Here then is the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, to leave the tedious lingering method, which we have hitherto followed, and instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier, march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself; which being once masters of, we may everywhere else hope for an easy victory ... . We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures.
--David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
A bitter wind drove an angry chop across the gray waters of Boston Harbor. Waves slapped the hoar-frosted hulls of ships snugged against ice-cloaked piers. The gale moaned through the furled rigging, sang in the taut lines, and whispered past the red-brick buildings facing the waterfront. It whipped down the cobblestone streets in eddying gusts that twirled faded bits of paper and soot-speckled snow across patches of dirty ice. The hanging signs swayed and creaked forlornly over firmly latched oaken doors.
Driven by the wind, the terrible chill ate through wraps and woolens until a man's bones ached, and a deep breath seared the lungs. The few courageous pedestrians shivered as they hurried along Boston's slick and winding streets. They scuttled forward, bent into the wind, coats hugged tightly about them, lost in thoughts of warm fireplaces and cheery stoves. Exposed flesh prickled as the relentless blowtore frosty breath from nose or mouth to hustle it away into the gray afternoon.
The freezing wind bulled across the Commons to rattle the paned windows of an imposing house. It surged against the firm brick walls, twisted at the gables, and wormed around the fretwork and trim; but the house stood as solidly as the stout man poised behind the quivering second-story windows.
Like a master at the wheel of his ship, Phillip Hamilton had his feet braced, hands clasped behind him. A black cummerbund graced his thickened waist and snugged the crisp white shirt. A full-cut coat hung from his shoulders. Once so broad, they had bowed with age.
His rough-hewn face looked bulldoggish. The stubby nose might have been mashed onto the thick cheeks. Lines strained the pale skin around his clamped mouth as though he were enduring pain, and hard gray eyes glared out at the world from under grizzled brows. His brown hair was shot through with silver now, and pulled back into a severe ponytail--archaic, given the fashions of the time.
Phillip Hamilton lifted his chin as he caught sight of the figure that rounded a far corner, glanced back and forth, and started irresolutely across the track-dimpled Commons. Against the powdery white background, the young man seemed to be a wavering apparition, hardly human in form. He progressed in halting, uncertain steps, peeking at the house as if he could sense Phillip's hard gaze.
Is there nothing of me in him?
Richard John Charles Hamilton--Phillip Hamilton's only son--shuffled his way through the drifted snow. From Phillip's window he looked as if he were taking an absurd pleasure in the agony of his cold feet and the needling sting on his half-frozen face.
Phillip rocked on his feet, frustration wrapping around his heart. Damn it, just once couldn't the boy act like a man? Walk with pride in his step, head back?
Not when he understands what is about to happen. Surely he must know why I've sent for him.
Phillip snorted, fortifying himself. Dealing with will-o'-the-wisp Richard always agitated him, set his stomach tochurning. God's blood, if the boy didn't grovel so, maybe it wouldn't be so tempting to grind him down. A little backbone, that's all it would take.
My fault ... all my fault.
Richard stamped snow from his feet as he stepped onto Beacon Street. He thrust balled fists deeper into his coat and kicked at a pile of frozen horse manure.
Come on, boy. Let's get it over. It's just as hard for me as it will be for you.
The trees on the Commons formed a black lace of branches, stark against the sullen gray-white sky. Occasional crystals of ice drifted down, dancing in the numbing wind. Richard raised his apprehensive gaze to his father's red-brick house.
Phillip instinctively stepped back into the shadows. To either side of the bulging bay windows hung the Belgian lace curtains Phillip's wife had once delighted in.
Thoughts of her touched that deep-seated callus of anxiety and grief. I should have been there for Caroline. His eyes narrowed as he watched the boy. And for him.
He'd been at sea when Caroline bore Richard. During the following weeks when her life ebbed slowly out of her body, Phillip had been in Paris, Madrid, and Amsterdam, negotiating the agreements that would make his fortune.
What God gives with one hand, He takes with the other. A triumphant Phillip Hamilton had returned to his house one week to the day after his wife's death. And, there, had encountered the end of his dreams--and an infant son lying in a wet nurse's arms.
