In a year marked by catastrophic hurricanes, it’s hard to think that anything good can come from a major storm. But as renewed attention on the words of Alexander Hamilton makes clear, a hurricane that touched Louisiana centuries ago helped put the famous Founding Father on the path to glory.
Hamilton is popular these days, thanks to a wildly successful Broadway musical based on his life. Earlier this month, to promote its editions of Hamilton’s writings, the Library of America published an online version of a letter Hamilton wrote in 1772. Its subject: a hurricane that menaced Florida, Alabama and Louisiana that year – but not before it had devastated the Caribbean island of St. Croix, where young Hamilton was then living.
Are we as a nation getting better at storm response? It’s far more than an academic question…
Born out of wedlock to a mother who died when he was a child, then estranged from his father, Hamilton had gone to the Caribbean to make his own way. He was there when the storm struck at the end of August, though unlike today, residents had no warning that the hurricane was coming.
Hamilton had trouble believing what the hurricane had wrought. He suspected those who had not experienced it would be even more hard-pressed to grasp what happened. But he felt moved to make a rare communication with his father, writing a letter to describe what it was like to live through the storm.
“I am afraid, Sir, you will think this description more the effort of imagination than a true picture of realities,” Hamilton told his parent. “But I can affirm with the greatest truth that there is not a single circumstance touched upon, which I have not absolutely been an eyewitness to.”
Those of us in Louisiana who have been through hurricanes understand what Hamilton was talking about. “Good God! What horror and destruction,” he wrote. “It’s impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind ... the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.”
Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the musical, said the letter was a turning point. “Hamilton did not know it yet, but he had just written his way out of poverty,” Chernow noted.
Hamilton’s letter came to the attention of an island newspaper editor who asked to publish it. It became a local sensation — so much so that some local businessmen created a fund to send Hamilton to school in North America. Within four years, he was standing at George Washington’s side in the American Revolution.
All of that was set in motion by a hurricane. Proof, we assume, that even the darkest cloud can have a silver lining.