Thursday, July 12, 2012

From the collections: watermelons for a Founding Father

Happy July 12th, the birthday of the Medal of Honor, poet Pablo Neruda, and the death day of Alexander Hamilton. 

Hamilton is remembered as many things: scholar, economist, and first Secretary of the Treasury, but rarely do we note that he's largely the reason Thomas Jefferson became President. Hamilton's meddling, in support of his friend Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, had severely weakened the Federalist Party and opened the door for Democratic-Republican victory. Remember, however, that at this time only the Presidency was up for election: the Vice President was just the guy who came in second place. So when there was a tie for votes between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the House of Representatives had to decide which man would become President, and which Vice President. 

Hamilton and Jefferson were political enemies, but Hamilton and Burr were personal ones. After thirty-five rounds of voting, none of which gave Jefferson his needed majority to win, Hamilton threw his weight behind (and some led some complicated political machinations in support of) the Man from Monticello. Sometimes referred to as the "Revolution of 1800", this stunning defeat of the Federalists was significantly (if inadvertently) caused by Madison, the Federalists' greatest strategist.

In this 1802 letter to Pinckney (from the Library Society's manuscript collection), a dejected Hamilton reflects on life outside of politics, stating "A garden, as you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician" before He then asks Pinckney to send him some melon seeds from his Charleston plantation to start a crop at his new country house. Hamilton could never stand to be outside politics for long, though, and about two paragraphs after discussing melon farming, he begins to give his opinions on American expansion into the West. Within two years from the writing of this letter, the political and personal fight between Hamilton and Burr would culminate in the famous duel that killed him. (Though, on a happier note, it is the direct inspiration for today's blog post.)

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