Reminiscences of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton


WHEN I was a child of twelve or thirteen, I spent the winter in Washington, and had the good fortune to know Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, whom I remember to this day with vivid interest and love. It was probably pleasant for her to have a young person about her, and for days and often weeks at a time she and her widowed daughter would have me with them. General Winfield Scott lived in the house next Mrs. Hamilton’s, and I became familiar with his soldierly figure, and remember how eagerly I watched for him on New Year’s Day, when his six-feet-and-four was arrayed in all the glory of full uniform for the President’s reception. I had my own idea of the God of War, but not Mars himself could have filled it more gorgeously than the general as he crossed the broad sidewalk in a dazzle of gold and color, with waving plume and clanking sword. But there was no prancing war-horse, and I had a miserable sense of flatness when all that splendor was swallowed up in a rusty hack and jolted away in the most commonplace manner.

Mrs. Hamilton’s favorite room in her house, which was on H Street, near the site of the Presbyterian church, was the front room of the English basement, the diningroom being back of it. There, by the window, in her own particular chair, she sat for hours, either looking out, or weaving mats on a small frame with pins along the sides. No longer able to read or even to knit, this work was a great resource to her who had always been full of activity. Precluded from any social exertion by her great age (she was then ninety-five), she often seemed pleased to turn to me for amusement. I would read to her, or sit near and sew my bits of work while she was in a talkative mood; or, in fine weather, I would walk with her. Leaning her right hand on a stout cane, and her left arm upon my arm, she would walk several blocks, generally to a florist’s, for she was passionately fond of flowers ; and always there was from her a cheerful little stream of talk, either of reminiscences, or of observations of nature, or of philosophical reverie, when everything else seemed to be forgotten. In stormy weather there were her mat-weaving and backgammon, of which she was very fond. I would have to tell her the number on the dice, because she could not see ; but she would play for hours. I asked her once if she had always liked it. She replied : “ Yes, always. When I was young, Mr. Franklin taught me to play. He visited my father’s when I was a girl, and was very kind to me.”

One of her reminiscences that made a deep impression on me was the story of a great gathering of the Indians of eastern New York at Saratoga, which was then only a log fort. All the chiefs and greatest warriors of the Six Nations had met in solemn council, row after row of fine specimens of manhood standing silently around an open space, where a bit of greensward gleamed in the sunshine. Although they were dressed in all the barbaric pomp of war-paint, there was peace on their faces as they stood awaiting the approach of a small group of whites, —one or two officers in full uniform, and a tall commanding man in the prime of life, leading by the hand a slim girl about thirteen, dressed in white, with uncovered head and half-curious, halffrightened eyes. This man was General Philip Schuyler, whom the Indians honored as they did no other white man ; and they had met to offer him a tribute of devotion. At a sign from the great chief their ranks parted to admit General Schuyler, who advanced into the open space, still leading his little daughter. There, with many ceremonies, the child was formally adopted by the Six Nations, the chiefs ending the sacred rites by laying their hands upon her head, and giving her an Indian name meaning “ One-of-us.” This incident as told by Mrs. Hamilton was the more impressive because she herself was the little maid thus adopted.

I recall one of her reminiscences of General Washington, because it gave me a new idea of him. She had been talking of men of bodily strength, and she observed that Washington was a very strong man. She then told an incident that must have happened soon after her marriage, for she was at the time at headquarters with her husband. Washington was writing in his office, a room on the second floor of a farmhouse. The farmer’s wife, who was washing clothes, suddenly discovered that the shedroof was on fire. She rushed screaming into the house,and Washington came bounding down the stairs, picked up one of the large washtubs full of suds, ran upstairs with it, got out on the roof, and emptied it on the blaze ; then he ran for another tub, and still another, before he succeeded in putting out the fire.

After dinner, it was the custom for Mrs. Hamilton, if well enough, to spend an hour or so in the large parlors on the first floor, where every evening there were many visitors, friends and strangers. Generally she enjoyed their calls, taking part in the conversation and showing a lively interest in current affairs ; but sometimes she was unable to make the exertion. She did not make calls herself, but once I remember she went to one of President Pierce’s receptions. When it was known that the widow of Alexander Hamilton was present, she became the attraction of the evening ; and the President, anxious to do her honor, left his place, offered his arm, and escorted her around the East Room.

Her dress, always black, of wool in the morning and of silk or satin in the evening, had been made after the same fashion for many years. She wore a plain full skirt, and a plain, rather short waist folded over (not under) a muslin kerchief. Around her neck was a broad, finely plaited ruffle fastened behind, and a small soft shawl was laid over her shoulders. Her face, with its fine features, was framed by a plain snowy cap edged with a finely plaited ruffle, and tied under the chin. Some of the fire of youth still shone in those dark eyes, as she sat and talked with her guests, or, when they had gone, she slowly walked about the large rooms, leaning on her cane, pausing at one old bit or another of furniture to tell me its history. These rooms were crowded with relics, — swords, books, china, pictures, and many other things whose history I would gladly recall. The side wall near the entrance door was almost covered with a large half-length portrait of Washington, who sat to Stuart for it, and gave it to Hamilton. Under a large handsome centre table in the front parlor was a great silver wine-cooler, also a gift from Washington. I remember nothing more distinctly than a sofa and chairs with spindle legs, upholstered in black broadcloth, embroidered in flowery wreaths by Mrs. Hamilton herself, and a marble bust of Hamilton standing on its pedestal in a draped corner. That bust I can never forget, for the old lady always paused before it in her tour of the rooms, and, leaning on her cane, gazed and gazed, as if she could never be satisfied.

She always called him Hamilton. One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded, and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while ; when the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost, to all around her. I never heard her complain, and I loved her with a reverent love that made me feel awed as the long silence was broken by the murmured words, “ I am so tired, — it is so long. I want to see Hamilton.” What thoughts must have come to her from the past ! — for she had griefs and losses beyond the usual grievous lot of woman. It is told in history that her oldest son, Philip, fell in a duel before his father met a similar fate ; but it is unwritten history that the oldest daughter, a lovely young creature, was so shocked by her brother’s cruel death that her reason fled forever. In a private asylum she lived to be an old woman.

When Mrs. Hamilton died, at the age of ninety-seven, although an interment in old Trinity churchyard in New York had been for years a forbidden thing, her last request was granted. Quietly, at night, that frail little form was laid to rest there by the side of her beloved and illustrious husband.