Unsurprisingly, letters, pamphlets, essays, and reports make up vast swaths of Hamilton’s written output. However, it turns out that the earliest published works of Hamilton may well have been poetry, and writing the occasional poem appears to have been a hobby Hamilton pursued at least through his college years.
Scholars assign varying levels of probability to the seven or eight poems historically attributed to Hamilton, and general assessments of Hamilton’s likely authorship of most of them can be found in the Founders Online edition of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton and in studies of Hamilton’s life such as Michael E. Newton’s Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years (2015). None of the studies I’ve reviewed, though, reproduce the original publications and manuscripts in which Hamilton’s poems appear, which doesn’t seem right for the recent subject of a hit musical.
As luck would have it, the Library of Congress’s collections include the two major sources in which Hamilton’s poems appear, The Royal Danish American Gazette (available on microfilm) and the Alexander Hamilton Papers (digitized and made available on the Library’s website just last month). With these materials at my disposal, I decided to write this post, which attempts to provide access to digitized versions of the poems sometimes attributed to Hamilton.
Let’s start at the beginning. The earliest poems commonly attributed to Hamilton appear in issues, spanning the years 1771-1773, of The Royal Danish American Gazette, the first known newspaper published in the Danish West Indies (present day Virgin Islands). Operating out of St. Croix, where Hamilton’s family moved in 1765, the Gazette published two poems in its April 6, 1771, issue that include the following preface by their author:
I am a youth about seventeen, and consequently such an attempt as this must be presumptuous; but if, upon perusal, you think the following piece worthy of a place in your paper, by inserting it you’ll much oblige Your obedient servant,
While the poet does not give his or her name, a footnote to the transcript of the poems provided on the Founders Online edition of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton states: “As the writer gives his age as about seventeen and his initials as AH, it is a reasonable assumption that H[amilton] was the author.” The two poems—one exploring love’s tender delights, the other passion’s wild dangers—represent the relationship extremes a young man may encounter when pursuing his romantic interest in a young woman:
The “artless,” faithful young woman in the first poem is content to experience the daily delights of marriage. In the second, the exacting demands of Celia, “an artful little slut”—a rather shocking phrase to encounter in the poetry of a Founding Father!—are nearly impossible to fulfill, and any slight misstep will expose the hopeful lover to her claws.
A little more than six months later, a poem by “Omicron” appeared in the October 14, 1772, issue of the Gazette. The poem, a response to the recent hurricane that had devastated the island St. Croix, describes the hurricane as an instrument of divine retribution, sent by God to chastise “guilty nations,” and whose fury was eased only upon the “penitential cry” and prayers of those in its path:
Based on Hamilton’s other apparent poetic contributions to the Gazette, as well as this poem’s content (thematically similar to a letter Hamilton wrote describing the hurricane for his father that was published in the Gazette’s October 3 issue), this poem has occasionally been attributed to Hamilton. There is, though, no clear evidence that he is the author.
The October 17, 1772, issue of the Royal Danish American Gazette includes a poem much more likely to be Hamilton’s. The poem, “The Soul ascending into Bliss, In humble imitation of Popes Dying Christian to his Soul,” is attributed to Hamilton by his son and biographer, John Church Hamilton, who refers to it in The Life of Alexander Hamilton (v. 1) as “a hymn” that “possess[es] not a little poetic merit, and strongly illustrative of the state of his feelings.” The four-stanza work, modeled after the work of Hamilton’s favorite poet, Alexander Pope, sings the praises of God, who rewards a soul’s “constant virtue” by unlocking the “gates of bliss”:
Hamilton’s probable authorship of this poem stems from the inclusion of two copies of the poem, both attributed to Hamilton, in the Library’s Alexander Hamilton Papers.
One copy of the poem found in the Papers is located in the series “Speeches and Writings, 1778-1804” under the slightly different title “The Soul entering into Bliss.” It consists of the first three stanzas of the poem—with minor variations—published in the Royal Danish American Gazette.
This copy of the poem is undated, though it concludes with the following note: “Written by A. H. when 18 years old.” The handwriting of the note is unidentified, though scholars presume, based on an associated note, that it was written by Hamilton’s grandson, also named Alexander Hamilton.
The other copy of the poem, part of the series “Family Papers, 1737-1917,” likewise includes only the first three stanzas—again with minor variations—of the version published in the Gazette. A note below the poem, by Hamilton’s wife, reads: “Written at 18 years of age, by my Alexander Hamilton, your affectionate friend Elizabeth Hamilton.” Michael E. Newton deduces, in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years, that Elizabeth probably based her transcription on a copy in Hamilton’s own hand (perhaps the original), and that her copy, in turn, was used by Hamilton’s grandson to create his own.
Returning to the October 17, 1772, issue of the Gazette, a poem by “Juvenis” titled “The Melancholy Hour” is printed directly above “The Soul ascending into Bliss.” Given the proximity of the two poems it’s possible that Hamilton may have written “The Melancholy Hour,” though unless further evidence emerges such attribution is largely speculative. Here is the poem, which captures the pensive forebodings of a person who seeks mental and spiritual comfort through assurances of God’s grace:
The final poem in the Royal Danish American Gazette that has been attributed to Hamilton appears in the January 30, 1773, issue (Ron Chernow, who appears to have discovered the poem, mistakenly writes that it appears in the February 3 issue, perhaps because some microfilm copies of the paper incorrectly order its pages) under the heading “Christiansted. A Character. By A. H.” The poem’s character, Eugenio, possesses wit, a generous mind, and other qualities that should make him a hit at social gatherings and well-liked by all, but by using his verbal facilities to make “jests” at others’ expense, he instead finds himself with “scarce a friend.”