Phillip craned his neck to see the street below.
Richard had slowed to a stop in the center of the street, and his thin body erupted in shivers. With a mittened hand, he reached up to brush a loose strand of honey brown hair from his sensitive brown eyes.
Caroline's eyes. You can see so much of her in him. But where is that spark of daring and courage? How could he have so many of her looks, but so little of her spirit?
Richard had received his father's summons that morning. Jeffry, Phillip's household servant, had described the young man crouched by the tiny tin stove in his rented room, cocoonedin threadbare blankets, studying a new translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind.
Phenomenology of mind? What kind of idiocy could that be?
Upon sight of Jeffry, the boy had gone pale, his hand trembling as he broke the wax seal and read the note. Phillip's perfectly formed letters stated: Richard, I need to see you immediately to discuss your situation. A carriage is waiting for you downstairs.
For long moments Richard had stared glumly through the panes of his little window, the sill delicately mantled with snow.
Jeffry had reported him as saying, "I can't come now. Not now. I--I'm feeling poorly."
In his preoccupation, he had accidentally kicked over the clutter of empty wine and ale bottles amassed along one wall. They had rolled across the slanted floor in a tinkling racket.
"Your father's carriage is downstairs." Jeffry had that cold, precise nature about him. Phillip could imagine him, standing tall, black face as graven as solid walnut.
"I have errands," Richard had stated, and Phillip could imagine the tremor in the young man's voice. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Tell him ... tell him at one. I'll be there at one."
Jeffry had inclined his head, taken his leave, and reported back. Phillip needn't glance at the old ship's clock to tell that it now lacked fifteen minutes of two. And there the boy stood, shivering in the snow, trying to muster the guts to knock at his father's door.
So, where had the boy been? That student's hideout, no doubt: Fenno's Tavern on Washington Street. Was that it? Did young Richard need a stiff shot of whiskey just to face his father?
I've failed ... failed miserably. From the shadows behind the lace curtains, Phillip watched his son close his eyes, breath puffing before his thin face. He'd be a handsome young man were there a little color to his cheeks, a little meat to his shoulders and arms. The high brow, the thin nose, both spoke of aristocracy and privilege--of everythingPhillip Hamilton could never have been or had were he not American.
Apparently, Richard nerved himself. One by one he climbed the steps and reached for the ornate knocker on the heavy door.
The hollow sound carried to Phillip's second-story study.
They had fought this same battle many times before. Richard, for all his talk of philosophy, freedom, and natural law, clung desperately to the umbilical cord of Phillip's purse. It seemed that one could not be a philosopher unless one had a wealthy father to support the luxury.
Today, however, Richard's luxury was coming to an end.
Rousseau ... yes, Rousseau. Richard liked to imagine himself as a man in the state of nature, possessed only of virtue and happiness. What had the boy said that day? Yes ... "Father, you have embraced all the curses of civilization: property, money, power, greed, and the corruption of the soul that led one man to place another in bondage."
And he'd had the audacity to say that at the very instant that Jeffry was ladling soup into Richard's silver bowl!
"Father, you find no study more fascinating than a ledger page. All you do is hunch at your cherrywood desk, peering at your books by the light of an oil lamp. You call that life? Balancing figures over and over again?"
Yes, boy. Those figures keep your belly full, and buy your books. Or, at least, they have up until now.
The younger Hamilton claimed that civilization had fallen from God's natural grace.
Well, boy, you may have God's grace. Unfortunately, today you'll have to deal with mine.
The heavy door downstairs closed with finality.
Phillip sighed, hitched around on his good leg, and stumped across the ornate parlor. After the death of his wife, Phillip had practically lived here, behind the cherrywood desk, surrounded by his fortress of ledgers. Here he'd made war on the markets with tobacco, rum, slaves, lace, tinware, porcelain, muskets, glassware, tea, and all the other things that ebbed and flowed in the international trade. He'd lost ships and crews to hurricanes, icebergs, pirates, disease, and impressment. He'd battled tariffs, interest, and insurancewith the same fiery spirit that he'd once shown the British. Just over there, across the bay at Breed's Hill.
