Hamilton – An American Musical: The Facts Behind the Music Part 16: “We Know,” “Hurricane,” “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” & “Burn”

Part sixteen will cover songs thirty-five through thirty-eight: “We Know,” “Hurricane,” “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” and “Burn” – the ruin of Alexander Hamilton’s public and personal life.

One Last Time,” “I Know Him,” and “The Adams Administration,” the three previous songs (covered in part fifteen of this series), covered the time period of about 1793 to 1800.  “We Know” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” take place between those years.

Miranda took artistic license with the people who were involved in “We Know.”   Hamilton opens the song with “Mr. Vice President. Mr. Madison. Senator Burr. What is this?”  I’ll attempt to make a long story short – James Reynolds and two other men were imprisoned on charges of committing fraud against the U.S. government.  While in prison, and after they secured their release, Reynolds and one of the other men (Jacob Clingman) began dropping hints that they had information that concerned Hamilton committing fraud while he was Treasury Secretary.  Frederick Muhlenberg, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, had employed Clingman before his imprisonment, and received some of the info regarding Hamilton from Clingman.  As Muhlenberg continued to receive more information, he began to believe the accusations against Hamilton.  He informed his fellow Congressmen James Monroe and Abraham Venable of what he had heard.  It was these three men – Muhlenberg, Monroe, and Venable – who approached Hamilton on December 15, 1792, to question him about the accusations leveled by Clingman and Reynolds.[1]  Jefferson, Madison, and Burr were not involved.

In the musical, the men sing, “[JEFFERSON] We have the check stubs from separate accounts… [MADISON] Almost a thousand dollars, paid in different amounts… [BURR] To a Mr. James Reynolds way back in seventeen ninety-one….”  When Hamilton wrote the actual Reynolds pamphlet, he stated, “On the 19th [of December], I received the promised letter the essence of which is that he was willing to take a thousand dollars as the plaister of his wounded honor. I determined to give it to him, and did so in two payments, as per receipts dated the 22d of December and 3d of January.”  Hamilton had provided other funds to Clingman and Reynolds as well, but he defended these as loans in the pamphlet, and included the proofs with his pamphlet in a series of appendices.

Hamilton tries to prove his innocence to the three men by showing them a letter.  He makes them promise them not to tell another soul what they saw, and after receiving assurances, he produces a letter from James Reynolds.  In the musical, Burr reads from the same letter that was read in “Non-Stop.”  “Dear Sir, I hope this letter finds you in good health and in a prosperous enough position to put wealth in the pockets of people like me: down on their luck. You see, it was my wife who you decided to….” As mentioned in part twelve of this series, Mr. Reynolds did indeed write Hamilton a couple of letters (dated December 15, and December 17, 1791), and although he didn’t use those words, that’s pretty much what he was getting at.

Hamilton explains, “She courted me, escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner that’s when Reynolds extorted me.”  In the Reynolds pamphlet, Hamilton wrote,

“She told me the street and the number of the house where she lodged. In the evening I put a bank-bill in my pocket and went to the house.  I inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shewn up stairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bed room. I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”

In the end, Jefferson and Madison say, “The people won’t know what we know,” while Burr says, “Alexander, rumors only grow. And we both know what we know.”  In reality, although the men said they wouldn’t tell, Monroe eventually leaked the information to Jefferson, who in turn leaked it to sordid newspaper man James T. Callender, who published the information about the alleged scandals of Hamilton (financial and sexual) in his pamphlet, History of 1796.  This is what led to Hamilton publishing his defense in the Reynolds Pamphlet. It also almost led to a duel between Hamilton and Monroe.[2]

That leads into “Hurricane.”  In this song Hamilton sings, “When I was seventeen a hurricane destroyed my town, I didn’t drown; I couldn’t seem to die. I wrote my way out. Wrote everything down far as I could see I wrote my way out; I looked up and the town had its eyes on me. They passed a plate around, total strangers, moved to kindness by my story. Raised enough for me to book passage on a Ship that was New York bound.”  On August 31, 1772, “the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace” struck St. Croix, where Hamilton resided.  Hamilton wrote a letter to his father (who was living on St. Kitts) describing the hurricane and the devastation it wrought.  An older acquaintance of Hamilton, Hugh Knox (who was a minister, doctor, apothecary, and part-time journalist who sometimes filled in for the editor of the local paper after he emigrated to St. Croix), somehow saw the letter (maybe Hamilton showed it to him), and Knox thought so highly of it that he persuaded Hamilton to have it printed in the Royal Danish American Gazette.[3] And so there it appeared on the date of October 3, 1772.  A statement preceding the letter (probably written by Knox) stated, “The Author’s modesty in long refusing to submit it to Publick view, is the reason of its making its appearance so late as it now does.”[4]

Of this letter, Chernow marvels, “it does seem wondrous that a seventeen-year-old self-educated clerk could write with such verse and gusto….but the description was also notable for the way Hamilton viewed the hurricane as a divine rebuke to human vanity and pomposity.”  After the publication of this letter, the town did have its eye on Hamilton, and they did help him out.  Many people on the island, surrounded by the devastation caused by the hurricane, inquired as to the author of the letter.  (The governor of the island was among these people.) A fund was started by local businessmen to send Hamilton to North American for an education, and despite the massive amounts of damage on the island, enough money was raised.[5]

Hamilton did not take a ship to New York, however.  The vessel actually sailed into Boston.  Hamilton did proceed directly to New York though.  He then spent some time in New Jersey at the Elizabethtown Academy[6] before returning to New York to attend college.