The aforementioned poems appear to have been written by Hamilton before he left St. Croix for North America in October 1772 (Chernow notes that if “A Character” is in fact Hamilton’s poem, this means he may have remained in St. Croix longer than commonly thought, though he could have mailed the poem to the paper overseas from North America). Upon arriving in America, Hamilton continued his poetic efforts while attending prep school at Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey and thereafter at King’s College (now Columbia University). Among those with whom Hamilton shared his poetry were his friends Hercules Mulligan and Robert Troup.
Mulligan was a tailor who became one of Hamilton’s first friends when Hamilton came to New York immediately after arriving in North America. Hamilton may have briefly boarded with Mulligan, and the latter’s reflections on Hamilton, available in the Library’s Hamilton Papers, depict a Hamilton at ease with Mulligan’s family: “Mr. Hamilton used in the evening to sit with my family and my brothers family,” Mulligan recalls, “and write doggerel rhymes for their amusement; he was always amiable and cheerful and extremely attentive to his Book.”
Robert Troup became a lifelong friend of Hamilton’s after rooming with him at King’s College. In Troup’s own personal reflections on Hamilton he recalls that Hamilton published minor poetry in John Holt’s The New-York Journal. Troup writes:
This printer [Holt] by his zeal in the American cause, drew upon himself the invectives of all the ministerial writers; and upon a certain occasion, the General defended his conduct and principles, by burlesquing his antagonists in doggerel rhyme, with great wit and humor.
Troup continues by discussing Hamilton’s collegiate poetry writing and the unfortunate fate of a collection of poems Hamilton had presented to Troup (transcription follows below image):
After giving this hint of the General’s poetical vein, I ought to mention, that whilst he was in College, he now and then paid his court to the muses; and as a pledge of his friendship, he presented me with a small manuscript of fugitive poetry; the amusement of his leisure hours. I was not a little pleased with the pledge — I considered the poetry, as strong evidence of the elasticity of the General’s genius — and I have often lamented that the manuscript was lost, with my books and papers, during the War.
While the poems Hamilton sent to Troup were lost, one poem that did survive is a poignant memorial written around September 4, 1774, upon the death of his friend Elias Boudinot’s daughter. The first five stanzas of the poem (view a transcript of the poem through Founders Online) follow:
The concluding stanza, in which Maria’s fate becomes the same as the “Soul ascending into Bliss” from Hamilton’s earlier poem, appears on the back of the manuscript page:
Let reason silence nature’s strife,
And weep Maria’s fate no more;
She’s safe from all the storms of life,
And Wafted to a peacefull Shore.
Hamilton, given the correct motivation, could also give his verse over to more romantic concerns. Such is the case with a poem he wrote when courting his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. The poem, “Answer to the Inquiry Why I Sighed,” is printed on page 126 of Allan McLane Hamilton’s The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), and may originally have been enclosed with a letter sent by Alexander to his “Angel.”
This poem, the original copy of which now seems lost, presumably came into Allan McLane Hamilton’s possession as part a larger collection of materials given to him by his father Philip Hamilton, the youngest son of Alexander. The poem was clearly of great sentimental value to Elizabeth. As Allan tells the story:
But few letters remain which enable us to mark the advance of Hamilton’s wooing, but a little verse is in my possession which was found in a tiny bag hanging from his wife’s neck after her death, and which she had evidently always worn, and it was quite probably given to her when they were together this winter [1779-1780]. What is apparently a sonnet was written upon a piece of torn and yellow paper, fragments of which had been sewn together with ordinary thread.
The poem captures the pangs of a man separated by distance from his love:
Answer to the Inquiry Why I Sighed
Before no mortal ever knew
A love like mine so tender—true—
Completely wretched—you away—
And but half blessed e’en while you stay.
If present love [illegible] face
Deny you to my fond embrace
No joy unmixed my bosom warms
But when my angel’s in my arms.
A final poem that “tradition” has ascribed to Hamilton is “Elegy on the Death of the Honorable Samuel Hardy, Esq. late a Delegate in Congress from the State of Virginia,” which appears under the name “Amyntor” in the October 20, 1785, issue (p. 3) of The New-York Journal. (The poem is reprinted in Lyon Gardiner Tyler’s The Letters and Times of the Tylers.) There is no evidence to support this claim, however. Edmond C. Burnett, editor of the Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, in which the poem is reprinted (v. 8, p. 239), received a letter from a correspondent citing this tradition, though the correspondent could not cite the source of the tradition (nor could Burnett trace its origins). The poem follows:
Today, Hamilton is rightfully best known for his key roles in shaping the structure of the U.S. Federal government and charting an economic course that ultimately led to our modern capitalist society. However, Hamilton’s poetry, as with the poetry of other Founding Fathers, offers us a unique and more personal view of a man who played such an important part in writing our American story.