J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 08, 2016

A Tomcat Named Hamilton?

Given certain events in New York, particularly along its main thoroughfare, this factoid has been getting a lot of use:
Martha Washington named a tomcat after Alexander Hamilton.

Back in 2008, this Hamilton fan complained that the story came from a passage in George Henry Preble’s 1882 History of the Flag of the United States of America, quoting a New York newspaper.

When I saw that, I got suspicious. Preble could be a terrible transcriber. In that same book he came up with the phrase “Grand Union Flag” by messing up the words “Great Union Flag” in a letter from Gen. George Washington. So I decided to dig into this story as far as I could go.

As it turned out, that blog post didn’t quote Preble correctly. To his credit, Preble quoted his source correctly. But his source, which was Lippincott’s Magazine in July 1876, misstated the source it was quoting. And neither Preble nor the magazine was the genesis of that factoid. So let’s start at the beginning, or as close as I can get.

In 1860, Frank Moore published a two-volume compendium of material from the Revolutionary War, arranged chronologically, titled Diary of the American Revolution. On page 250 of volume 2, Moore quoted one source from 1780 this way:
Thirteen is a number peculiarly belonging to the rebels. A party of naval prisoners lately returned from Jersey, say, that the rations among the rebels are thirteen dried clams per day; that the titular Lord Stirling takes thirteen glasses of grog every morning, has thirteen enormous rum-bunches on his nose, and that (when duly impregnated) he always makes thirteen attempts before he can walk; that Mr. Washington has thirteen toes on his feet, (the extra ones having grown since the Declaration of Independence,) and the same number of teeth in each jaw; that the Sachem Schuyler has a topknot of thirteen stiff hairs, which erect themselves on the crown of his head when he grows mad; that Old Putnam had thirteen pounds of his posterior bit off in an encounter with a Connecticut bear, (’twas then he lost the balance of his mind;) that it takes thirteen Congress paper dollars to equal one penny sterling; that Polly Wayne was just thirteen hours in subduing Stony Point, and as many seconds in leaving it; that a well-organized rebel household has thirteen children, all of whom expect to be generals and members of the High and Mighty Congress of the “thirteen United States” when they attain thirteen years; that Mrs. Washington has a mottled tom-cat, (which she calls, in a complimentary way, ‘Hamilton,’) with thirteen yellow rings around his tail, and that his flaunting it suggested to the Congress the adoption of the same number of stripes for the rebel flag.
Moore’s volumes were reprinted a number of times over the following decades, sometimes with different pagination but always including this quote. It looks like the Lippincott’s Magazine passage was pulled from the centennial edition.

Now what does that passage really tell us about Alexander Hamilton?

TOMORROW: A century of debate.

4 comments:

John L. Smith said...

Thanks JL! The "Martha's tomcat named 'Hamilton' " is a transition (between Washington > Hamilton) that I was using in my article on infidelities with the Founders. My source has "said" it was noted at Valley Forge. That also may be open to error or misquoting.

Peter Ansoff said...

I don't know what Admiral Preble's source was for the Hamilton tomcat quote, but it doesn't seem to have been the July 1876 Lippencott's. The first edition of Preble's American Flag book was published four years earlier in 1872; it contains the same quote and the same attribution to "Journal of Captain Smythe, R.A., January 1780."

Also, in partial defense of Preble, he didn't misquote Washington's letter about the flag raising on Prospect Hill. Washington referred to the "Union Flag," and Preble quoted him correctly, except that Washington capitalized the words and Preble did not. However, Preble did misquote a letter in the Pennsylvania Gazette of 17 January 1776. The letter referred to the "great Union Flag", and he changed it to "grand union" in his book.

J. L. Bell said...

If you can find a reliable source saying Martha Washington had a pet cat at Valley Forge or even in 1780, please let me know.

As far as I can tell from Google Books, for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century the anecdote about Washington's cat appeared only in context of the flag, and only to be refuted. Then with the Bicentennial (and the growth of overt interest in the sexual lives of historical figures), the sexual implications came to the fore. At least one book of that time—a biography of Catherine Greene (and her sexual life)—assigned the anecdote to Valley Forge without citing any evidence. The story has appeared in many more books since.

J. L. Bell said...

If Preble published before 1876, then indeed he could not have seen the quotation in magazines of that year. (I found that McBride's as well as Lippincott's quote the paragraph.) He must have worked from Moore's Diary of the American Revolution. Thanks for the correction about what letter Preble misquoted to produce "Grand Union Flag."