Alexander Hamilton, Benedict Arnold and a “forgotten” Publius

Postwar Politics (>1783)

March 9, 2016
by Stephen Brumwell Also by this Author


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Thanks to a critically-acclaimed and phenomenally popular Broadway musical, Alexander Hamilton has, quite literally, returned to the spotlight. The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a show inspired by Ron Chernow’s best-selling 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, has helped to rekindle interest in a man who, even when judged by the exceptional standards of the Founding Fathers, led a remarkable life.

Hamilton’s career, both as an invaluable Revolutionary War aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington, and as a leading Federalist politician destined to become his country’s first secretary of the treasury, has been chronicled in minute detail, not simply in biographies, but through meticulous scholarly editions of his extensive writings.[1]

As these collections testify, Hamilton was a gifted, versatile and prolific writer, keen to communicate his ideas through personal letters, official reports and political essays. Given their importance in promoting the ratification of the US Constitution, particular attention has focused on Hamilton’s prominent role in producing the series of articles, collectively known as The Federalist Papers, first published in 1787-88 in three New York newspapers: The Independent Journal, The New-York Packet, and The Daily Advertiser.

Following a convention long since adopted by political essayists in Britain and her former American colonies alike, Hamilton and his fellow authors James Madison and John Jay wrote anonymously, using pseudonyms borrowed from the ancient world. Hamilton, who penned the majority of the eighty-five Federalist essays, chose the nom-de-plume “Publius,” after one of the founders of the Roman Republic, Publius Valerius.[2]

This was not the first time that Alexander Hamilton had adopted the persona of “Publius.” He’d also used it in October and November 1778, when he wrote three newspaper articles, all published in The New-York Journal, and the General Advertiser, attacking Maryland Congressman Samuel Chase for allegedly deploying insider knowledge in an unfair – and unpatriotic – bid to monopolize the flour market.[3]

Existing scholarship maintains that it would be another nine years before Hamilton once more assumed the mantle of “Publius,” yet there’s compelling evidence that he resumed that identity just two years later in 1780, in the wake of one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire Revolutionary War, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s failed attempt to betray the Hudson Valley fortress of West Point to the British.

Arnold’s notorious treason was fully exposed on September 25, 1780, when he fled to New York after learning that his contact, British Army adjutant-general Maj. John André, had been captured in possession of incriminating documents. In following weeks American newspaper editors devoted many column inches to keeping their readers abreast of every twist and turn in the scarcely-credible saga, including André’s trial and execution as a spy, and the public demonstrations in Philadelphia and elsewhere that culminated in ritual burnings of the hated Arnold’s effigy. Besides such rolling coverage of developments, newspapers also printed letters from key players and anonymous eyewitnesses to events, along with opinion-pieces from commentators.

This proliferation of Arnold-inspired journalism included a long article that first appeared on Thursday October 12 in The New-York Packet, and the American Advertiser. That newspaper was an earlier incarnation of one of the trio of titles that carried the famous Federalist essays in 1787-88. Originally published in New York City, following the British occupation in the summer of 1776 its editor Samuel Loudon shifted his press up-state to Fishkill, a small town about ten miles northeast of the future location of West Point. It was published there between January 1777 and August 1783.[4]

The essay of October 12, 1780, which sought to exploit the widespread anger over Arnold’s treason to revitalize the flagging and divided Patriot war-effort, was anonymous, but carried the bold, capitalized pseudonym “PUBLIUS.”[5] Typical for that era, the same piece was swiftly re-published by other newspapers, making the front page of The Pennsylvania Gazette of October 18, 1780 (“From the New York Packet, Fishkill, October 12”) and later surfacing in The Norwich Packet, and the Weekly Advertiser on Tuesday October 24 (“From the Fish Kill Papers”).

Considering this coverage, including a conspicuous slot in one of early America’s best-known newspapers, it is surprising that neither Hamilton’s biographers nor the editors of his writings have noted this article, if only to eliminate it as the work of some other, less celebrated, “Publius.”

That scenario must be considered, as writers who adopted pseudonyms held no monopoly over them. For example, a pseudonym employed by Hamilton in 1794, “Americanus,” was used that same year by Timothy Ford, and had previously served John Stevens in 1787. Similarly, Hamilton’s choice of “Phocian” in 1784 was mimicked by Fisher Ames in 1801.[6] According to William Cushing, an avid late nineteenth century student of pseudonyms, apart from Hamilton’s Federalist collaborators, no other “Publius” was active until the late 1840s, when James De Peyster Ogden and Samuel B. Williams both wrote under that name. Even the diligent Cushing was not infallible, as he too failed to spot the presence of “Publius” in October 1780, but his comprehensive survey nonetheless underlines the point that this pseudonym was rarely used during the Revolutionary War.[7]

