Public Debt

Olivia Wolfgang-Smith

In July 1804 David Hosack knelt unsteady in the bottom of a rowboat bound back to Manhattan and soaked the knees of his breeches in Alexander Hamilton’s blood. Hosack straddled Hamilton like a field surgeon, like a lover. He studied the face drained pale as marble, the stomach an open mass of gore.


Hosack felt a hitching panic build, his instincts wound too tightly, overtaxed, a clockwork spring about to snap. Only Hamilton could do this to him. The frame prone before him was frail, narrow, woman-small. His coat, waistcoat, shirt, underclothes sopping him up, holding him together. Delicate embroidery sodden, delicate fingers cold with the loss of blood. Hosack had seen this man’s blood before, and the blood and vomit and delirious fever-dreams of his wife, his children. But this was—Hosack sickened, the scene before him tilting. Three years before—Hamilton’s son, Phillip, bleeding out after his own duel on the same Weehawken site. Their faces so alike, their mangled bodies. Their right sides.


Hosack slapped himself, twice, three times, the pain of it ripping something away and giving him focus. One of the four oarsmen cried out at the sound, his young face like a hunted animal’s. The boy began to weep softly, as if this were the morning’s most violent act.


Pendleton, Hamilton’s second, was speaking—slowly, as if the words passed through water. “We will have to tell Eliza,” he said, unthinking in his hollow intimacy with her Christian name.


Hosack held up a hand to silence Pendleton. For they had entered the half-magic time when words had heightened power, when words alone could make a thing real. “The breeze will raise a pulse,” Hosack said, an incantation over his patient. “Hand me that vial.”


First, darkness.


Then there is a touch—thumbs at my temples, soft pads circling. Eliza, I think, but the movement is too urgent, too rough-edged.


The touch moves to my lips, my cheeks; long fingers span my chest—bare!—my arms. Then the smell. Bitter tang of ammonia, like piss and poison and the spirits of hartshorne we used to raise the near-dead in the judgment days of the Revolution.




Hosack, the surgeon. He is mapping me with smelling salts, tracing the shape of each wrist, palm, fingers numbed and tingling. I can hear him now, mumbling quick and shallow like a prayer. He was murmuring this way in his sleep, the night I met him. I had no sense of privacy, no sense—I burst into his room, still winded from the ride from Hartford. I shook him until he was fearful and blinking before me and I took his hand in mine, voice shattered, weeping, to thank him for Phillip. For beating back the dragon of his fever. For—how to put it, I’d struggled then, choked—the preservation of my child. That was not it. I can speak my mind on anything but what is important.


Hosack reaches my hip and I lose him, his touch. My legs are gone. I am disappearing from the ground up.


No, wait. Not standing. My mind reaches for my legs and—pain, my awareness of it blossoming. I feel myself leaking, torn, snapped delicately in half. Not dissolving, then. Broken. Different from the deep ache in my kidneys that’s laid me flat on so many rides from Albany to Manhattan, or the nauseating chills of yellow fever, or the plummeting crush that came when Phillip’s chest finally stilled beneath my arm three years ago, my fingers laced in Eliza’s as between us in a bed too narrow for three our son guttered like a candle and extinguished, shot through in a duel over—



Hamilton’s gasp was a wet crackle, jolting a spasm—grating ribs and spine and liver, blood spattering his lips like a metal-wet wave of him bubbling to the surface. Hosack jerked back in surprise, steadied himself against the rocking boat. Missed, lurching, the moment Hamilton’s eyes opened.


But suddenly he was there with them, glazed and slow-blinking. Hosack knew this expression too well, the intimate moment of Hamilton transitioning between sleep and wakefulness, between consciousness and oblivion. He’d seen him nod off by Phillip’s bedside in the days after their first meeting, seven years before. This great man introduced to Hosack first as a nursemaid, a mother. That childlike, faraway look as he slept against his will—and jerked again to wakefulness, panicked, reaching first for his son’s hand.


Hosack had seen the reverse as well. After Phillip’s duel, Hamilton had blanched and shaken in Hosack’s house, shouting for him—and fainted, dead weight in Hosack’s arms, face still stricken with the ghost, the shadow of an expression. Fear. Out of necessity Hosack had left the man propped in his study and rushed to Phillip—but relief had nearly undone him when Hamilton staggered through his own door in time to say goodbye to his son. Hosack knew by then what Hamilton meant when he spoke about his children. That he would not abandon them. That he would give better than he had received.


Morning sky, dusted with wispy clouds. Rough wood against my cheek, my knuckles, my back. The arcing shadow of an oar moving rhythmically across my face.


The boat. The boat back to Manhattan.


“My vision is indistinct,” I say. My voice is an ugly, thick sound. Hosack looms, kneeling, callused fingers still ammonia-soaked and resting at my wrist. I cannot look at him.