He stepped into the gracious hallway, bracing himself on the handrail as he walked to the head of the stairs. Plush carpets lay underfoot, carried here from the Ottoman Empire. Walnut wainscoting rose to white-plastered walls. The giant brass-mounted ship's clock tick-a-tocked monotonously where it hung next to the oak-banistered stairway that led downstairs. Phillip stopped at the head of the stairs, looking down at the first-floor landing. To the left, a double doorway led into the office where he met with his agents and factors. To the right sat the hall chair with its tall mirrored back, and beyond that the French doors which led into the dining room.
Jeffry stood between Richard and the door, a hand extended as he asked, "May I take your hat and coat, Master Richard?"
Richard pulled off his frost-crusted hat, baring his light brown hair. His shabby black coat hung loosely on his skinny frame. The boy wasn't eating right again; his normally pale complexion looked death-pasty in the dim light.
Jeffry stepped away, bearing his tattered prizes to the cloakroom with stately grace.
"Richard? You're late." Phillip struggled to keep his voice from turning gruff. "I suppose philosophers don't pay much attention to time. One o'clock is just about as good as two, wouldn't you say?"
"Yes, sir. I--I mean ... no, sir." Richard lowered his eyes.
Damn it, did the boy always have to look like a whipped puppy? "Join me in the study, Richard."
Resigned, Richard climbed, eyes focused on his wet boots. They left droplets on the walnut steps. At the head of the stairs, he sought to muster a smile that died stillborn.
Phillip could hear Richard's nervous breath rasping in his throat as he gestured the boy through the doorway. Phillip hesitated, fingers on the cool oaken door. Richard jumped when the door closed solidly behind them.
Phillip sighed and limped toward his ornately carved desk and its neat piles of papers. The fireplace popped and crackled,the brass wood bin beside it half-full. Books covered one wall from floor to ceiling. From the bulging bay window behind Phillip, the Charles River could be seen, ice-choked now, the water pewter in the afternoon light. Two whale-oil-filled glass lamps, one to either side, illuminated the desk. A crimson Persian carpet cushioned the floor. In one corner sat a globe, and behind it, the Charleville musket, powder horn, and bullet pouch Phillip had carried in the Revolution.
Phillip reached the overstuffed French chair and, with effort, lowered himself behind the huge desk. Here he was in his element, everything in place: the quills in their stand; the ink in its well; a solitary copper button he'd ripped from the scarlet jacket of a British officer he'd killed at Breed's Hill; and beside the left-hand lamp, his ledgers. Finally, his wife's heavy leather-bound Bible lay just at the extent of his reach to the right. He sighed before pulling some papers from a stack. Thick fingers pinched his glasses onto his nose.
Richard remained standing. From the way his long fingers crumpled his stained black trousers, panic was fraying the last of his composure.
"Now then," Phillip began. "I have here a list of expenditures accumulated for the last four months at the university. If I do say so, you have already spent more than enough time at Harvard." He glanced up over the rims of his spectacles. "Not to mention money."
Richard wet his lips. "Father, I have more studies. I must continue my education!"
"Why, Richard?" Phillip asked woodenly. "I see no progress in your work. I pointedly refer to progress in useful studies ... those which will prepare you to deal with our modern world. At this point you have all the education required of a gentleman. You know the Classics, speak Latin and Greek as well as French, German, and a smattering of Portuguese. What more does a gentleman need?" Phillip spread his hands. "To what earthly use will you put this 'philosophy' of yours?"
"To become a professor, Father." He knotted his thin white fingers into bony fists.
"A professor? When I sent you to the university, it was to learn about the world so that you could take a position here, with me. I can't run the company forever, Richard. You have responsibilities to me, to society. And by that, I mean American society. I refuse to treat you like a child any longer." Phillip paused as he picked up a quill and rolled it between his fingers. "Nevertheless, I shan't be accused of denying you a defense. Tell me ... what have you learned?"
"I--I've learned a lot. I just ...just don't think you would ... well ... understand, sir. That's all."
