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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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Alexander Hamilton’s Love Letter Revealed!

Julie Miller of the Library of Congress recently wrote at Medium about the effort to read crossed-out lines in one of its Alexander Hamilton letters.

This is a 6 Sept 1780 letter from Hamilton to his fiancée Elizabeth Schuyler (“Betsey” in real life, “Eliza” in the musical), two months before they married. Most of the letter is about the American loss at the Battle of Camden (Gen. Horatio Gates “seems to know very little what has become of his army”). That material was first published in John Church Hamilton’s 1850 edition of his father’s writings.

In the twentieth-century edition of Hamilton’s papers, which make up part of Founders Online, editor Harold C. Syrett added a new detail about that document: fourteen lines of the first paragraph had been heavily crossed out and illegible.

Miller tells the next stage of the story:
When the Library of Congress recently digitized the Alexander Hamilton Papers, that letter, unedited, with its 14 obliterated lines, became visible to all for the first time. However, the lines were still unreadable.

To find out what lay beneath the scratchings-out, Fenella France, chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division, and preservation staff Meghan Wilson and Chris Bolser used hyperspectral imaging. A noninvasive analysis that employs light at different wavelengths to capture information not visible to the eye, hyperspectral imaging can determine the composition of inks and pigments, track changes in documents over time and reveal faded, erased or covered writing.
The article shows that process and what Library of Congress scholars now believe those crossed-out lines say. Most likely John C. Hamilton deleted them himself out of familial and Victorian embarrassment at his father writing to his mother about the couple anticipating “the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love.”

As Miller points out, that’s far from the biggest deletion from Alexander Hamilton’s correspondence. All the letters that Elizabeth Hamilton wrote to her fiancé and husband are gone, most likely destroyed by her own choice.

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