I find them beside me in the boat—long brass barrels, walnut handles lacquered to a shine, gold-mounted and ornamented. Beautiful, heavy—sated with my blood as well as Phillip’s, these twin monsters joining so many in their hatred of the house of Hamilton. And mine still holding an ounce of lead, waiting to bite.


“Take care of that pistol!” I say in the voice that is not mine. “It is—”


I swallow, rest. Close my eyes. Open.


“Undischarged and still cocked.”


Hosack’s face swims near mine. He glances away. “He believes he did not fire,” another voice says. Pendleton. Pendleton who urged me not to throw my shot, to take aim at a man for the first time since the war and damn myself. Better a lamb to the slaughter than an avenger of my—no man shall be the avenger of his own wrongs—no man shall—




I did not fire. I cannot have fired.


“—a nervous spasm?” Pendleton is saying, disembodied.


“Perhaps,” Hosack’s touch leaves my wrist, and the world blurs in his absence. I am alone with the pistols that killed my son.


I cannot have fired.



Hosack’s pulse adjusted to the slap and pull of the oars—ebb and flow, drive and recover. It had taken two hours to reach Weehawken from the Manhattan docks. He repeated this to himself. He ran mental calculations, useless. Half an hour ago they had heard the shots, and two hours before that they had left Manhattan, and four months before that Hosack had given Hamilton hyacinth and tulip bulbs from his botanical garden—watched the man arrange the dormant plants carefully in their paper cones, determined as he talked about the garden he and Eliza were planning for The Grange this year. Tulips and wild roses, strawberries and cabbage. Getting ready for spring. Hosack had been diplomatic, careful not to ask about the political drama playing itself out across the newspapers. The rivalries, the accusations that since Washington had left office Hamilton had spiraled into monarchism. Treason. Philandering. Hosack had been careful not to ask about Phillip’s loss, about how the family was carrying on. Hosack had been careful.


Hosack leaned over Hamilton, gathered rags into a compress above the wound. Watched Hamilton’s empty eyes, unflinching at the pressure, the pain. He repeated the incantation that something could be done. Two hours. Two hours back.


River water spattered Hamilton’s face, and at this he winced. “Where?” he asked.


Hosack paused a moment, struck. Then, stammered: “The Hudson.” Hamilton nodded.



So it is this water splashing me, so close but christened as materially different from the water of the East River—where the bones of the captives of British prison ships washed ashore for years after the Revolution, grotesque and decayed.


Different from the water that flooded St. Croix. My boyhood, tropical. Wind that crashed land and sea together. The hurricane snapped trees and shredded canefields and gave me what I needed to leave. Graveyard of my mother, cousin, aunt, grandmother. Island of bitter, broken people, where I was fatherless and damned for it. Washed clean by a tidal wave, which I rode clear to this new world to be governed by merit, not birth.


Different from the water of the Schuylkill, into which I once threw myself under a rain of British fire—water mud-thick and tugging heavy at my boots, bullets puckering the surface as I swam. Swam home to camp, where Washington was already mourning. The great man weeping. Weeping for me, who was young and rude and no kin to him. No kin to anyone. I was winded with the sight of it, soaked and gasping, leaning in his doorframe, filled with the strange laughter of a young man finding himself uninjured. A Creole bastard bringing the leader of the Revolution to tears. I was too powerful to drown; too smart for a bullet.


Different from the water of the Atlantic, with its seaboard of buoys and beacons, lighthouses and piers, of which Washington made me master. When our country was newly built and I guarded our coffers and our coast. My department was the treasury, and I built the nation from it, but just ask me—Pendleton! Hosack! Ask me about the best whale oil, wicks, candles for lighthouse beams. Ask me about sailcloth, biscuits and salt pork. Call for my coastguard, single-masted ships patrolling. Let my beacons bring us home.


Here is the truth: it is all the same water.



“General,” Hosack said. His voice came out close and careful, as though he were speaking to a child. Hamilton’s expression curdled as if in pain, but Hosack knew him well enough to take it for censure. A mocking laugh with no air behind it, trapped in Hamilton’s chest.


Hosack had seen Hamilton wrap pain in laughter before, every year—the fidgeting discomfort and tight jaw of a Caribbean native who never fully acclimated to the punishing New York winters. (This was Hosack’s private diagnosis, a transplant’s complaint Hamilton would never admit to.) The year before they hunched in the bottom of a rowboat together Hamilton had led Hosack around the grounds of The Grange—talking in a constant stream, distracting himself with the quick, cloudy puffs of his own breath. His lips and knuckles chapped, his eyes—dulled, still, after Phillip’s passing—watering from the cold he would not acknowledge, he’d shown the doctor the snowbound gardens he’d made from his cuttings and seeds. Thirteen sweet gum threes, one for each of the first states. Shrubs, hedges, saplings—these were plantings built to last. The Grange was the first home Hamilton had ever owned, and Hosack watched the fading General fortify it into a domestic castle for his family, protecting what was left. 