Phillip tightened the corners of his mouth. "I see. A matter of understanding. Very well, I confess to be a man of open mind. Tell me something of the nature of man. I've heard you use that term. Let me hear it ... and how it will put bread and meat on your table. Let me hear how it will keep a roof over your head."
Richard took a deep breath and locked his knees to keep from trembling. Did he act this way standing before Professor Ames? Were that the case, they should have thrown him out long ago.
"From ... from what idea, if any, does the idea of ... of chains ... I mean ..." Richard winced.
"Rousseau, Father. I--I'm sure you've heard of him. Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains. It's ... It's because man has fallen from the natural grace and virtueof his creation." The words began to flow. "Once we were all happy, living in a state of innocence. Unlike the scriptures, which blame the downfall of man on an apple, Rousseau blames the first man who enclosed a piece of ground and called it his. From there it was only a matter of time until inequality riddled society. Possessions, property, they are the root of envy and struggle. They condemn us ... the foundation of tyranny."
Phillip's heart warmed. "You would tell me of tyranny? Your father, who stood at the foot of Breed's Hill?" He thrust a finger toward the old Charleville in the corner. "There, boy, is the only counter to tyranny--and you'll notice it's a 'possession,' the kind you so easily spurn."
"But don't you see? Possessions have separated us from our natural instincts. In the beginning we were concerned with existence. The products of the earth fulfilled our needs--not the products of factories, or ... or of suppressed labor. To realize our true selves we must return to the land, recover our freedom by rediscovering our natural state. This drive for things has corrupted our souls, made us slaves of our society!"
"And I take it you don't approve of our society."
"No, Father, I don't." Richard shifted uneasily. "What have we become? Possessed by the demons of gold, silver, silk, and luxuries! What about your soul, Father? You're as bad as the rest. What about the uplifting investigation of higher ideals?"
"I go to church three times a week."
"I'm not talking about corrupted Anglican values. I mean true inquiry into the soul! The discovery of who you really are!"
"And you think philosophy does this?"
"Boy, I happen to like this society we've begun to build. I began as a loyal subject of the Crown. I grumbled about the taxes and the--"
"That has nothing to do with what I'm--"
"Don't you dare interrupt an elder!"
Richard winced and swallowed hard.
"I can't believe I'm hearing this from you. By condemningAmerican society--which I have struggled, fought, and bled to build--you're indicting every ideal I hold dear." Phillip threw his quill across the desk and rubbed his forehead. "This civilization you rail against has given you everything, Richard; your philosophy, your music and art. As for your scorn of possessions, I would remind you that you've eaten off the finest china, slept warm in the worst of storms, and enjoyed leisure to pursue your ... studies. Assuming that you really despise such a life, the door is open. You may step out into the street and pursue nature and its benefits to your heart's content."
There, the gauntlet had been cast. Phillip raised an eyebrow. Come on, boy, show me some backbone. Turn on your heel and stomp out of here.
"I told you that you wouldn't understand." Richard's expression betrayed a growing panic.
Phillip smacked his desk. "Tarnation! Very well, enlighten me. Where is the flaw in my argument? Hasn't civilization given you everything you now have? If life is so bad--and yes, I've heard about your Rousseau--you can bloody well go live with the savages beyond the frontier! Go, boy, nothing is stopping you!"
"That's nothing more than the Socratic argument, Father. There's more to ..."
But Phillip had lost the boy's words. The savages beyond the frontier? He glanced from the corner of his eye at the carpet bag that sat just to the side of his old musket.
Richard raised his hands, the gesture that of desperation. "We owe something to ourselves, Father. Not just the state. Surely, if you've studied Rousseau, his arguments must have made you think, caused you to reconsider your own role in our hypocritical society. And what about the savages? What right do we have to inflict our society upon theirs? We're ruining them! Turning them into little copies of ourselves in an obscene foundry of civilized ideas. The ones that don't form just right, we break and toss in the rubbish! How can you call that morality!"
Phillip's attention had fixed on the heavy grip. He muttered, "Rousseau was a fool, primarily because no one ever shot at him."