Aside from the possibility that this “Publius” piece is a hitherto overlooked essay by Hamilton, it is equally puzzling that the article has been virtually ignored as a primary source by historians concerned with Arnold and the impact of his notorious treason.[8]  

Irrespective of its authorship, the essay deserves attention as a robustly-written call to arms, produced in direct response to Arnold’s defection and originally published by the newspaper closest to the heart of the drama in the Hudson Highlands. At first glance, the “Publius” piece does not resemble Hamilton’s other essays. Its style is florid, almost lurid, warning that Arnold’s “horrible conspiracy … so narrowly escaped” had come “within a hair’s breadth” of yielding a nightmarish scenario of burning homes, ravished womenfolk, and young men “weltering in blood and carnage.” Yet its sober, core message addresses themes consistent with Hamilton’s known concerns and reflected in his writings. Appealing for “reformation in good earnest,” “Publius” continued:

let us invoke the genius of liberty to revisit us, and inspire us with sentiments suitable to the dignity of freemen; let us guard against that cursed avarice “which is as the sin of witchcraft,” and has well nigh brought our ruin; let us contribute to the support of our army with cheerfulness and alacrity, not of necessity but of choice; let us be careful and diligent in detecting every species of villainy that may be practised among us, especially the dangerous and fatal practice of sinking the value of our currency … let us be very careful in choosing men of known integrity and abilities for our representatives both in civil and military concerns; very much indeed depends upon this. And above all things, let us study unanimity, which gives firmness and strength …

On October 12, the same day that the “Publius” piece emerged in the New-York Packet, Hamilton wrote a letter from Preakness, New Jersey, to his friend Isaac Sears. While not mentioning Arnold, this flagged up the same concerns about the prevailing “spirit of indifference to public affairs.” Hamilton wrote: “It is necessary we should rouse and begin to do our business in earnest or we shall play a losing Game. It is impossible the Contest can be much longer supported on the present footing.” Voicing other familiar arguments, Hamilton wanted “a Government with more Power … a Tax in kind … a Bank on the true Principles of a Bank … an administration distinct from Congress and in the hands of single men under their orders.” He added: “We must above all things have an Army for the war, and on an Establishment that will Interest the officers in the Service.” [9]

Despite the widespread popular indignation reflected in letters, journals and public demonstrations, not even Arnold’s “diabolical plot” was enough to galvanize the Revolution’s supporters as “Publius” hoped. The communal rage against Arnold allowed war profiteers, or those who’d played no active role in the struggle for liberty, to offload some of their own sense of guilt upon the reviled traitor.[10] Yet there was no sudden surge of recruits for the Continental Army, no groundswell of state support for a strengthened Congress.

Alongside the bitter condemnation of Arnold, a theme highlighted by “Publius” and many other commentators was the notion that “Providence” had intervened to safeguard the liberties of America: after all, Arnold’s scheme, which was widely believed to have envisaged the capture of Washington and his staff, had been within a whisker of success when baffled by André’s chance encounter with a trio of “incorruptible” militiamen.

While many were optimistic that Providence would ensure the survival, and ultimate triumph, of the Patriot cause, before it did so (via the extraordinary conjunction of circumstances that permitted the decisive Yorktown campaign of October 1781) things would get much worse. The nadir came in January 1781 when exasperated Pennsylvania Continentals mutinied en masse, and marched on Congress for redress. Despite their anger at civilian indifference to their sufferings, such veterans maintained a loyalty to each other and to the cause they’d fought for. British attempts to exploit the unrest and encourage large-scale defections fell on deaf ears, with the mutineers spurning the “Idea of turning Arnolds.[11]

The factors that transformed Arnold, the hard-fighting hero of Quebec, Valcour Island, Ridgefield and Saratoga, into the most vilified turn-coat in American history have inspired a substantial and steadily-growing literature. Detailed discussion of Arnold’s treason lies beyond the scope of this article, but to provide context for the “Publius” essay it is necessary to trace the twenty-three-year-old Hamilton’s role in events, and to consider what he wrote, and may possibly have written, in response to them.[12]

On Sunday September 17, 1780, Washington set out from his headquarters at New Bridge, New Jersey, heading for Hartford, Connecticut, where he was to confer with the French high command over joint strategy against the British. He was accompanied by an escort of dragoons, and his close-knit “family” of staff. Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton was present as Washington’s chief aide, while his close friend, Maj. James McHenry, fulfilled that role for Maj. Gen. the Marquis de Lafayette, and Maj. Samuel Shaw acted for Brig. Gen. Henry Knox.

In Washington’s absence, Arnold sought to finalize his conspiracy by fixing a face-to-face meeting with Major André, using a go-between, Joshua Hett Smith, whose precise complicity in the plot still remains unclear. This rendezvous eventually occurred at Haverstraw, in the early hours of September 22, after the major was rowed ashore from the British sloop HMS Vulture.

