Rare Artifacts at Columbia's RBML
By Nicole Scholet
As part of CelebrateHAMILTON 2012, the AHA Society Executive Board arranged for a special visit at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), located inside Butler Library. We were joined by Doug Hamilton, fifth great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton, and author Michael Newton.
There, we had an amazing opportunity - to see the Hamilton artifacts housed at Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
(Photo credits: Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Once in the RBML, our guides Jane Siegel and Jennifer B. Lee led our small group past shelves of historic books, past a bust of Benjamin Franklin, past the chair that belonged to DeWitt Clinton, and into the Donor's Room where they began to bring out one treasure after another.
First to be unveiled was a framed minature portrait of Alexander Hamilton, painted by the famous Charles Wilson Peale around 1780. This miniature portrait, watercolor painted on ivory, is the earliest confirmed portrait of Alexander Hamilton, around age 23 at the time. It's believed that Elizabeth Hamilton had this portrait commissioned around the time of their wedding (December 14, 1780) and that Elizabeth herself did the embroidery work that frames the portrait of her beloved Hamilton.
The next artifact to be unveiled was a seven-page love letter that Alexander Hamilton wrote to Elizabeth Hamilton in August 1780. The couple were in courtship at this time and would marry four months later. Doug Hamilton had several interesting family stories to share about Alexander and Elizabeth as he looked over the letter for the first time.
Below is a close-up of the last page of the love letter. Alexander signs it "Adieu loveliest of your sex - AH"
Speaking of Alexander and Elizabeth marrying, both their wedding handkerchiefs were preserved and are in the care of the RBML. In the photo below, Jane and Jennifer from the RBML carefully lay out Elizabeth Hamilton's delicate handkerchief.
The next artifacts revealed were engraved silver napkin rings owned by the Hamiltons - you can see the mongrammed initials "AH" in the top ring.
One of the most memorable moments of the whole day (keep in mind - there were many of them!) was holding Elizabeth Hamilton's wedding ring. Elizabeth Hamilton outlived her husband by fifty years, living to the age of 97. She wore her ring for almost 74 years, until the day she passed away. Her incredibly thin ring shows many years of use, worn from decades of faithful devotion to her husband's memory.
The personal history behind their love story is moving in and of itself. But I have never seen such a unique wedding band. When I first saw it in the box, it already seemed like such a thin ring. But the incredible part is that the ring is actually made up of two linked rings that swivel to join as one. Below you can see the ring unclasped. On one link is engraved "Alexander 1780" and on the other, "Elizabeth". I can't believe they could make this kind of ring back in the 1700s...and I also can't believe they aren't made all the time now! One thing I can say for sure is that Alexander had great taste in his choice for a wedding ring.
One of the most fascinating artifacts we saw was a book called "Hamiltoniana." Put together for the 70th anniversary of Alexander Hamilton's passing in 1874, it is essentially a one-of-a-kind scrapbook of every sort of document pertaining to Hamilton's life and death. This massive book includes personal accounts, newspaper articles, even illustrations of Hamilton I had never seen before. The researcher in me wanted to sit down immediately and pour over every word, but the librarians were already being so patient and obliging as we 'oohed' and 'awed' over every picture, that I controlled myself. Hopefully one day I'll have to opportunity to return for a more in-depth look.
And of course, the grand finale - a first edition copy of The Federalist, Volume II that was personally owned by Alexander Hamilton. I wouldn't have even imagined that an artifact like this would exist, much less be placed right before me. This little leather-bound book, published almost 225 years ago, had sat on Hamilton's bookshelf while the ideas it contained spread thoughout the country. It was another very unforgetable moment.
On the inside of the front cover - as shown below - Alexander Hamilton had affixed his personal book plate with the Hamilton motto, crest, and coat of arms. The banner at the top bears the family motto "Viridis et Fructifera," which translates to "verdant and fruitful." The crest is an "oak tree proper" and the coat of arms is a red (gules) shield with a silver (argent) "lion rampant" surrounded by three flowers, or "cinquefoils ermine." The inscription below the coat of arms reads: "Alex.r Hamilton Esq.r of Grange Advocate"
That wrapped our tour of the RBML. But before leaving the Columbia campus, we made our way across Hamilton Lawn to Hamilton Hall, in front of which stands a statue of - you guessed it - Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was not just an alumnus of Columbia University (when it was called King's College); he also was a trustee for the college and one of the principal people who worked to reopen the school after the Revolutionary War. It's fitting that Hamilton's alma matter is now home to such priceless artifacts.