Hamilton then sings, “I wrote my way out of hell, I wrote my way to revolution, I was louder than the crack in the bell. I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell. I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well. And in the face of ignorance and resistance, I wrote financial systems into existence.”  This is a really quick recap of his life, all of which was covered in other parts of this series.  The crack in the bell refers to the Liberty Bell.  Although the bell cracked during a test strike in the 1750s and was twice recasted, the famous crack didn’t begin until sometime between 1824 and 1846, long after Hamilton was gone.[7]

Hamilton continues, “I was twelve when my mother died, she was holding me. We were sick and she was holding me.”  In late 1767, Hamilton’s mother, Rachel, fell ill with an unknown disease.  As she lay with a fever, Hamilton also soon fell sick.  Eighteenth century medicine could not cure Rachel.  Chernow wrote, “The delirious Alexander was probably writhing inches from his mother when she expired at nine o’clock on the night of February 19.”[8]

The song ends with Hamilton saying, “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” and the song by that name immediately begins.  Jefferson, Madison, and Burr sing, “Alexander Hamilton had a torrid affair, and he wrote it down right there.” (And then Madison shouts, “Highlights!”)  They are referring to his tryst with Maria Reynolds and the pamphlet he wrote defending himself against the charges of financial impropriety while exposing his sexual impropriety.

The song continues with paraphrases from the actual Reynolds Pamphlet.

The words of the musical: “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife for a considerable time with his knowing consent….I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house….Mrs. Hamilton with our children being absent on a visit to her father.”

The words written by Hamilton for real: “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.”  Further along in the pamphlet Hamilton wrote, “After this [meaning the first meeting], I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house; Mrs. Hamilton with her children being absent on a visit to her father.”

Angelica then shows up, saying, “I came as soon as I heard” (and the company says, “All the way from London? Damn.)  Angelica moved to London with her husband, John Barker Church, in 1782.  The Churches returned to the U.S. for George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789, but returned to England soon afterwards.  John Church became a member of Parliament in 1790, and the Churches remained in England until 1799, when they returned permanently to the U.S.  In reality, Angelica did not return to her sister as soon as she heard.

Everyone sings and taunts, “Well he’s never gonna be President now,” before ending the song saying, “His poor wife,” and the keys of the piano take us into the next song, “Burn.”

Eliza opens the song with, “I saved every letter you wrote me.”  We’ll have to take her word for it, because not many exist.  If we skip ahead in the song a bit, towards the end Eliza sings, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart….They don’t get to know what I said. I’m burning the memories, burning the letters….” Chernow wrote that Eliza was “so self-effacing and so reverential towards her husband that, though she salvaged every scrap of his writing, she apparently destroyed her own letters.”[9]

I have yet to find anything from Angelica telling Eliza, “Be careful with that one, love He will do what it takes to survive,” and as close as I can find to “You have married an Icarus, he has flown too close to the sun” is a quote from Angelica to Eliza (taken from Chernow’s book) in which Angelica wrote, “…you see the penalties attending the position of so amiable a man.  All this you would not have suffered if you had married into a family less near the sun.”[10]

The song ends with Eliza hoping Alexander burns.  Things only get worse for the Hamiltons as we near the end of the musical (and this series).





[1] For more detailed information, see the note at this link.
[2] The footnotes of this letter give more detailed information about what happened.  See also Chernow, 537-542.  Eliza Hamilton never forgave James Monroe for his role in exposing her husband’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
[3] Chernow, 36.
[4] The letter, also linked in the text above, is well worth reading.
[5] Chernow, 37.
[6] Chernow, 41-44.  Hamilton met a number of influential Americans during his time in NJ, including William Livingston, William Alexander (Lord Stirling) and Elias Boudinot.  It’s quite possible that he also met Aaron Burr, or heard of him, during this time.
[7] It was irreparably damaged when it was rung for George Washington’s birthday in 1846.  See here.
[8] Chernow, 24.
[9] Chernow, 2.  Founders Online lists only eight letters from Eliza to Alexander and 112 from Alexander to Eliza.
[10] Chernow, 543.  In Greek mythology, Icarus was given wings made of feathers and wax by his father.  He was instructed not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wings will be melted by the heat.  Icarus doesn’t heed the warning and flies too close to the sun.  His wings are destroyed and he falls to the sea where he drowns.
Image credit: Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull. National Portrait Gallery

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