Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to Ædanus Burke, [1 April 1790]

To Ædanus Burke1

[New York, April 1, 1790]


I have been informed that in the house of Representatives yesterday, you made use of some very harsh expressions in relation to me.2

As I cannot but ascribe so unprovoked an attack to misapprehension or misrepresentation I have concluded to send you an extract from the Eulogium pronounced by me on General Greene, of the part to which alone your animadversions do relate.3 It is in these words—

“From the heights of Monmouth I might lead you to the plains of Springfield, there to behold the Veteran Knyphaussen, at the head of a veteran army, baffled and almost beaten by a General without an army—aided, or rather embarrassed by small fugitive bodies of volunteer militia, the mimicry of soldiership.”

From this, you will perceive that the epithets, to which you have taken exception, are neither applicable to the Militia of South Carolina in particular, nor to Militia in general, but merely to “small fugitive bodies of volunteer militia.”

Having thus Sir stated the matter in its true light it remains for you to judge what conduct, in consequence of the explanation will be proper on your part.4

I am Sir   Your humble servt

Ædanus Burke Esqr

ADf, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; copy, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

1Burke was a Congressman from South Carolina, 1789–91.

2The following account of Burke’s speech of March 31, 1790, was printed on April 15, 1790, in Greenleaf’s New York Journal & Patriotic Register:

“It has been asserted, said Mr. Burke, by a gentleman who now holds an eminent station under this government—‘That the militia were the mere mimickry of soldiery.’ This assertion was made before an immense multitude, composed of men of the first distinction, collected from various parts of the United States, and in presence of a splendid assembly of ladies; * and it was universally understood from that day to this, that the assertion referred to the southern militia, and of course to the state which he (Mr. Burke) had the honor of serving. Now, although this reflection was calculated, not only to disgrace the militia in general, but to tarnish the well earned honors and military character of the citizens of South Carolina, yet to have taken any notice of the accusation, at an earlier period than the present, might have been productive of dangerous consequences, nor could he with safety have done it. At the time I allude to, said Mr. Burke, when that gentleman made use of those expressions, prejudices, I was informed, prevailed against me on the score of federal and anti federal politics, and the then very great popularity of the gentleman in this city rendered it an unsafe proceeding of any person to bring on a serious dispute, or to have accused that gentleman of any thing that was improper or illiberal, although the facts had been indisputably ascertained. The present time he thought a more proper one.

“Mr. Burke then, in a solemn manner, declared, that the militia of the southward were not ‘the mimicks of soldiers.’ If they were not highly disciplined, said he, their bravery made more than ample amends for it. For, long before general Green came to the southward, they had turned the wind and tide of fortune against the British troops. This can be proved—many—too many of them sacrificed their lives at the holy altar of Liberty. Their graves are to be seen scattered over our glades and woodlands, they are now no more; but in their name, said Mr. Burke, in the presence of this honorable House of Representatives, and in the presence of that very large and respectable assemblage of free citizens (addressing himself to the gallery, which was unusually crouded) I now declare, that the assertion was false! and that the gentleman who expressed it.… (Here Mr. Burke was interrupted by a call of order by sundry members, particularly Colonel [Theodorick] Bland, who, whilst he could not avoid expressing the most sincere friendship for Mr. Burke, yet he disapproved of his warmth and method of debate in the present instance. Mr. Burke then rose and proceeded nearly as follows.)

“Mr. Chairman, I do not conceive that I have been out of order; the assertion of the person who traduced the militia of South-Carolina, and the retaliation which I have made for it, are connected with the business before the committee; not only the claim on the union for the services of the militia, but the substance and reality of those services, and the national military character of the people, was not only doubted, but denied, by a gentleman, whose assertion, from his high station and talents, must have had some weight. It was from a sense of duty, Mr. Burke said, he had acted in endeavouring to remove so unmerited a reproach; he was sorry he should be supposed to be out of order, and he insisted that he had never been more guarded or cool in his life.

The portion of Burke’s remarks about H which Thomas Greenleaf deleted were in a letter from Otho H. Williams to Philip Thomas, April 8, 1790:

“Secretary Hamilton in an Eulogium on Genl Greene delivered by him at the last anniversary of Independance, dropt some words which were considered derogatory to the militia of S C. Mr. Burk after recapitulating their services, and remarking on the expressions which had given offence, said he gladly took that opportunity of giving that Gentleman the lie! and doing justice. He was called to Order stopped, and sat down. After some time he rose, and told the Speaker that he was perfectly cool—never more so in his life; And supposing Coll. Hamilton in the gallery which was filled with Ladies, He faced about and said aloud ‘I throw the lie in Colonel Hamilton’s face.’ He was silenced.…” (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.)

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

* We believe Mr. Burke alluded to the audience, in St. Paul’s Church, New-York, where an oration was delivered by Colonel Hamilton, on the 4th July last. The subject was general Green; and the militia were brought into view upon the occasion.”

Index Entries