Arnold’s subterfuge would, in all probability, have remained undetected save for two unforeseen developments. Next morning, while the Vulture lay off Teller’s Point awaiting André’s return, Col. James Livingston took the unilateral decision to open fire on her from the shore with a four pounder cannon and a howitzer, inflicting enough damage to oblige the warship to temporarily fall back down the Hudson River. Instead of returning to British lines the way he’d come, André was persuaded against his wishes to travel back to New York overland, through hostile territory. Swapping his British uniform for civilian clothes, and issued with a pass from Arnold permitting him, as “Mr John Anderson,” to travel unmolested through the American lines, André set off on the afternoon of September 22 accompanied by Smith.

The major had almost reached safety when, on the morning of Saturday September 23, after Smith had turned back, he was intercepted near Tarrytown by a trio of “volunteer militiamen.” Taking them for Loyalists, André unwittingly revealed his own allegiance. After some deliberation, his captors searched him, discovering documents inside his stockings that suggested he was a British spy.

André, along with the papers he’d been concealing, was handed over to Lieut. Col. John Jameson of the 2nd Light Dragoons. Aware that Arnold had alerted his outposts to expect a “John Anderson” from New York, Jameson naively sent André to him, along with a letter explaining the circumstances of his capture and the discovery of the papers. When a more quick-witted officer, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, rode in from patrol, he badgered the reluctant Jameson into ordering André’s recall. While Jameson’s letter to Arnold continued on its way, the thick package of captured documents was sent to Washington, eventually joined by another letter written by none other than the retrieved André, in which he disclosed his true identity and tried to explain his predicament.

Following the summit with the French commanders, which Hamilton summarized, Washington and his entourage left Hartford on September 23. Washington was keen to inspect West Point’s defenses, so the return leg of the trip followed a different route from the outward journey, passing through Fishkill on the afternoon of September 24. Soon after, Washington had a chance encounter with the French minister, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, who requested a conference, obliging him to turn back and spend the night at Fishkill.

Next morning, Monday September 25, Washington rose early, aiming to cover the twelve or so miles to Arnold’s headquarters at Robinson’s House, on the east bank of the Hudson and just below West Point, before breakfast. When Washington decided upon making a short diversion to examine two redoubts, majors McHenry and Shaw were sent ahead to notify Arnold’s household. Washington and his escort arrived at the Robinson House at about 10.30 am. There, one of Arnold’s own aides, Maj. David Franks, explained that while eating breakfast a short while earlier Arnold had been summoned to West Point, but expected to return in an hour. In reality, Arnold had received Jameson’s notification of André’s capture. An unidentified member of Washington’s retinue reported: “His confusion was visible, but no person could devise the cause.” [13]

After breakfasting, Washington crossed the Hudson to seek Arnold. But the commandant was not at the fort’s landing, and a tour of inspection showed no sign of him. It was after 3.00 pm when Washington, with a mounting sense of unease, started back across the Hudson; nearly 4.00 pm when he reached Robinson’s landing. An express rider had just delivered the damning documents forwarded by Colonel Jameson, along with André’s candid letter. As Washington read on, the shocking treason was finally revealed.

As a first response, Hamilton and McHenry were sent galloping off southwards to Verplanck’s Point, the eastern terminus of King’s Ferry where the Hudson narrows to less than a mile, in a belated attempt to intercept the fleeing Arnold. Propelled in his personal barge by eight oarsmen, he’d long since bluffed his way down river to reach the refuge of HMS Vulture.

Arnold’s escape was swiftly confirmed by a letter from him to Washington, delivered by a boat from the Vulture, and forwarded to Robinson’s House by Hamilton along with a terse covering note. From Verplanck’s Point, Hamilton also wrote a letter on his own initiative alerting Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, who commanded in Washington’s absence, to the day’s startling developments. It begins: “There has just been unfolded at this place a scene of the blackest treason …” Later that same evening, when he was back at Robinson’s House, Hamilton composed another letter to his fiancé Elizabeth Schuyler describing both the pitiful condition of Arnold’s distraught wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, and “the discovery of a treason of the deepest dye.” [14]

Greene’s general orders to his troops, issued next day from headquarters at Tappan (Orangetown), New York, include the memorable sentence: “Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered.” This well-turned phrase, and others that followed, would ensure that Greene’s orders of September 26, 1780 became among the most influential and widely-disseminated of any issued during the Revolutionary War: they were reproduced in newspapers, and incorporated verbatim by letter writers and diarists. [15]

Given the wording, which so closely follows Hamilton’s distinctive choice of vocabulary, it’s tempting to detect his hand here. Although it’s unlikely that Greene saw the private letter to Miss Schuyler, it is possible some now-lost note from Hamilton included further hints that subsequently colored the official orders.

