THE MASTER PASSION is the story of the marriage of our brilliant first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. It begins with their whirlwind Revolutionary War courtship at Washington’s winter quarters.
After the war, Hamilton engages in nation building. Like all mission-driven men, he is preoccupied, often absent, and not the best provider.
Conflict is built into the marriage. It does not simply spring from Alexander’s childhood experience of bastardy, abuse, and abandonment. To quote Alexander Pope, Hamilton’s favorite poet:
And hence one Master Passion in the breast
Like Aaron’s serpent, swallows up all the rest…”
Betsy’s passion is for Alexander. Alexander loves his wife, but sometimes he loves America more.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 4 – R Rated
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I fell in love with Alexander Hamilton when I was eleven, which is now 62 years ago. I read a wonderful Edwardian era historical novel about him which enraptured me, although I’ve learned since that a great deal of the content was fictional. I’ve been a life-long history buff, dreaming of time travel when I was young, because I wanted to witness the Past in person. As time travel isn’t possible, I decided to study historical events until I could call up the sights, smells, textures and sounds of the past. When I write, I try, as much as I can, to submerge myself in the time period of my subjects, in the material culture as well as the manners and morals. For A Master Passion, I read every work I could find on Hamilton, even to poring over Columbia’s 21 books of the letters that he wrote, some written when he was ja young clerk in a West Indian merchant’s house. The more I could “hear” Hamilton’s voice, expressed in these letters, the more fascinated I became with his career and his personal life.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
To the best of my ability, I’ve constructed characters who are based upon the actual people who lived these lives. I wanted to show Alexander and his wife Betsy (or, as Lin Manuel Miranda has it, “Eliza”) as they were. I strove, by a close study of all the facts I could gather, to make my characters as authentic as possible. The wives of famous men also fascinate me, and I’ve come to believe that there is always a powerful “woman behind her great man.”
Sharing a sick feeling, Alex and Jamie Hamilton stood on barefoot tiptoe and peeked through flimsy wooden louvers, all that separated the rooms of their small West Indian house. Both boys were red-heads, but there the resemblance ended. Eleven year old James was well-grown and strong. Alexander, seven in January, was delicate, fast-moving and nervous, like a freckled bird.
“An idiot would have known not to trust him.” The beautiful dark eyes of their mother flashed. Rachel faced her husband, a slight man of aristocratic feature, who wore a white linen suit. Like him, it had seen better days. His wife’s tone was challenging, her arms akimbo. Her stays, containing a generous bosom, rose and fell.
“I—I—took him for a gentleman.” Father sputtered, attempting to fall back upon a long ago mislaid dignity. “He gave me his word.”
“His word!? Which means bloody nothing! How many times did I tell you what was going to happen? How many times?”
“Shut your mouth, woman!”
A sharp crack sounded as he slapped her. Rachel, hair spilling from beneath her cap, staggered backwards. From the kitchen came the fearful keening of Esther, their mother’s oldest slave.
“There’s naught canna be dune noo!” James Hamilton, his long face flushed, roared the words. Scots surfaced whenever he was angry.
“Yes, nothing to be done. As usual.” A livid mark glowed upon Rachel’s face, but she, with absolute disregard for consequences, righted herself and finished what she had to say.
“This time Lytton’s going to let you go. And if you can’t even manage to hold a job with my kinfolk, where will you get another? What are we supposed to live on? Air?”
In spite of the fact that it was winter on the island, the best weather of the entire year, Alexander shuddered. Distilled fear slid along his spine.
How many times in his short life had he watched this scene replayed? Listened to Mama shout Papa’s failures, watched as his father, humiliated and enraged, used his fists to silence her?
A business deal gone bad! Money lost….
Will we move again?
Every change of residence, from Alexander’s birthplace on cloudy Nevis, to St. Kitts, and from there to St. Croix, had carried them to smaller houses and meaner streets. The carriage, the two bay horses and the slaves who tended them, were only a memory.
Mama was shrieking now, about loans and due dates, things which she declared “any fool” could understand. Frozen, knowing what would surely come, Alexander watched as his father, crossing the room in two quick strides, caught his mother by the shoulders.
With the strength of rage, he threw her like a rag doll. She struck the wall so violently the flimsy house shook. Small emerald lizards stalking the mosquitoes drawn by candlelight, vanished into shadow.
Silenced at last, Rachel crumpled to the floor, sobbing. Her once gay calico dress, muted by many, many launderings, lapped her. The under-shift, always scrubbed to a sea-foam white, drifted from beneath.
James Hamilton, breathing hard, blind with rage, tore open the door and strode past his cowering, terrified sons. For the last time, Alexander saw his beloved father’s face, a sweating mask of fear.
* * *
“Come on, boys. Out of there.”
A candle shone in the balmy West Indies night. The voice wasn’t unkind, just drunk and hurried. From outside came the bell-chorus of an untold host of peepers.
Alex and Jamie, in shirts too ragged to wear during the day, had been asleep in the only bed. There was a mattress filled with palm fronds in the next room upon the floor, but this time of year scorpions came in. When Mama hadn’t returned, they’d decided to sleep in the greater safety of her bed.
Jamie groaned, sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The Captain of the Guards, Mr. Egan, leaned over. He breathed rum and seemed unsteady. Behind him, supporting herself on the door frame, was Mama. She was, Alexander noted with a thrill of disgust, bare-shouldered, her cap removed, her shining dark hair loosened.
“Out, boys,” she echoed. “Esther said she’d beat your mattress and lay it out after supper. What are you doing in here?”
