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The Courage of Which He Has the Reputation

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Alexander meets John Laurens on an autumn day in 1775, a few hours before he’s supposed to catch a ride on the fishing boat that’s going to row him out to the Common Sense.

He’d known of John Laurens before that, obviously, but it wasn’t until the day that Alexander got the most unexpected letter of his life that he could actually begin to claim an acquaintance with Laurens himself.

“A letter for you, Mr. Hamilton,” someone says, forcing Alexander away from his consideration of exactly how many books he can take with him on a long voyage.

Voorhees, Schuyler’s newest clerk, is standing at the door. He hands Alexander a heavy, neatly folded packet, and Alexander, assuming it’s some last-minute request from Schuyler or perhaps a letter for one of his daughters, barely looks at the paper before setting it aside. He has to pack.

It is only later, once he is bidding a not-so-fond farewell to his room (which somehow still smells of fucking mildew three years after the hurricane, and through the floorboards of which he can inevitably hear the raucous assholes at Spry Meg’s tavern downstairs, no matter the time of day, but which did, in the end, serve him relatively well when he had nowhere else to go, and at a decent price) that he remembers the letter. He takes it from the table and is intrigued to see it is addressed only to “Alexander Hamilton of St. Croix”, in a fine, elegant hand.

No one has ever called Alexander Alexander “of” anything before.

The letter looks worn, as if it has passed through several hands, and it has the briny smell of all things that have been in a ship’s hold, familiar to Alexander from the docks and Schuyler’s offices.

Alexander pulls out his knife and slides it neatly through the now-brittle seal, but he’s barely taken a single look at the signature before he has to stop, sit down hard on the chair, and start over.

It says:

July 11, 1775

Dear Sir,

I pray you will forgive the unasked-for intrusion of this letter, which I hope finds you in good health. Allow me to give you my fullest assurances that if its content is as unwelcome as it is unexpected, there is no need to pen any reply: if I have not heard from you one year from the date of this letter I will consider the matter closed, and you need not fear I will contact you again. Given the inadequate way I have addressed it, perhaps this missive will not find its way to you, in any case, though it is my hope that fate has kept you in St. Croix, or, failing that, that someone of your acquaintance will know where this letter might be forwarded to be delivered into your hand.

Alexander can’t help it; he smiles. He recognizes the tone of the letter, because his life has been such that he intimately knows the difficulty of trying to balance politeness with an incredibly awkward request. He recognizes it in the press of ink against some parts of the page, in the painful formality of every word.

I have allowed myself to write you only after long consideration, based on the conviction that not to communicate what is contained herein, when it so sorely needs expressing, would be a greater disrespect than is begging your indulgence for my boldness.

Sir, if you are already aware of who I am, then you have the advantage of me, who until two days ago had never heard your name. My name is John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens of South Carolina and, if my understanding is correct, I am the man to whom you were contracted in marriage between the years of 1762 and 1765, when the agreement that had been struck between our fathers was terminated.

My parents, sir, did not see fit to inform me of their arrangement with your father at the time, perhaps considering me too young and intending to reserve the news for my adolescence, or for a time when a date for the wedding had been set. As you will now be aware, either due to this letter or through your own knowledge of the matter, this never came to be.

Mr. Hamilton, I must once again beg your indulgence and forgiveness for my directness and indelicacy, but after many discarded drafts of this letter I have not found a way to communicate the matter in any other way but this: my father informs me that you are the son of James Hamilton and the grandson of Laird Alexander Hamilton of Ayrshire, Scotland, but that my family considered its agreement with your father annulled when, upon the arrival of one of your family members in South Carolina in late 1764, some further information regarding your ancestry came to light.

Alexander puts the letter down, standing up and opening the wooden shutters at his window. The afternoon is cooling into dusk, and a breeze is blowing in from the sea. Alexander lets it flutter through his hair, taking a deep breath of the salt air.

He lights the lamp at the table, casting an eye over the room to make sure he has clearly labeled the crate he is leaving behind for Meg’s men to deliver to Schuyler, full of all the books he could bear to part with.

He pretends to himself that his hands aren’t shaking as he sits down again, unable to pick up the letter again just yet.