General, he calls me. Now? A general without an army. A treasurer without a treasury. A politician without a government. An aristocrat without a father. All sabre-rattle and honor and a bullet in my bones. I am—a company is subdivided equally into two platoons, a platoon into two sections and a section into two squads, a squad consisting of tour files of three or six files of—



“—hold him!” Hosack shouted, pinioning Hamilton’s arms and leaning his weight against those narrow shoulders as the man bucked beneath him. Hamilton seemed to be trying to rise, his face grim and officious, but cut off in an unholy shriek and slammed back against the floor of the boat. Pendleton withdrew from steadying Hamilton’s legs, his hands shaking. “Doctor…” he said, voice all tremble. Hosack marveled at the size of his own blocky hands on those shoulders—the frailty of this fiery man. So much public hatred concentrated on so small a frame, so damaged. “General,” he tried again. “General Hamilton.”



I am a desperate man who has faced another desperate man on a desperate, scrubby patch of New Jersey, because the public demanded it. Damn the public; we are not fit for our own ideas. I am to be cut like a cancer from the union I built, for daring to love it for what it is. I know people and I am a cynic in a country young and starry-eyed and murderous with—a blue coat without lapels, with lining, collar, and cuffs of buff, yellow buttons and gold epaulettes of double bullion tag with fringe, each having—


A nation built on merit. My nation, my mark on its finances and Constitution and the battle plans that carved us free. I am not its father—it is Washington we worship, in whose image we create ourselves every morning in the looking glass. But what good are fathers; of what consequence is legitimacy. I adopted Washington’s country; I am its architect. My fingers powder-burned in Revolutionary cannon-fire. My pen shoring up our nation’s sacred text. Six-hour speeches. Thousand-page—let a silver dollar be 370 grains and 933 thousandth parts of a grain of pure silver—


Can none of them see how much it matters, to have a space in this world where honor can be not inherited but—the ideal length of a marching step accounts for 75 steps per minute for the common step and 120 for the—


Surely I have earned better than this? Surely Phillip earned—


If I have a true genius it is for the self-inflicted—perseverance in almost any plan is better than fickleness and—


This country is a self-inflicted wound.



“General,” Hosack repeated, and this time Hamilton blinked his awareness.


“Speak, man,” he said, annoyance bleeding into the gasp, and part of Hosack wanted to laugh.


“Are there…any papers you wish destroyed?”


A gurgling wheeze escaped Hamilton, a chilling sound that sent a shudder through the youngest oarsman. “Let them—” Hamilton said, halting. “Let them read me bare.”


This did not surprise Hosack, though it weighed heavy on him to hear it. In the years he had known Hamilton he had seen him slandered, libeled—seen it written that Hamilton had stolen the people’s money, that he had plotted with England, that he wished to give America a puppet king. Hosack had seen Hamilton stoned in the streets of his own City, bloodied—blocks from the route of a parade in his honor not fourteen years before. That day there had been, they say, a float drawn by ten horses, a carriage costumed into the federal ship Hamilton—a miniature frigate with three masts, a crew of thirty marines, a crepe-paper ocean. A horse-drawn ship coming out of some amphibious dream to congratulate Hamilton on the Constitution.



Now when Hamilton spoke on the same patch of pavement—reduced to raving in the streets like a lunatic—Manhattan hurled stones at his forehead. “What a particular pain,” Hamilton had said as Hosack sutured the wound, stitching the man like a garment. “A cobble flung against my mind itself.” It left a scar. The public, that faceless crowd, like a child denying Hamilton’s counsel. And worst of all, Hosack could sift the slander and hear truths, honest insults—vanity; rage; adultery. There was a darkness in this man.


“I have nothing to hide,” Hamilton had mused as Hosack stitched him closed, speaking not to Hosack but beyond him. “I am no English pawn.” Self-made. Honorable. These were Hamilton’s words for himself.



Are there papers I wish destroyed. I wish I could read my life aloud to Manhattan, have the lend of eighty thousand citizens’ ears and scald them with cleansing truth. That I could burn away slander with sunlight. Let them drown in my words! Fling my desk to splinter on the streets; let them swarm and discover me. Father. Lover. Lawyer. Writer. Bastard brat of a Scotch peddler. A fist shaken in my face, sneering—If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven.


If this bullet kills me, I shall know there is none here.