Thirty thousand dollars. Enough to outfit an entire brigade for the Santa Fe trade. New Mexico was starved for goods, and they paid in silver. William Becknell had turned a two thousand percent profit. A man could still build a solid foundation in the far Western trade. A fortune could be made with the right Yankee mind at the helm.
"Hmm? Oh, nothing." Phillip took a deep breath and nodded to himself. "My son, I can see now that I've made a terrible error."
"Then I can go back to my studies?" Relief began to shine in Richard's large eyes.
"Absolutely not. No, Richard, I've had enough." The time has come, boy, to correct some of the mistakes.
Richard blinked hard, then shook his head in disbelief.
Phillip leaned back in his chair, plucked off his spectacles, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "As of this moment you may either leave this house ... or take up your duties, and be productive for once in your meaningless life."
"But, I ... You can't do this to me!"
"Because I'm your son! It's your duty! You owe it to me!"
"As long as you live out of my purse, I can make you do any damn thing I like!"
A choked sound escaped from Richard's throat.
Phillip sighed wearily. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, Richard. Many of them in raising you. I had no idea that your studies would take you so far from productive reality. Nevertheless, I shall make amends ... late though it may be. Boy, the world out there is not an abstraction, not as Messer Rousseau's fanciful treatise would have you believe. It's a very calculating place. One from which I have sheltered you. I'll not have any son of mine while away his life as a professor of philosophy. Your mind has been ruined by these quacks and charlatans."
"They're neither quacks nor--"
"I will not have you perpetuate such absurdities on other susceptible young minds. Instead, Richard, you will assume the responsibilities that I have too long allowed you toavoid. That is all! The final word! So long as you live on my money, you are not going back to the university. Is that clear?"
In a futile attempt to save himself some dignity, Richard looked up. "You don't understand."
"I'll send Jeffry over to Cambridge for your things. What's this? I'll not brook that pouting face. You look like a scolded little boy. You're twenty-two years old, for God's sake, and you can damned well act it! We'll talk more tonight at dinner. I have some arrangements to see to ... some friends I must discuss this with." Phillip cocked his eyebrow again. "Or, you could just walk out that door downstairs and take responsibility for yourself."
Richard gaped in stunned disbelief. "Responsibility ... for myself?"
Phillip's heart sank. "You may go. You'll find your room the way you left it. Jeffry will call you to supper. Please, make yourself presentable for the table."
Richard slipped through the doorway as quietly as possible. Phillip slumped in the overstuffed chair. Was this the right thing? He reached behind him and pulled the bell cord.
Within moments, Jeffry answered the tinkling summons, opened the door, and crossed the carpet to stand before the desk. Jeffry stood over six feet, whip-thin, posture as unforgiving as a ramrod's. His cropped hair had silvered, adding to his distinguished look. The white silk scarf at his throat contrasted with his dark-hued skin.
Phillip stared at the desktop. "I've cut off his money. I would like you to go over to that hovel he's been living in and clean it out. He won't be going back."
"Yes, sir." Jeffry studied him neutrally.
"Can you believe it? Twenty-two years old, and I sent him to his room! I've failed him, Jeffry. I'm not sure how, or what I could have done differently, but I failed him."
"He's young, sir."
Phillip glanced up wearily. "At his age, I was lying in a hospital, biting on a bullet while the surgeon tried to make up his mind whether or not to cut off my leg. Fortunately, they were so busy with dying men I lay forgotten for acouple of days. Jeffry, I'm thinking, thinking of sending him west ... to Saint Louis."
"With the banknotes, sir?"
Phillip stared into the past, seeing his wife's face, strong, beautiful. He could almost feel her cool hand against his cheek as she told him it was all right to leave, to take a year and sail to the major markets to set up accounts. That risks could be taken, that she'd be waiting when he returned ...
"Yes, Jeffry. He's got to learn to be a man. We didn't fight and die to make a nation of children. Imagine. He's twenty-two ... and doesn't even own a rifle! A Massachusetts man without a rifle!"
Phillip reached over and laid his hand on the leather-bound Bible that rested on his desk like a silent guardian. Isn't there anything of me in him?
Copyright © 1996 by W. Michael Gear