The truth is that for all his talk of ‘indelicacy’, Laurens has managed to give the matter the most tactful expression that Alexander has heard in his entire life. ‘Further information regarding your ancestry’—Alexander wouldn’t have thought it was possible to pack so much into such few words, and Alexander knows from trying to pack meaning into the ink on a page.

Yes, Alexander has better pretensions of ancestry than most in St. Croix, but no—he has been given to understand by the church and its school and the men who would not buy from his mother’s store—he is not strictly, lawfully, legitimately James Hamilton’s son.

Alexander understands the legal complexities of having been born to a woman who was married to a man other than his father. He’s not now, nor has he ever been, dull: he understands people, their pettiness and their politics and their fears. What exactly it is that people believe marriage before childbirth has to do with the worth of a person, though, Alexander still couldn’t fucking say, and he has given the matter no small amount of consideration over the years.

His father, before he left them, had always excelled at the art of looking like what he wasn’t, and he had been terribly proud when he had transmogrified whatever whiff of nobility still clung to him into a marriage for Alexander, to the scion of a wealthy family in South Carolina. Alexander had been seven, too smart for his own good but not at all interested in whom he might have to marry in some distant future, so he had filed the name away—John Laurens—and not given his father’s announcement, or his obvious pleasure, another thought.

In later years he would reflect that his father’s pleasure was mostly related to getting one over on Henry Laurens, and not to securing a future for Alexander, but by then he had such a diminished view of dear old dad that he didn’t give that another thought, either.

When Alexander had been younger he had understood what people said about his mother, but thought, in his childish way, that he could (and would) outrun it; that his achievements and his intellect would eclipse the circumstances of his birth, because they must. That had never felt as true as when his father had told him of his engagement to John Laurens, a respectable boy in a colony far away, in a land where, after his wedding, Alexander could make a name for himself.

He has since learned that there is no outrunning the past: not his mother’s particular past, at least, not the stench of her first husband or the petty cruelty of her first son. Not content to have what Alexander did not—legitimacy, and passage away from the islands, and an occupation and place waiting for him in a new land—Peter Lavien, upon his arrival in South Carolina, had somehow found time between his no doubt incredibly mediocre sermons to inform the Laurens family of the realities of his half-brother’s birth.

Following his conversation with Lavien Henry Laurens had sent a single letter to Alexander’s father, a few stark lines on paper that had made Alexander’s father's face lose its color. He’d asked Alexander’s mother for a drink, and though no one had told him directly, Alexander had understood right then that whatever vague married future he had imagined in South Carolina was not to be.

Alexander didn’t know it then, but he and James would have been lucky if ruining Alexander’s prospects had represented the full extent of Lavien’s capacity to be an asshole. But seemingly not content with thwarting the marriage and condemning Alexander to a life among the small people and smaller minds of St. Croix, Lavien had returned to the island seven years ago to seize what little Alexander’s mother had left her Hamilton sons after her death. The hatred in Lavien’s eyes as he looked at Alexander across the little house on 34 Company Street, instructing men to remove Alexander’s mother’s furniture, had taunted: try to outrun this.

Fuck you, Alexander had thought, but he had been too young and too unlearned and too unconnected to do anything about it. The last two he could fix, and he had set himself to doing so the minute Lavien had walked out the door.

Alexander wonders, in the idle sort of way that he has cultivated for the particular exercise that is reflecting on people’s dismissal of him due to his birth, what the rest of Laurens’ letter will say. It seems unlikely that it will contain the kind of vitriol Alexander has heard all his life, given the trouble to which Laurens has gone to craft his apologetic introduction.

But, he reflects, picking up the letter with now-steady hands, you never know; sometimes people like to draw you in before they kick you down.

