America’s current favorite founding father, Alexander Hamilton, has always been considered a fine writer; the Federalist Papers have long been praised as exemplars of American political prose. But as the musical Hamilton reminds us, he was also a fast writer—he wrote “like [he was] running out of time”—and his way with quill pens was almost as important as his way with words. A third, oft-overlooked element was key to Hamilton’s success: He had great handwriting.
For striving men in the pre-typewriter era, having good handwriting could be key to your rise in rank. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern explains how Poggio Bracciolini’s good handwriting helped him ascend from modest beginnings to papal secretary. Hamilton similarly parlayed his facility with loops and strokes to success.
We don’t know how Hamilton was taught to write—historians believe he was privately tutored in Nevis where he grew up. At age 14, he became a clerk at Beekman and Cruger, an import/export trading house. In the 18th century, being a clerk primarily meant doing one thing: writing. Accounting, communication, dispatches, and all other aspects of bureaucracy were the province of midlevel clerks, sometimes called “pen pushers” or “quill drivers.” Think of Bartleby the Scrivener, the character from the Herman Melville story, who is overwhelmed by paperwork, or the law clerks in Dickens novels, staying up late into the night dipping their quill pens into ink. While working at Beekman and Cruger, Hamilton learned how to write in, as biographer Ron Chernow puts it, what was then considered a “beautiful, clear, flowing hand.”
His experience churning out letter after letter, paired with his elegant penmanship, helped him land another important job: George Washington’s secretary. As commander in chief during the revolution, Washington was doing more than marching and ordering; he also had to issue forth communications with Congress, dispatches, and books for the army. He needed a secretary, and, in great part because of his speed and neatness, Hamilton was tapped for the job. As a contemporary recounted, “none of Washington’s aides had as facile a pen as did Hamilton.”
Washington made Hamilton chief secretary, a position that took advantage of Hamilton’s strengths and helped him develop new ones. Being head scribe of the army meant more than taking dictation and using neat strokes. Hamilton also had to ghost-write many of Washington’s letters; he had to “think as well as to write for him in all his most important correspondence,” Chernow notes. Hamilton served his boss well; as another contemporary wrote: “The pen for our army was held by Hamilton and for dignity of manner, pith of matter, and elegance of style, General Washington’s letters are unrivalled in military annals.”
Hamilton’s pleasing script was all the more impressive given how quickly he wrote. Being able to write many words per minute was as important a skill for a secretary then as later typing speed would become. It wasn’t just the bounty of his ideas that allowed Hamilton to write “the other 51” of the Federalist Papers in just a few months; it was his ability to actually commit tens of thousands of words to paper in a short time. “So excruciating was the schedule” for writing the essays, James Madison wrote, that often “whilst the printer was putting into type parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and to be furnished in time for the press.”
Chernow notes that Hamilton “must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in 49 years.” Dozens of volumes of his letters and papers have been published, and archives around the country contain more still. The output is startling, perhaps verging on hypergraphia or graphomania, an obsessive need to write. It was costly, too: His accounts show he spent a large amount of money on quills, parchment, penknives, slate pencils, wax, and other writing supplies.
Thanks to librarians who have been digitizing Hamilton’s letters, you can now see Hamilton’s handwriting online. To many today, his lowercase G’s and capital M’s are still elegant, but they are also somewhat illegible. What was considered clear script in the 18th century is now archaic and unfamiliar. But those squiggles—and his competence making them—played a role in Hamilton’s unlikely rise. In Hamilton, Aaron Burr asks Hamilton, “How do you write like you need it to survive?” In some respects, he did.
Read more in Slate about Hamilton.