last had the courage to determine that, as he could not indulge the ladies with consistency and propriety, he would not run the risk of being charged with a breach of both.

This he desired me to tell you, though, to be sure, it was done in a different manner, interlaced with many assurances of his great desire to oblige you, and of his regret that he could not do it in the present case, with a deal of stuff of the same kind, which I have too good an opinion of your understanding to repeat. I shall, therefore, only tell you that whether the Governor and the General are more honest or more perverse than other people, they have a very odd knack of thinking alike; and it happens in the present case that they both equally disapprove the intercourse you mention, and have taken pains to discourage it. I shall leave you to make your own reflections upon this, with only one more observation, which is that the ladies for whom you apply would have every claim to be gratified, were it not that it would operate as a bad precedent.

But, before I conclude, it will be necessary to explain one point. This refusal supposes that the ladies mean only to make a visit and return to New York. If it should be their intention to remain with us, the case will be altered. There will be no rule against their coming out, and they will be an acquisition. But this is subject to two provisos—1st that they are not found guilty of treason or any misdemeanor punishable by the laws of the State, in which case the General can have no power to protect them; and 2dly, that the ladies on our side do not apprehend any inconvenience from increasing their number. Trifling apart, there is nothing could give me greater pleasure than to have been able to serve Miss Livingston and her friends on this occasion, but circumstances really did not permit it. I am persuaded she has too just an opinion of the General’s politeness not to be convinced that he would be happy to do anything which his public character would justify in an affair so interesting to the tender feelings of so many ladies. The delicacy of her own ideas will easily comprehend the delicacy of his situation;— she knows the esteem of her friend.

A. Hamilton.

The General and Mrs. Washington present their compliments.

Hamilton’s letter can be found HERE. Portrait from Find A Grave.


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