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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Sunday, January 08, 2017

“A comma in the middle of a phrase”

Here’s one last posting about Angelica (Schuyler) Church, for now. In the early years of the republic, she exchanged letters with a lot of American political men, and some of those letters seem flirtatious. Among those correspondents was Thomas Jefferson, whom Church met through the artist Maria Cosway.

Some authors writing about Church’s brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton take it as a near certainty that the two of them had a sexual affair: Willard Sterne Randall in Alexander Hamilton, Arnold Rogow in Fatal Friendship, Warren Roberts in A Place in History. Other authors say they just played at flirting, or never acted on their attraction, or that it’s simply impossible to know.

Me, I’m not sure Hamilton was even in Angelica Church’s league—not when her husband John Barker Church was around to supply both money and excitement. And if they were having a secret affair, I’d think they’d be less flirtatious in the letters each probably shared with his or her spouse. But it’s impossible to know.

The Hamilton show on Broadway presents the two in-laws’ relationship as an unconsummated yearning, mostly on Angelica’s part. That comes through most in a number titled “Take a Break,” in which Angelica sings:
In a letter I received from you two weeks ago
I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase
It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?
One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days
It says:
“My dearest Angelica”
With a comma after “dearest.” You’ve written
“My dearest, Angelica.”
In his surviving correspondence Hamilton never wrote “My dearest Angelica,” with or without a comma. (He did write “my dear Angelica” in three letters between 1794 and 1803.)

The inspiration for that verse clearly comes from an exchange between Angelica Church and Alexander Hamilton in 1787. In the first letter, Church wrote:
You had every right my dear brother to believe that I was very inattentive not to have answered your letter; but I could not relinquish the hopes that you would be tempted to ask the reason of my Silence, which would be a certain means of obtaining the second letter when perhaps had I answered the first, I should have lost all the fine things contained in the Latter. Indeed my dear, Sir if my path was strewed with as many roses, as you have filled your letter with compliments, I should not now lament my absence from America: but even Hope is weary of doing any thing for so assiduous a votary as myself. I have so often prayed at her shrine that I am now no longer heard. Church’s head is full of Politicks, he is so desirous of making once in the British house of Commons, and where I should be happy to see him if he possessed your Eloquence.
Hamilton wrote back in December:
You ladies despise the pedantry of punctuation. There was a most critical comma in your last letter. It is my interest that it should have been designed; but I presume it was accidental. Unriddle this if you can. The proof that you do it rightly may be given by the omission or repetition of the same mistake in your next.

So Mr. Church resolves to be a parliament-man. I had rather see him a member of our new Congress; but my fervent wish always is that much success may attend all his wishes. I am sincerely attached to him as well as to yourself.
Hamilton signed that letter “Adieu ma chere, soeur” (Adieu my dear, sister), to drive home the joke about punctuation. Or was it a joke?

In any event, it was Hamilton, not Church, who read meaning into a misplaced comma and wondered what it meant about the other’s affections. Hamilton even invited Church to repeat the “the same mistake” in her next letter. If she did, that document is lost. The next letter we have is from late 1789, and Church wrote:
Adieu my dear Brother, may god bless and protect you, prays your ever affectionate Angelica ever ever yours. . . . Adieu my dear Hamilton, you said I was as dear to you as a sister keep your word, and let me have the consolation to beleive that you will never forget the promise of friendship you have vowed. A thousand embraces to my dear Betsy, she will not have so bad a night as the last
No commas out of place there, plus a mention of his wife and of “the promise of friendship…as a sister.”

Angelica Church wrote that letter just as she finished a visit to New York without her husband, and some authors think that was when she and Hamilton consummated an affair. But it’s impossible to know.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

While we all "despise the pedantry of punctuation", at least when it's ours that is being criticized, you hopefully won't mind my pointing out a missing "was" in the second to the last sentence.

To me that final letter makes it sound more like Hamilton's advances were rebuffed rather than rewarded, but fortunately for those of us who savor a little mystery, we'll never know.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the sharp eye. I corrected that sentence.

I agree that the last quoted letter sounds like a polite brush-off. On the other hand, earlier in the posting I argued that Angelica wouldn't have written so flirtatiously to Alexander if they'd actually been having an affair because spouses usually shared their letters with each other. That last letter clearly has a message for Elizabeth, so Angelica was expecting Alexander to share it. But if Angelica and Alexander had indeed just had an affair, Angelica would have had a strong reason to make the letter look like a polite brush-off. So that evidence is, arguably, ambiguous.