Phillip dueled for me. He raised the same pistol I raised this morning, threw his shot the way I would have thrown mine—I cannot have fired—for shouting in defense of my reputation in a velvet-walled theater. I was not there, but I have seen it a thousand times in three years, the scene endlessly repeated beneath the scar on my forehead. Phillip so handsome, his mother’s eyes, my nose and cheekbones—why deny it? A man is sometimes beautiful; I have been a beautiful man—Phillip so handsome and in his high collar and green coat, refusing to lower his voice as he challenged my detractors—the truth is I am an unlucky honest man that speaks my sentiments to all and with emphasis—in the middle of the Act, broke into their velvet box and defended me. I who was not there. Phillip so handsome, his mother’s eyes, the nose that marked me as his father. I his father. His father who was not there. My son, young and brash and loving, as loud and brave as I’d taught him, ready to fight for me. As I have fought—today, always—for the public. Do they demand more? Let them read every word I ever set to paper. Let them hear me shout—I should have been there—shout myself hoarse. Let them crack my skull and sift—I hate congress—I hate the army—I hate the world—I hate myself. The whole is a mass of fools and—


Let them flay me open.



Hosack was still searching for the words when Hamilton found them himself, locked eyes with his doctor and told him flatly: “I am a dead man.” The same grim certainty with which he’d turned from Phillip’s deathbed—listing sideways as one leg gave way beneath him, pulling at Hosack’s hand, his voice a coughing sob: Doctor, I despair. There were no tears now, though. Hosack hunted the man’s face for grief, unsteadiness, fear. For the wish to stay.



            This is not possible; this is not convenient:


                        I do not break promises to my children.


                        I owe fifty-five thousand dollars.


                        Columbia. Dartmouth. Princeton. Harvard. Brown.


                        The Battle of Yorktown. The Coast Guard. The Bank of the United States.


                        I cannot have fired.


The sun is fully up. I can feel its light on my cheeks, ripening new freckles. It was before dawn this morning that we set out from Manhattan. It was not yet eight o’clock when I chose to face the people’s chosen scoundrel looking out to sea, away from the City, and adjusted my spectacles against the light. In an hour my clothes will be cut away, my mouth wet with wine and laudanum. My children brought before me. They will refuse me my last rites at first, for the sin of dueling, but I will press. I have earned them. I cannot have fired.


Arm yourselves with resignation. I am abandoning my family to a heartless country.


No. A great union, and Eliza the best of wives and best of women. And I—I abandoned them long ago, for the country.


No. I have not abandoned them. I will not abandon them. I will live. I will not father orphans, I know too well the—I am impossible gestures cobbled into a man of—I am a man of genius and this is just my greatest—


O God, take my repentance if you need it—I cannot have fired, You must know—but if this has ever been a meritocracy hear me now: I merit this. I am a Creole bastard become architect of a nation. I have earned—I am earning—this, I have earned this. I have twenty years. Twenty years, yet. Haven’t I earned those years? Hadn’t Phillip—



Hosack saw the grimace, saw anger and passion return like a fire banked—Hamilton’s skin colored as if in embarrassment, brows knit in fresh concentration on life, on living. Hosack, Pendleton, the oarsmen all quieted their movements as much as they could, watching. Anticipating. Silence, but for the knock and splash of the oars, the harsh, wet sound of Hamilton’s breathing. A whimper, childlike—an eruption, a spurt of weakness. They would not speak of it. They would never speak of it. Hosack leant over his friend and watched him gather what was left of himself, what had not been leeched away. Watched him prepare to speak. He had always had the look of an orator, ready to play to the balconies—to shout down any voice, no matter how cruel, how slanderous. No matter how correct.


Hosack knelt close enough to see the sheen of sweat on Hamilton’s brow. The man fought amongst himself, tropical summers and bitter winters and absent fathers, going out shouting on the river between Godless New York and lawless New Jersey.


Hamilton reached out, fingers clammy. Hosack was there. The man opened his mouth to speak.



It took two hours for the funeral procession to pass, streaming by in a torrent of judges, lawyers, physicians, politicians, clergy. Businesses stayed shutterd. The ships anchored in the harbor ran their flags at half-mast.


Eliza was one of the few New Yorkers not present. She sheltered at home as if from a windstorm and listened to the church bells and the Battery’s muffled salute, counting her children after each report of the guns.


Hamilton’s hat and sword balanced atop the casket, tilting rakishly with the movements of the pallbearers. His horse walked behind, not accustomed to being saddled but riderless. Hamilton’s boots and spurs were wedged backwards in the stirrups. The military corps carried their rifles upside down, muzzles pointed at the ground beneath them.


It all looked like nonsense to Hosack. Everything off-kilter. A parade out of a dream. And everyone silent, skeins of silence spilling from their mouths and piling on the cobblestones until Hosack’s feet tangled in it and he stumbled.




 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Olivia Wolfgang-Smith holds an MFA from Florida State University. Her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, The Common, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been longlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a novel.