Without doubt, other writings by Hamilton did much to shape enduring popular perceptions of Arnold’s treason and its aftermath. The long, detailed and thoughtful letter that he wrote to his intimate friend and fellow aide Lt. Col. John Laurens, sent from Preakness, New Jersey, on October 11, achieved wide circulation after it was printed by newspapers in Philadelphia and elsewhere.[16]

As his letter to Laurens and another to Elizabeth Schuyler make clear, Hamilton was deeply affected by his several meetings with Arnold’s collaborator, Major André. Debonair and composed in the face of impending death, André epitomized the gentlemanly code of honor that Hamilton and his brother officers in the Continental Army aspired to. Journals and letters indicate that American officers were increasingly prepared to uphold their “reputation” through dueling: tragically, both Hamilton and his beloved eldest son Philip would fall victim to such deadly “affairs of honor.” Ironically, for all the accusations of greed for gold made by “Publius” and many other commentators, Benedict Arnold’s belief that his own honor had been impugned by Congress and the Pennsylvania council was clearly a key motivation for his decision to defect to the British – an act widely condemned as among the most dishonorable in American history.

The short-lived but intense relationship between Hamilton and André provides the context for a controversial document linked to the fallout from Arnold’s treason. This short letter, dated September 30, 1780, and now among the Sir Henry Clinton Papers in the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, raised the possibility of trading André for Arnold. The note is signed with the abbreviation “A. B.” but Clinton credited it to Alexander Hamilton, endorsing it “Hamilton Was[hington’s] a[ide] de camp received after A[ndre’s] death.” When the editor of Washington’s published Writings, John C. Fitzpatrick, who was well-acquainted with Hamilton’s handwriting from the many letters and reports he drafted on his commander’s behalf, was invited to inspect the letter in 1938, he was “completely satisfied that the original was written by Hamilton and endorsed by Sir Henry.”[17]

This attribution was subsequently rejected by the editors of Hamilton’s Papers on the grounds that the “disguised hand” in which the note is written was not otherwise known to have been used by Hamilton, and because he had assured Elizabeth Schuyler on October 2, 1780 that while it was proposed to him to suggest to André “the idea of an exchange for Arnold,” he could never have acted upon it for fear of forfeiting the major’s esteem.[18]

While Hamilton clearly bridled at the prospect of broaching the possibility of such a deal to André, that does not rule out his authorship of the letter. Support for this comes from the fact that Hamilton was in the perfect position to hand it over, as the next day, Sunday October 1, he accompanied Nathanael Greene to a meeting at Dobbs Ferry with British general James Robertson, who was hoping to save André’s life. While the generals conferred, Robertson’s aide-de-camp, Maj. Thomas Murray, “walked elsewhere” with Hamilton and “two other Rebel officers.”[19] As Hamilton strolled with Murray he could easily have passed on the letter.

There’s also the unambiguous testimony of André’s close friend, Col. John Graves Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers, that Hamilton had indeed written just such a letter. In his published Journal Simcoe wrote: “Amongst some letters which passed on this unfortunate event, a paper was slid in without signature, but in the handwriting of Hamilton, Washington’s secretary, saying, ‘that the only way to save André was to give up Arnold.’” [20] Of course, this was the one action that Clinton, who was desperate to save his adjutant, couldn’t take. The gallant André went to the gallows at noon on October 2.

Returning to the enigmatic “A. B.,” as is well known, Hamilton used that same abbreviation for a series of six articles entitled “The Continentalist” that were published in Loudon’s New-York Packet, and American Advertiser between July 12, 1781 and July 4, 1782.[21]

Previously unrecorded, however, is the fact that “A. B.” had also been used by the anonymous author of an article published in Loudon’s newspaper on April 20, 1780. Written at a time when Hamilton was with Washington at Morristown, New Jersey, this essay tackled a topic close to his heart: the worsening state of his country’s finances as the paper currency issued by Congress fueled rampant inflation. In particular, it criticized Congress’s decision of March 18 to fix “Continental money at forty to one.”[22]

If, as seems highly likely, this earlier “A. B.”-initialed piece was written by Hamilton, it not only bolsters the case for his authorship of the disputed letter of September 30, 1780, but, by demonstrating a pre-existing connection with Samuel Loudon and his publication, likewise strengthens the argument that he also wrote the “Publius” essay published in The New-York Packet on October 12, 1780.

While the evidence examined here is by no means conclusive, taken together it is surely enough to prompt speculation that the substantial “Publius” article inspired by Arnold’s treason is a previously-overlooked essay by the young Alexander Hamilton, written in direct response to one of the most infamous episodes in American history. As such it deserves careful scrutiny from Hamilton’s growing band of admirers.

Finally, if Alexander Hamilton, the man who’d used the pseudonym “Publius” just two years earlier, who apparently had a prior connection with newspaper editor Loudon, and who most certainly was intimately involved in events following the disclosure of Arnold’s plot, didn’t write that impassioned appeal to his “dear Countrymen,” then another, and equally intriguing, question remains: Who did?