Sir, the letter continues, had I learned of my father’s decision when I was a child, I would likely not have questioned his wisdom, or his reasons. I find that the experience of learning the truth of what occurred then, now that I am a man, is a shameful one. In my maturity I understand keenly that I should have vehemently questioned my father, and the faulty morality that allows one individual to declare himself above another. Each man is born to a place, to a family, to a set of circumstances, but none of those things, in my eyes, are relevant when considering his worth. As far as I am concerned the value of a man, sir, can only be measured by his own actions, by his own words, and by his own contributions. Nothing else other than what is inside a man’s heart and mind defines him. Mr. Hamilton, I consider it not only possible but probable that in the time between the termination of our mutual agreement your parents arranged another marriage for you—

Alexander laughs, because Laurens is either trying his hand at ‘delicacy’ again, suggesting that a bastard could have prospects enough for another marriage ‘arrangement’, or accusing Alexander’s father of lying to some other hapless family without saying it outright,

or perhaps you have made a match all your own. Even if you are unmarried, sir, I would never presume that you would have any interest in a proposition from a perfect stranger, but my intent in writing you this letter is to say that, had it been dependent on my own judgment, I would never have reneged on the agreement my family once made with yours. I hesitate once again to state the case so baldly, but find myself without a choice as, given my lack of knowledge regarding your current situation, not to mention your current whereabouts, I do not have the privilege of sending several missives, but must content myself with this single communication.

I am currently a student of law at the Inns of Court in London. I have no wealth other than that which my father has bestowed on me until now, and the promise of my future inheritance. I can offer no assurances that, were your response to this letter to be positive, my father would support my decision. Without my father’s support I would have no immediate means, and so perhaps it shall be your turn to declare the match undesirable, as is of course your right. If, however, you find yourself at all amenable to my proposal, sir—

Alexander holds the letter closer to the light, clinging to some vague sense of normality in the face of this mad correspondence, because… is this John Laurens asshole genuinely about to fucking—

well, then, I would ask that you reply to this letter, care of the university, the address of which I have enclosed, and that you provide an address at which I, too, may reach you in future. As you may be aware the situation in South Carolina and the colonies is in flux. If I were to return home unexpectedly, I will leave instructions here that any letters be forwarded to me, so you need not concern yourself with replying hastily; I am certain you will wish to consider carefully before responding, if you choose to respond at all.

Here there is a smudge on the paper, as if someone has run a thumb through the ink while holding the letter up, and under it the writing appears to say,

Upon re-reading this letter I realize I have written at length but have managed to provide no straightforward summation of what I actually wish to communicate. In my attempts to ensure formality I have also given you the impression, perhaps, that I can neither compose a clear sentence nor possess the conversational abilities that one would expect to find in a particularly placid dog.

The former, at least, I can attest is untrue.

What I meant to say is the following:

Mr. Hamilton, if this missive finds you unmarried, and willing to marry, and if upon reflection you would consider as a prospect a man whose father’s displeasure may soon leave him penniless, but who aspires to live a life of impact and importance; who is not, if you will permit the immodesty, without skills; and whose most sacred belief is that a man makes his own fate; then, sir, I would like to tell you that in my eyes the agreement made between our families in 1762 stands, and that, if you desire, we may begin a correspondence to ascertain whether we are two individuals of like mind who may, in future, wish to make a life together.

If we quickly consider we are not well matched, then a few letters shared between us will have at least served to edify us on the character of the other. If we are well matched but not well suited for marriage then I will consider myself fortunate to have gained a friend, and if you wish to come to South Carolina you will be most welcome. If fortune will have it that we both find, through this experiment of two minds, someone with whom we consider we can build a life, then upon my return to South Carolina I would invite you to join me, hopefully in my father’s house but, failing that, in the fertile and verdant hills I have always called home, so that we might be wed.

Your faithful servant,
John Laurens.

Alexander sits there, watching the light flickering in the lamp, for a long time.

Longer than he ought to, considering he is scheduled to meet Schuyler’s man at midnight so he can take Alexander to the Common Sense.

He reads the letter again. He looks out the window at the docks. He reads the letter yet again, trying to decide what exactly it is that apparently makes him such a perfect target for these kinds of celestial jokes.

The thing about this whole situation is this: Alexander never intended to become a pirate.

He’d been quietly working away at Beekman, Cruger, and Schuyler, minding the books and keeping an eye on his prospects (okay, maybe the ‘quietly’ is kind of a lie), and he hadn’t realized the old man was watching him as closely as he was until it was too late.

“You’re not bad at this, Mr. Hamilton,” he’d said, pushing Alexander’s proposal for diversifying the goods they were trading out of the French West Indies back across Alexander’s desk.

