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What Have We to Do with Any Thing but Love?

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This is a guest post written by Meghan Wilson, a Preservation Science Specialist in the Preservation Researching and Testing Division. Meghan runs PRTD’s multispectral imaging system, often unveiling the invisible within the Library’s collection.

Digital photograph of Hamilton's Letter
Hamilton, Alexander. Alexander Hamilton Papers: General Correspondence, -1804; 1780. 1780. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Amidst the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton sought solace in his love for Elizabeth Schuyler. Their correspondence is filled with moments of fondness, passion, and ardor. Hamilton wrote, “You engross my thoughts too entirely to allow me to think anything else,” (5 Oct 1780) “I quarrel with the hours that they do not fly more rapidly and give us to each other” (25 Sept 1780).

But his poetic words of longing and affection weren’t always a matter of record. When The Works of Alexander Hamilton were published in 1850 by Alexander and Elizabeth’s son, John, passages of endearment were excluded from print. Harold C. Syrett rectified this in the mid-20th century with a comprehensive publication of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton which spanned 27 volumes. Syrett took a more purist and unbiased approach in his edition, including all content as originally written. Despite the more complete publication of correspondence, the original source material still possessed hidden anecdotes of Hamilton’s tender heart.

The first page of a letter written from Hamilton to then fiancé Elizabeth Schuyler on September 6, 1780, contains 14 lines of text that are crossed out. It’s presumed this was done by John before publication and sale of his father’s papers to the federal government. John Hamilton’s copy made no mention of this edit whatsoever and Syrett notes in his edition that the lines were “impossible to decipher.”

Luckily, PRTD has the ability to resolve this enigma. By using a capture technique called multispectral imaging, we were able to digitally separate the interference of the cross outs and read the original text beneath. Multispectral imaging, as the name suggests, involves photographic capture under different types of light. Our set up is comprised of illumination in 17 specific wavelengths spanning the ultraviolet (UV), visible (VIS), and infrared (IR) spectrums, with a specialized high-resolution camera sensitive to capture beyond just the visible range. The technique is non-invasive and safe to use with sensitive materials.

Photograph of PRTD's multispectral imaging system.
The Preservation Research and Testing Division’s multispectral imaging system. Photo credit: PRTD

Though the human eye can’t see in UV or IR, the camera can, and there is a lot of information and scholarship to be gleaned about cultural heritage objects in these light ranges. In the case of the Hamilton letter, we analyzed the materiality of the inks – the ink used to write the original letter, and the ink used to cross it out. Due to their differing chemical composition, it was easily to observe their unique responses under the various spectrums of light. Iron gall ink, the ink Hamilton used for the original letter, appears to fade under IR. Carbon-based ink, which was used for the cross outs, consistently remains bold throughout. While it would have made analysis easy if it was the cross-out ink that faded in IR instead, the fact that it was persistent posed a challenge for image processing.

Color and Infrared images of Hamilton's letter showing redacted text.
Redacted text. Left: color image. Right: Infrared image (940nm). Photo credit: Meghan Wilson

The initial high-res images that were generated afforded a close examination of the text due to the ability to zoom into the image with retained clarity. From here we began to decipher letters, and slowly, entire words. However, further image processing was needed to achieve a full transcription.

Close up veiw of Hamilton's letter, beginning at line 11.
High-res color image, beginning of the 11th crossed out line. Photo credit: Meghan Wilson
False color PCA processed image of Hamilton's letter.
Principal component analysis image with false color. Photo credit: Meghan Wilson

Principal component analysis (PCA) was used to help legibility. PCA is a mathematical algorithm that detects differences within large data sets to make them easier to interpret. In this case, the data set is hundreds of thousands of pixels across 17 multispectral images. As we saw in the IR picture above, PCA recognizes the stark difference in response between the pixels of the two inks and will visibly select and highlight them separately. Additionally, we can have the algorithm apply false colors to make them stand out even more.

The cross out ink was still stubborn. Yet we could distinguish more than what we could in the color image alone. We could better see the under text amidst the cross outs as well as loops and tails of different letters. While it still may not look like much to the layperson, a curator or scholar familiar with Hamilton’s handwriting would be able to decipher much more from these processed images. Our next step was to experiment with different color combinations in an effort to suppress the cross out ink as much as possible. By making the cross out ink the same color as the background, it faded away and left the original text fully legible.

Images showing the stages of processing to reveal redacted text.
Stages of image processing. Photo credit: Meghan Wilson

These 14 lines read (bracketed words remain partially or fully obscured):

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you
do, by comparing [them] with your [own],
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness.  [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? ls there anything you would put
in competition, with one glowing [kiss] of
[animated] tenderness? Anticipate my
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
may [be] speedily [removed].

Further reading about the uncovering of Hamilton’s love letter can be read here, a blog published on the anniversary of John Hamilton’s birthday several years ago.

John Hamilton didn’t physically redact every instance of sentiment within his father’s letters. But he may have thought this one particularly inappropriate or even embarrassing, as “is acquainted with all the joys of fondness” has particular implications in that time period and likely made John cringe a little bit.

The act of the redaction itself and the resurrection of the original text are interesting to consider as they provide insight to the past at such a pivotal moment in history. John Hamilton assumed the only important elements of the letters were the reports about the war. But it’s the sweet musings of love tangled amidst the reports of the war that humanize these historic figures and circumstances. It reminds us that these events weren’t just points in a timeline that we read about in a history book. They were lived experiences by human beings who even all those years ago are still relatable in their human condition to how we think and feel and act in the present day.

Further information regarding these interesting collections can be found through the links below.

Alexander Hamilton Papers Online Collection

John Hamilton’s Publication

Harold C. Syrett’s Publication

Comments (2)

  1. Will there be any future publication of the unredacted letters?

  2. Hi Catherine. While there are no current PRTD projects of additional redacted Hamilton papers, that doesn’t mean we won’t see any in the future. With over 170 million items in the LC’s collection, analysis requests continually come in from the curatorial divisions via curators, conservators, and researchers for a plethora of different objects. Keep checking back to see what more we discover from our fascinating collections and if we work on any more Hamilton redactions, we’ll be sure to post an update!

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