[1] See The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, eds. Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-87). All twenty seven volumes are available online via the National Archives’ Founders Online website. For Hamilton’s early political essays see also The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Richard B. Vernier (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 2008), available via the Online Library of Liberty.

[2]  For the collective use of “Publius” by Hamilton, Madison and Jay, see Daniel Walker Howe, “The Political Psychology of the Federalist,” William and Mary Quarterly (3rd ser.), 44 (1987): 486.

[3] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 1:562-63, 569, 580.

[4] From November 1783 publication was resumed in New York City, with a title change to Loudon’s New-York Packet in November 1784, shortened to The New-York Packet in May 1785.

[5] Unlike many newspapers of America’s founding era, which survive in substantial runs and can be readily accessed online via the extremely comprehensive Readex series of “Early American Newspapers,” relatively few copies of The New-York Packet, and American Advertiser exist from before 1783 (when the Readex coverage, in its Series 1, begins). Small clusters of original issues are scattered among several US archives. One of the strongest collections for the Revolutionary War, and particularly for 1780, is held in the New-York Historical Society, where I consulted it. As many of the Society’s originals are fragile and tattered, they must be read on microfilm.

[6] Evan Shalev, “Ancient Masks, American Fathers: Classical Pseudonyms during the American Revolution and Early Republic,” in Journal of the Early Republic, 23 (2003): 160 note 19.

[7] William Cushing, Initials and Pseudonyms: A Dictionary of Literary Disguises (New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co, 1885), 242 and Ibid., 2nd Series (1888), 126.

[8] An exception is James Kirby Martin, who cited the Pennsylvania Gazette of October 18, 1780 in his scholarly account of Arnold’s pre-treason career, Benedict Arnold Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York: New York University Press, 1977). Prof. Martin attributes the “Publius” article to an unidentified “newspaper commentator.” See Ibid., 8 and 437 note 18.

[9] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2: 472.

[10] On the reaction to Arnold’s treason, see especially Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 283-88.

[11] For this disclaimer, see Gen. Anthony Wayne to Washington, Princeton, January 8, 1781, in Founders Online, National Archives http:/ .

[12] The brief narrative that follows draws largely upon the careful reconstructions in Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1941), 315-71, and in Willard M. Wallace, Traitorous Hero: The Life and Fortunes of Benedict Arnold (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954), 229-59.

[13] “Extract of a letter from a gentleman at camp … Robinson’s House, Sept 26, 1780”, in The Pennsylvania Packet, or the General Advertiser, October 3, 1780. Written by Major McHenry, this confirms his own and Hamilton’s roles in that day’s events. Also valuable is the account of another, anonymous, member of Washington’s party in The Boston Gazette, October 16, 1780 (“Extract of a letter from a gentleman, dated Tappan, October 2, 1780”).

[14] All given in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2: 438-42.

[15] See The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 6: 314-15. On the impact of these orders see John A. Ruddiman, “‘A record in the hands of thousands’: Power and Negotiation in the Orderly Books of the Continental Army”, William and Mary Quarterly (3rd ser.), 67 (2010):762.

[16] See for example, The Pennsylvania Evening Post on Saturday October 14 and Friday October 20, 1781, and The Norwich Packet of November 14, 1780. In these published versions, the letter was slightly edited and credited to “a gentleman at camp to his friend in Philadelphia.” The full letter is in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:460-70.

[17] Van Doren, Secret History, 366-67, 476, with a reproduction opposite 376. The verdict of Fitzpatrick, in a letter to Randolph G. Adams of the Clements Library dated April 18, 1938, is with the letter in the Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Vol. 124 / file 34.

[18] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:445-46.

[19] See Historical Memoirs of William Smith, 1778-1783, ed. W. H. W. Sabine (New York: New York Times and Arno Press, 1971), 337. See also “Paper of Intelligence transmitted by Andrew Elliot, New York. Narrative of the Capture and Execution of Major John André, 4-5 October 1780,” in Benjamin F. Stevens, Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1775-1783 (25 vols., London, 1889-98), Vol. 7, Item 739.

[20] John Graves Simcoe, A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, From the End of the Year 1777, to the Conclusion of the Late American War (Exeter: printed for the author, 1787), Appendix [not paginated]. When Sir Henry Clinton was sent a copy of Simcoe’s Journal, he made several comments suggesting corrections for any new edition, but did not query this point. See Howard H. Peckham, “Sir Henry Clinton’s Review of Simcoe’s Journal”, in William and Mary Quarterly (2nd ser.), 21 (1941):361-70.

[21] See The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:649-52; 654-57; 660-65; 669-74; 3:75-82, 99-106. Acting on Washington’s instructions, Hamilton had also written an article “To the New-York Packet”, dated Peekskill, August 5, 1780, but which was never published. Ibid., 372-73.