Telling Alexander he ‘wasn’t bad’ at something was guaranteed to incense the fuck out of him, and judging by Schuyler’s smirk, he knew.

Alexander can respect shit-stirring when he sees it, though, and so he had smiled widely and said, “I know. So when are you going to get rid of that idiot Winklevoss and put me in charge? Sir.”

Schuyler hadn’t said anything, but when he’d left for the northern colonies on business he had, indeed, left Alexander in charge. When he had returned he had taken one interminable day to review Alexander’s books, and another interminable day asking everyone questions, and when he was satisfied that Alexander was the shit—at least, that’s the only thing Alexander allowed himself to think he could have concluded—he had asked Alexander to his house for a quiet brandy that evening.

Alexander had put on his least threadbare shirt; he’d shined his shoes. Schuyler’s youngest daughter, Margarita, had opened the door, and Alexander had sketched a bow over her hand before following her to her father’s parlor.

“You know my daughter, Peggy,” Schuyler had said.

“I hadn’t had the pleasure, no,” Alexander had replied, shooting Peggy his best grin.

She’d looked amused despite herself, and Schuyler had said, with what sounded like barely veiled amusement but also maybe a hint of murder, “Have a seat, Mr. Hamilton.”

Alexander had expected to be told Schuyler was going to start grooming him to take over the business. He had a tendency to get ahead of himself—he was self-aware enough to know that much—but he had been certain that, at least, it was going to be a night for talking goods and transport and cargo.

He had not expected Schuyler to begin telling him about his two eldest daughters, Angelica and Eliza. Very beautiful, Alexander had been given to understand by local gossip, and very charming. They couldn’t possibly have anything directly to do with Schuyler’s business, Alexander had thought impatiently, but he could humor the old man if that’s what it took. As far as he understood it, the two of them had been away for schooling since they were young, and were no doubt looking for husbands in Europe or the colonies even as Alexander and Schuyler spoke—

“I’m sorry, what?” Alexander had said.

Schuyler had stared back, docile as a cow, and repeated himself.

“That’s when Angelica was forced to take command of the ship. She has been pirating up and down the coasts of the Caribbean since, and she needs someone to help her make the most of her profits. She won’t be doing this forever, of course; a sound young mind to make the most of a few years’ worth of looting is exactly what she needs.”

Alexander had taken a slow, steadying sip of his brandy, trying to decide if Schuyler was having a joke at his expense, and how to react if he was. Whatever the man might be, he still held the purse strings that kept Alexander in books and rent of a questionable room near the docks.

Schuyler hadn’t been joking, it had turned out. Alexander would have maybe suspected the old man was going slightly crazy, if it hadn’t been for the meticulous way in which he had shared the books on Angelica’s profits to date, and for the equally earnest way in which he had promised that no one would ever hear from Alexander ever again if he chose to share what Schuyler had told him.

“You’re under no obligation to join her, of course, Mr. Hamilton,” Schuyler had said. Peggy, who had arrived sometime between Schuyler discussing Angelica’s wit and Eliza’s kindness and the offer of a job for Alexander as a fucking pirate accountant, had been watching intently from the corner of the room. “But if you choose to remain with us at Cruger, where of course your job prospects are secure, I demand your discretion.”

Alexander had left Schuyler’s house that night with his head full of thoughts and his body inadvisably full of brandy. He had stumbled home, telling himself it was all too ludicrous to bear, but in reality he had made a decision before he had even reached the tavern’s dirty doorway.

To work steadily at the traders', hoping to make enough of a name for himself to manage their accounts, never owning more than what they paid him, or to take a risk in exchange for a possible tidy sum with which to make his own fate?

It hadn’t seemed like a question then, and it hadn’t seemed like a question until precisely an hour ago, when John Laurens’ ridiculous, fantastical letter had arrived in Alexander’s rooms like something out of a particularly improbable novel.

Alexander is about to embark on a life without guarantees, but with the prospect of fortune and a passage away from the islands at the end of it. To allow this ghost from the past to derail that, even by answering Laurens’ letter, seems unwise at best and fucking idiotic at worst. Laurens has no idea that Alexander is still in St. Croix: one more day, and the letter would have missed him entirely. Alexander has no obligation, and no—he tells himself—real desire to reply.