Neither boy replied. She didn’t want an answer. What she wanted was for them to leave. Tomorrow she’d give them a scolding, but not tonight. At the moment there were other, more important things on her mind.
“Here, young fellow.” Egan, muscles rippling beneath his shirt, handed Jamie the candle. Obediently, Jamie took it. Their rooms were, after all, rented space in the front of his house.
“Use this to look if you’re worried something’s in your bed. Your Ma and I won’t be needing it.”
He threw a grin at Rachel, who was restlessly tossing a dark curl over a pale shoulder. Mrs. Lavien or Mrs. Hamilton—whichever name she used now that she was living alone with her sons on St. Croix—was almost thirty, but she still turned heads whenever she passed along Christiansted’s bustling main street. Anticipation caused the captain to deliver a slap on the rear to speed the smaller boy along.
“Don’t you touch me!” Alex spun and glared, his thin face white under coppery curls.
Jamie grabbed a handful of his brother’s shirt. “Oh, come on, Alex!” He dragged his slight brother through the door. “The captain didn’t mean anything.”
Alexander was wide awake now, his eyes blazing blue fire. The distant echo of surf, the sighing palms, the intoxicating fragrance of Lady of the Night that climbed in profusion over the house, held no power to still his pounding heart.
Grinning, Egan stepped back, threw an arm that was infuriatingly proprietary around his mother.
“Yes. Don’t start,” Rachel cautioned. “Just mind your own business and go back to sleep.” Her dark eyes turned toward Egan. One hand moved easily across his chest, taking in the feel of hard flesh beneath. Alexander wanted to kill them both.
“If you and Jamie slept where you were supposed to, this wouldn’t happen.”
“Come on, woman.” Egan terminated the conversation, pulling her playfully through the door into the darkness.
“The little brats.” Their mother was heard to sigh when the door closed. “I swear they do it on purpose.”
In the next room, the boys busied themselves in a thorough inspection of their mattress. Satisfied at last about the absence of scorpions, they extinguished the candle and lay down together. From over the transom came whispered laughter and the sound of the captain’s boots dropping to the floor.
In the soft darkness, beside his now stolidly motionless brother, Alexander crammed fingers tightly into his ears. Tears pooled against his cheek.
“Oh, Papa,” he whispered into the night. “Papa, please come back.”
* * *
“You aren’t bastards, you know, no matter how many say it.” In their room over the store, Rachel sipped at her glass of rum and gazed out the window.
Jamie rolled his eyes at Alex. Here it came, the nightly monologue. And what difference did their innocence make, anyway? Jamie knew there was no escape.
“My mother made me marry this rich Dane. Anyway, she thought he was rich.” Rachel began as she always did. “A wretched worm, that Lavien! I was about your age, Jamie, when she gave me to him. The fool was even worse at business than your father. It only took him a year to lose my dowry.”
Rachel smiled crookedly, drained her glass. The man she’d been expecting hadn’t appeared. It had left her melancholy.
“Lavien got crazy drunk and beat me. I hear he beats the donkey he’s got for a wife these days, too. One night, in fear for my life, I ran away. That cowardly, spotted caitiff went to the magistrate and said I was unfaithful, that the man I’d run to for protection was my lover. He had me locked in prison for adultery.”
Rachel frowned, stared at the ceiling and twirled a dark curl meditatively. By now, Alex knew mother was already very, very drunk. Inwardly, he shrank.
Fat bugs circled the oil lamp, creating a dizzy pattern of light and shadow. The space held their mother’s bed, a wardrobe, a hulking sea chest, a table and three chairs. Sometimes it was a pleasant place to be, for the high windows of the room caught the prevailing breeze. In this part of Christiansted, though, where there were taverns and whorehouses, it was best to be above street level at night.
A roaring sea shanty began in the inn a few doors down. Jamie’s head swiveled toward the sound in a gesture of impatience. He wanted to be away, out on the street with his friends, but Rachel was still busy with recollection.
“Captain Egan got me out of jail and sent me back to Nevis, to my Mama. I carried a child, but as soon as he was born, Mama gave him to a nurse and sent them back to Saint Croix. I never suckled the ugly little brute, not once. Lavien got a divorce, but what justice is there for a woman in this world? Bloody none, I’ll tell you. The law, the Danish Law,” Rachel twisted the words, twisted them so that they became a sneer, “says that because I’d run away from a man who’d threatened to kill me, I was no better than a whore, and that I could never marry again.”
Into the pause that followed, tree frogs shouted. The relief their neutral chorus provided was broken by drunken laughter from the street below. Inwardly, Alexander damned those sailors. They seemed to mock his mother’s painful story, the one she couldn’t stop retelling.
Across the table, his older brother maintained an expression of studied disinterest. He’d heard it a thousand times. Alex knew that Jamie had plans to meet his forbidden friends, that “bad company” he just naturally seemed to prefer.
“Still,” Rachel’s gaze fixed upon the intent face of her youngest, “When I met James Hamilton on Nevis, he said he didn’t care a fig for any stupid Danish law. We were married, too, married by a clergyman.”
She leaned across the table to stroke Alexander’s thin cheek. “So, these Danes may call you bastards, but you aren’t. And,” she added, sitting back and splashing a drop more rum into her glass, “they may call me whore, but I’m not that, either. Not that we wouldn’t live better….”
For a blessed moment, the tree frogs sang unaccompanied. Then his mother concluded as she always did. “If your father had been half the man I thought he was, we’d be rich now and no one would dare talk to us like they do. Hear me, boys! In this rotten world, money is the salve that soothes every sore.”
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