[22] Hamilton had addressed “the state of our currency” in an extremely long letter to an unknown recipient that his editors believe was written at Morristown sometime between December 1779 and March 1780 (Papers of Hamilton, 2:234-51). Like the “Publius” essay discussed above, the “A. B.” article of April 20, 1780 was found on the microfilm reel of surviving issues of The New-York Packet held in the collections of the New-York Historical Society.


    1. (I’m sure you know this, Michael, but I offer this for readers who may not be familiar with the vagaries of writing analysis:)
      Stylometric analysis is a very interesting and useful tool, but (as you’ve suggested) does not provide proof. Sentence length is one of many writing style attributes that can be assessed; it would be interesting to also look at frequency of individual words, word pairs (especially unusual word pairs) and other attributes.
      A factor to consider in sentence length is the ambiguity of period handwriting. It’s often very difficult to discern the difference between periods, commas, semicolons and colons, that therefore difficult to differentiate between sentences and independent clauses. The Publicus essay appeared in print, but how well did the typesetter follow the author’s punctuation? The same question could be asked about the known Hamilton essays used for stylometric comparison with the Publicus essay.
      Another factor is the date of the writing samples, and their target audience. Writing style evolves with the author’s age, and skilled writers adapt their style; for example, an essay written for presentation to a legislative committee might differ significantly from an essay written for a newspaper.
      I bring these things up just to show that stylometric analysis, although useful, must be used with caution. It is a tool that provides evidence to analyze, but not proof.

      1. You are correct that stylometrics do not provide proof, but they do provide evidence. Likewise, nothing Mr. Brumwell wrote can be considered “proof”; he only presents evidence.

        You argue that possibly “the typesetter follow the author’s punctuation.” But this is the same printer who published Hamilton’s Continentalist, which I of course included in the known essays in my analysis. Moreover, if this type of variation was common, as you suggest, we would see that kind of variance in the stylometrics.

        You also point out, “Another factor is the date of the writing samples.” In fact, I point out that very issue in my book when addressing some essays written in 1773 and 1774 that are attributed to Hamilton. Included in the known Hamilton essays in my analysis are his political writings from 1774, 1775, 1778, and 1781-82. So this essay from 1780 fits within the given date range.

        Again, I only presented evidence, not proof. As the title of my piece states, we have “reasons to be cautious.” Or, as I conclude my essay, “we must be cautious when trying to attribute anonymous works to certain people without any direct evidence.” That is not to say that Hamilton didn’t write it. Nor am I saying that he did. I am only saying that it is possible but we simply don’t know.

  • Hello Michael,

    Many thanks for the positive and constructive feedback, and for sharing my post via your own very interesting blog.

    I can certainly appreciate your argument that, based upon an analysis of sentence length, the ‘Publius’ piece in the ‘New-York Packet’ of October 12, 1780 does not resemble Alexander Hamilton’s other writings. As regards the prose style, I noted in my own article that its ‘florid, almost lurid’ use of language was not typical of Hamilton’s essays.

    However, despite these reservations, it strikes me as odd, to say the least, that some other pundit should adopt Hamilton’s established pseudonym of ‘Publius’ to comment on the Benedict Arnold conspiracy, and to seek to exploit the outrage it generated to achieve ends that Hamilton is known to have worked towards, above all, a unified Patriot war-effort and financial stability.

    In addition, the emergence of some rival ‘Publius’ at this time is even harder to credit given Hamilton’s conspicuous role in the fall-out from Arnold’s treason, and, as I’ve sought to establish, his recent dealings with ‘New-York Packet’ editor Samuel Loudon.

    Surprisingly – and I think significantly – there is no indication in any of Hamilton’s surviving letters that he was irked that some other commentator should make free with his own journalistic moniker to address an episode in which he was so closely involved. A touchy young man like Hamilton, who was all too ready to defend his ‘reputation’, might be expected to resent such an interloper, and to leave some record of his feelings.

    So, while the prose style and scientific analysis of sentence length is evidence against Hamilton’s authorship of the ‘Publius’ essay, a combination of circumstances (detailed in my article) make it difficult to believe that he did not have at least some involvement in its production. Prior to your comment Michael, I had not previously considered the possibility that Hamilton might have acted in an advisory, ‘editorial’, capacity, rather than as the actual writer of the piece, but, taking the background into consideration, that’s certainly an angle worth exploring.

    Turning to the ‘A.B.’ essay that appeared in the ‘New-York Packet’ on 20 April, 1780, which I believe could be another hitherto overlooked work by Hamilton, I would be very interested to learn the outcome of the same ‘sentence length’ analysis that was used to assess the ‘Publius’ article. Although I did not take a full transcript of that article when I was working with the microfilm in the New-York Historical Society (I was pushed for time, and the focus of my research was on Arnold’s treason) perhaps it would be possible to approach that institution, or another that holds the relevant issue of the newspaper, to obtain a copy of the full text and see how it compares with Hamilton’s known writings.