And yet. He opens the letter one final time, and in my most sacred belief is that a man makes his own fate he sees his own philosophy, his most secret hopes. In but none of those things, in my eyes, are relevant when considering his worth Alexander feels, inexplicably, truly seen for perhaps the first time in his life, other than by his mother.

It makes no sense to reply, Alexander tells himself. Even if Laurens writes back, Alexander is likely to not receive it—he might be sailing halfway across the world; he might, he supposes, even be dead by the time a letter winds its way back to the islands.

And if I am dead, Alexander thinks, what does it matter if I write him now?

And so in the end, with one cautious eye on the time and his heart beating furiously in his chest, Alexander writes:

October 3, 1775

Dear Sir,

I must admit that I was greatly surprised, but not at all unhappy, to receive your letter.

As it happens, I have been fortunate to receive it at all: I am in the employ of Beekman, Cruger, and Schuyler, a St. Croix firm specializing in trade with New England and the other British colonies, and I have recently been appointed to a position by one of the partners that will call me away from St. Croix for many months on business.

This is a fucking terrible idea, Alexander thinks, to tell this man whose family was once misled by Alexander’s father something that only scrapes at the truth of Alexander’s life now. He dips his pen in the ink and keeps writing.

My life has not so far been a life in which circumstances have aligned to make what I had desired possible; I am certain that this is a course I can alter, and I am determined to do so. I had hoped, some time after the events you mention in your letter, to make my way to the continent to seek a life there. Unfortunately my cousin, who acted as guardian to my brother and me after my mother was taken by fever, passed away suddenly, making it impossible for me to pursue the plans I had made in that direction.

This is too private, Alexander thinks. Too much. And yet he has never been one for keeping things close to the vest; if there is one thing Laurens should be aware of from the start of their correspondence, it is probably that Alexander prefers for things to be spoken plainly.

And yet now, sir, on the eve of a business opportunity that will, I hope, permanently alter my fortunes for the better, I have managed to receive your letter but a few hours before I would have departed the island indefinitely. That, to me, seems an unusual aligning of circumstances.

I cannot say much more; please accept my apologies, as there are constraints on my time and I wish to respond to your letter before my departure.

Your thoughts about how a man may—and must—make his fate in the world align perfectly with my own. I am convinced that my fortunes are in my hands, Mr. Laurens, and I am committed to turning my time on this earth into a life of import, of consequence, of merit. Though I have only a single letter from you to allow me to make a judgment, it seems to me that we may be fortuitously well matched in this regard.

Because of the value I put on this particular aspect of a man’s character, I feel confident in saying it would be my privilege to make your acquaintance, in whatever way is possible for us given the distance that results from our pursuing endeavors in two such different locations.

Alexander stops. He has so much more he wants to say, but he won’t catch his ride if he doesn’t hurry, and though he can feel a multitude of words pressing outward against his ribs, upward against the catch of his throat, he realises abruptly that he doesn’t know what the words are.

Alexander, who never lacks words, doesn’t know what else to say.

He does know that the man who wrote the letter in his hands understands some part of who Alexander is. He cannot say how he knows it, but he is certain of it, and he has a strangely intense desire to believe that the reverse is true, that he has some window into what kind of man Laurens might be.

He does not know exactly what to say, but he knows that it matters that he does say something, and so for the first time in his life he settles for fewer words, simply making sure that the opportunity is not lost.

Going forward you may reach me care of Mr. Philip Schuyler of Beekman, Cruger, and Schuyler in St. Croix. I have enclosed the address. Mr. Schuyler will ensure your letters are delivered into my hand; I hope my travels will not delay their arrival overmuch.

Impulsively, he finishes,

I look forward to our correspondence.

I am glad, sir, to call myself your obedient servant,
Alexander Hamilton

Alexander, who has always had more words than time, and does again just now; who can hear Schuyler’s man asking after him downstairs and who can’t imagine how he will reconcile a friendship with a landed gentleman with the life he is about to embark on; who knows all this but can’t resist the opportunity to be known a little better by this man who sounds, for the first time in Alexander’s life, as if he might be someone interested in seeing who Alexander is

Alexander writes back, “Yes.”