The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Explorers, 1583–1763

§ 17. Dr. Alexander Hamilton

Dr. Hamilton, who is not known to have been related to the more eminent publicist of the same name, in 1744 followed his own advice and sought to rid himself of a persistent indisposition by a change of climate and companions. Except for this health-seeking incentive, his journey from Annapolis to Portsmouth in New Hampshire was a pleasure trip, probably the earliest recorded in America.

Reading was easily the first of Dr. Hamilton’s pleasures. On his journey he picked up from the Philadelphia book stalls the latest English novels, and in New York he bought a new edition of a classical favourite. When his own supply of reading matter gave out, he rummaged through the inn or explored his host’s book shelves. The tavern keeper at Kingston in Rhode Island convinced him that it was unlawful, and therefore inexpedient, to travel on the Sabbath, and so he loitered about all day, “having nothing to do and no books to read, except it was a curious History of the Nine Worthies (which we found in Case’s library) a book worthy of that worthy author Mr. Burton, the diligent compiler and historian of Grub Street.” The scenery, luckily, furnished a partial compensation for the dearth of literary pastime, for he noted as he approached this hostelry that it brought to his mind “some romantic descriptions of rural scenes in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.”

The day following his arrival at Boston being Sunday, he attended meeting, where he heard “solid sense, strong connected reasoning and good language.” For the rest of this day’s entry in his journal he records “staid at home this night, reading a little of Homer’s First Ilaid.” As he does not say, we can only guess whether he took his Homer in the original or through a translation. With Latin we know that he was on intimate terms, even without the evidence of his Scottish medical degree. While at Newport he writes:

  • I stayed at home most of the forenoon and read Murcius [Meursius], which I had of Dr. Moffatt, a most luscious piece, from whom all our modern salacious poets have borrowed their thoughts. I did not read this book upon account of its lickerish contents, but only because I knew it to be a piece of excellent good Latin, and I wanted to inform myself of the proper idiom of ye language upon that subject.
  • On his return to New York he notes that a day
  • passed away, as many of our days do, unremarked and trifling. I did little more than breakfast, dine and sup. I read some of Homer’s twelfth Iliad, and went to the coffee-house in the afternoon
  • Back in Philadelphia, he found the September air

  • very sharp and cold for the season, and a fire was very grateful. I did little but stay at home all day, and employed my time in reading of Homer’s Iliad.
  • His next forenoon was
  • spent in reading of Shakespear’s Timon of Athens, or Manhater, a play which tho’ not written according to Aristotle’s rules, yet abounds with inimitable beauties, peculiar to this excellent author
  • With such saddle-bag friends to accompany him, Dr. Hamilton was well prepared to pass judgment upon the casual acquaintances who crossed his path. When he first looked about him in Philadelphia, he

  • observed several comical, grotesque Phizzes in the inn where I put up, which would have afforded variety of hints for a painter of Hogarth’s turn. They talked there upon all subjects,—politicks, religion, and trade,—some tolerably well, but most of them ignorantly.
  • The next morning the Doctor kept his room, reading Montaigne’s Essays, “a strange medley of subjects, and particularly entertaining.” On Sunday he was asked out to dinner, but found “our table chat was so trivial and trifling that I mention it not. After dinner I read the second volume of The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and thought my time well spent.”

    Dr. Hamilton, one of the most entertaining of American travellers, appears to advantage even beside the urbanity of Byrd and the sprightliness of Mrs. Knight. Bent upon no special errand, he observed freely, and all the more so, one suspects, because of his detachment. Such a quality was not so easy during the next generation, when the wars between the French and English in America, the beginnings of colonial, and then national, pride, the growth of natural science, and the coming of the romantic spirit of solitude and love of nature furnished new motives. Then travelling became a fad, a profession, a duty, and led to the production of an extensive literature which may more properly be discussed with the work of men were who were no longer colonials but citizens of the new republic.