    To sum up regarding the ‘Publius’ essay in the ‘New-York Packet’ of 12 October, as I’ve emphasised in my article, the evidence for Hamilton’s authorship is ‘by no means conclusive’. Yet I’d stand by my conclusion that it’s strong enough to prompt speculation. And given the fact that this substantial essay has not previously been discussed by Hamilton’s editors and biographers – if only to eliminate it as the work of another hand – I think that its genesis deserves further scrutiny.

    I can’t pretend to be a Hamilton specialist, but I hope that my ‘Journal’ article will help to open up a debate among those scholars, including yourself Michael, who are.

    All the best,


    1. Thank you Stephen for your thoughtful reply to my analysis.

      You write, “it strikes me as odd, to say the least, that some other pundit should adopt Hamilton’s established pseudonym of ‘Publius’ to comment on the Benedict Arnold conspiracy.” Publius was not “Hamilton’s established pseudonym.” He used it once (in three essays). That didn’t make it his. However, the fact that no one else used the name does increase the probability that it was Hamilton. (Did you search the newspaper database for other instances? My access just expired and I won’t get it again until I visit NYC in the summer.)

      You then add, “Surprisingly – and I think significantly – there is no indication in any of Hamilton’s surviving letters that he was irked that some other commentator should make free with his own journalistic moniker to address an episode in which he was so closely involved.” First of all, as mentioned above, Hamilton didn’t own Publius. Second of all, Hamilton’s previous use of Publius was anonymous. Very few people knew he had written those previous essays (James McHenry knew and refused to give up the author when asked). Hamilton could not protest that someone was using his pseudonym if he wanted to remain anonymous. Besides, I don’t see Hamilton complaining about something so unimportant. If someone usurped Publius to write things he disagreed with, perhaps. But not in this case.

      I think despite the appearance that you and I disagree, I believe we actually agree on most matters here. I agree with you that the evidence is “strong enough to prompt speculation.” But I did disagree when you wrote that this is “compelling evidence” of Hamilton’s authorship. Maybe I am reading more into the word “compelling” than you meant by it. Maybe you assign a higher probability of Hamilton’s authorship than I do.

      If you read my book, you’ll see why I’m generally skeptical. So many essays, poems, letters, etc. have been attributed to Hamilton without any direct evidence. Moreover, in some instances, it can be shown with certainty that Hamilton did not pen those works. So here’s another case where Hamilton may have written something. There’s circumstantial evidence supporting his authorship, but nothing concrete. While I too have presented only circumstantial evidence thus far and lack the tools here to do more in-depth research (until I can access the library materials/newspaper databases when I next visit NYC), I have spent only a short time researching and thinking about it. My general rule is always to be skeptical about such claims without direct authorship. (In contrast, you presented only the evidence in favor of Hamilton’s authorship and I wonder if you contemplated the evidence against it.)

  • Thank you Michael, and also Don.

    First, let me say how delighted I am that my article has already generated such a valuable response. In your comments you have both provided extremely thought-provoking feedback, which is exactly what I was seeking.

    Don’s incisive remarks regarding the limitations of stylometrics, and Michael’s more general observations about the arguments I advanced in my reply to his call for a “cautious” approach in assigning authorship of the anonymous Publius essay of October 12, 1780, both underline an important point that historians – amongst others – sometimes forget: the difference between “evidence” and “proof”.

    Although I hope that my article made this clear, I should emphasise here that I was seeking to present evidence to support my theory that Alexander Hamilton may have written the Publius piece in question. I didn’t argue that this amounts to definitive proof that he actually did so. However, it’s certainly true to say that I found the evidence to be “compelling” enough to warrant investigation. I wouldn’t have researched and written the article, and submitted it for consideration in the “Journal”, if I felt that the evidence it drew upon was too weak to sustain serious examination.

    Michael, I take onboard your point that Hamilton did not “own” the pseudonym Publius (even though he not only used it three times in 1778, but clearly liked it enough to employ it far more frequently when penning the “Federalist” essays in 1787-88), and I will certainly make it a priority to read your recent study of Hamilton’s formative years. All the same, the reappearance of that specific pseudonym at a time and place when Hamilton was also the “man on the spot”, strikes me as especially important for my case.

    To pick up on a point I made in my previous comment, I’m now curious about the possibility that even if Hamilton did not actually write the Publius essay in question (and I conceded in my article that the prose doesn’t reflect his “typical” style), he nonetheless played a role in shaping its content and message. Here, I’m mindful of what I also suggested about the striking extent to which Greene’s famous general orders of September 26, 1780 employed the distinctive vocabulary of Hamilton’s letters of the previous evening to deplore “Treason of the blackest dye”. Was this just a coincidence, or does it reflect Hamilton’s role as Washington’s trusted “fixer”, keen to extract the maximum benefit from events by, in current British slang, putting a particular “spin” on them?

    This of course is more speculation, and to echo the note on which I ended my article, if Hamilton (the right man, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right newspaper connections) wasn’t the author of the Publius essay under discussion, then it begs the no less intriguing question of who was. As the “Journal” has helpfully provided a link to the full transcript of the essay, I’d be very interested in any suggestions that its readers might have for potential alternatives to Hamilton.

    As I don’t envisage another research trip to New York city in the immediate future, I’m delighted to learn that Michael plans to head there in the summer. That will give him an opportunity to examine the two key articles in the “New-York Packet”, and to subject that of April 20, 1780 to the same stylometric analysis that he used on my transcription of the piece published on October 12, 1780. This will require some patience. As the very helpful staff at the New-York Historical Society cautioned me, the microfilm including the surviving issues of the “Packet” for 1780 is among the “crankiest” reel in their extensive collections. They were not exaggerating.

    1. Stephen,

      I didn’t address something you touched on in your essay but now that you repeat it I feel the need to do so. In the essay, you conclude, “Finally, if Alexander Hamilton, the man who’d used the pseudonym “Publius” just two years earlier, who apparently had a prior connection with newspaper editor Loudon, and who most certainly was intimately involved in events following the disclosure of Arnold’s plot, didn’t write that impassioned appeal to his “dear Countrymen,” then another, and equally intriguing, question remains: Who did?” In your recent comment, you repeated, “This of course is more speculation, and to echo the note on which I ended my article, if Hamilton (the right man, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right newspaper connections) wasn’t the author of the Publius essay under discussion, then it begs the no less intriguing question of who was.”

      Nearly every issue of nearly every newspaper had anonymous essays or letters. Literally thousands of essays and even more letters (usually printed as “extracts of a letter…”) have unidentified authors. Unfortunately, we can’t identify them. Asking “who else could have written them” is not evidence that your proposed author wrote them.

      I’m reminded of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography where he asks, “Who else but Hamilton would have filed such a dispatch to St. Croix?” It turns out that Hamilton did not write that “dispatch.” (see So who did? No one knows and we have to be willing to accept that. (Though, in the case I present, I have a guess, which I didn’t include in my book.)

      Your case is stronger than the Chernow case above. It’s more like another instance where Ron Chernow states that Hamilton wrote a letter to St. Croix before entering the war. In this instance I agree “there is good reason to believe that Hamilton may have written this letter” but caution “This, however, makes Hamilton’s authorship possible, even probable, but far from definite.”

      The important thing is to be sure not to get too carried away. Fortunately, you do not. Historians/biographers, after asserting authorship of an essay/letter, will then draw conclusions from it that would be valid if the authorship were certain but not when it is questions (see previous link). Again, you don’t do this. Instead, you wrote that it merited more investigation, which is what I started to do. I was very pleased to notice your caution, as I call it, though I objected to your calling it “compelling evidence.”

      Great discussion!

    2. Stephen,

      I recently returned from NYC where I visited NYHS and went through their microfilm of The New-York Packet. The A. B. essay of April 20, 1780, has just four paragraphs of less than 50 lines in total written by A. B. followed by a lengthy quote from a letter by President John Jay. Obviously, we are only interested in what A. B. had written. Unfortunately, stylometric analysis does work on short essays. The October 1780 Publius essay was already the shortest work I ever analyzed at just 21 sentences and 1,502 words. The next shortest were 87 sentences and 2,517 words. This April 1780 essay by A. B. has maybe 500 words and I count just 13 sentences. As a result, I think any analysis of this essay would be statistically insignificant and therefore meaningless. Considering the skepticism my stylometric analysis of the Publius essay met, I don’t see a reason at this time to analyze the A. B. essay, whose result will be even less reliable

      Reading the A. B. essay, the first paragraph does sound Hamiltion as the author argues, “There is nothing that raises the national character of a people higher, than to be distinguished for the honorable performance of their public engagements. Nothing reflects greater disgrace upon it, than when the rulers of the people depart from the path of rectitude, and violate the faith which they had solemnly pledged int he face of the world.” Not only does this sound Hamiltonian, Hamilton wrote similarly in his Publius essays of 1778.

      However, in the next three paragraphs and in the quoted letter by John Jay, A. B. argues against the 40-to-1 devaluation of the currency (as you mentioned in your essay). At this time, Hamilton had already argued for such a devaluation (Hamilton argued for a 60-to-1 depreciation).

      Michael E. Newton

  • Dear Michael,

    Many thanks for forwarding that analysis of the ‘A.B’ article in the New-York Packet. From your thoughtful comments, it strikes me as likely that Hamilton had at least some input in the essay in question, although once again, the evidence is not conclusive.

    All the best,


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