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Di Leo: Alexander Hamilton and the Life of a Loyalist Academic



6a00d834515c5469e20263e8623672200d-450wiBy John F. Di Leo - 

Reflections on the anniversary of the closure of King’s College and the flight of its dean…

On May 10, 1775, Dr. Myles Cooper was on top of the world. As President of King’s College in New York City for the previous dozen years, he was in the inner circle of British leadership in New York, responsible for the education of many of the finest students in the Americas, spokesman for loyalist thought in an age of rebellion.

But by the morning of May 11, driven out of the college in the dead of night by an angry mob, he was lucky to escape with his life. The philosophical tide was turning in these colonies – against the Hanoverian King and his puppets in Parliament, and against their proud and blind local acolytes who seemingly littered polite society at the time.

The mouth of George III was on his way home to England, never to return, and he owed his very life to a lowly scholarship student, an honorable lad he had underestimated again and again: young Alexander Hamilton, the boy from St. Croix.

Myles Cooper and the Loyalist Cause

Dr. Myles Cooper was an Oxford graduate, and a young Anglican minister, when the Church of England decided to send him to King’s College in New York.  He was running the school by the time he was thirty.

Back then, it wasn’t the big university that it is today.  Relatively few people went to college in those days, and those who could afford to, if at all possible, preferred to sail back to the mother country and study at a British university.   King’s College had just been established in 1754, so it was still new, with a student population measuring in the dozens, when Myles Cooper took charge of it in 1763.

He was as English as an Englishman could be – a proud representative of both the monarchy and the Church of England – and he helped the school grow in both numbers and reputation, until the revolution came to New York.

As the debate over the question of standing up to King and Parliament came to a head, Myles Cooper was at the forefront, writing articles and speaking from the pulpit, collaborating in plan and in print with Samuel Seabury (who wrote his tracts under the name “A Farmer”).  If any New Yorker were asked to name the most prominent spokesmen for the loyalist cause in the early 1770s, Myles Cooper would have been among the first to come to mind.

Alexander Hamilton and the Patriot Cause

Young Alexander Hamilton could hardly have been more different.  Born illegitimate into abject poverty on the Caribbean isle of Nevis, then raised on nearby St. Croix, his mother had died and his failure of a father had disappeared before he was twelve.

Apprenticed to a local merchant, he distinguished himself, and a group of local worthies assembled a scholarship for him so he could be educated on the mainland. 

Sent first to the Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey, he hoped to attend Princeton, and zip through at an accelerated pace like he had heard that his contemporary, Aaron Burr, had done.  Unfortunately, Princeton wasn’t going to give an unknown immigrant pauper the generous schedule they had created for the college founder’s grandson, so Hamilton decided against Princeton and chose to take his scholarship to King’s College in Manhattan instead.

So it was that young Hamilton arrived at Myles Cooper’s school, a hotbed of loyalism in the fall of 1773, just when the lad was joining all his new friends and mentors in identifying with the patriot cause.   He first took lodgings with Hercules Mulligan, socialized with such elders as William Livingston and Elias Boudinot, then roomed with Robert Troup in college.  He was taught by loyalists in the classroom, but his entire social network was made up of the Sons of Liberty.

By the time the first Continental Congress was convened in 1774, Hamilton was already studying the philosophical underpinnings of the issues of the day, and he was soon writing (under such pen names as Monitor, Americanus, and A Friend to America) some of the most brilliant and radical libertarian tracts in print. 

Myles Cooper knew that young Hamilton was a patriot, but he had no idea that the brilliant foe whom he and his comrades were fighting in the newspapers was a humble college student still in his teens. 

The Night of May 10, 1775

During the winter of 1774-1775, the powder keg finally exploded into action.  The King and his yes-men in Parliament’s majority party doubled down on their past eight outrageous years of oppressing Massachusetts, and that April, patriots and redcoats came to blows at Lexington and Concord, then commenced the Siege of Boston.

That winter and spring, the patriots of New York staged their own tea party in honor of Boston’s, started raiding British arms and ammunition stores, and formed their own infantry and artillery platoons to drill in preparation for whatever came next.

And finally, late at night on May 10, 1775, an angry mob decided to attack King’s College.  It was run by the Church of England, after all, so it was directly associated with the King… and the dean and other teachers were well known and vocal loyalists themselves.   If you’re looking for a stand-in for a tyrannical king, looking for someone to tar and feather, who better than Myles Cooper?

As the mob appeared at the fence, tearing down the gate and shouting for Cooper to come down and take his punishment, young Hamilton and his roommate Troup woke up and sprung into action.

They hurried other students to rush to Cooper’s room, and to tell him to get dressed, to pack a bag quickly, and escape, while Alexander Hamilton and Robert Troup rushed down to the front door, to face down the crowd.

The mob might have expected some friendly students to open the door for them, but they certainly didn’t expect what they got: one of their own, giving them  a lecture on proper wartime behavior!

Many in the mob recognized Hamilton from recent actions, or from his now famous speech “in the Fields” on July 7, 1774, and they must have been amazed to see him opposing their plan to punish the King’s local spokesman, who was known to be, as Troup put it, “a most obnoxious Tory.”

But Hamilton was horrified at the prospect of mob action. 15 years before the Paris mob was to shock the world with their random assassinations of innocent civilians, even then he knew that this was no way to fight an honorable revolution, purportedly based on the freedom philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Young Hamilton – using all his command of the English language and his understanding of the underpinnings of the Glorious Cause of Independence – gave the crowd a lecture, and thereby gave Cooper a chance to escape out back.

By the time the long-winded young patriot finally wound down and ceded the floor, Myles Cooper had indeed run out the back, leapt over the fence, and headed for his friend Peter Stuyvesant’s house, where he spent the night. 

On May 11, 1775, young Hamilton helped row Cooper out to a British ship, the HMS Kingfisher, on which vessel both Cooper and another loyalist teacher from King’s College – Reverend Chandler – sailed back to England, never to return.  And with their departure, the college was closed for the eight long years the war raged.

Standing for Principle

Hamilton and Troup were young, just college students.  Hardly to be counted as being among the leaders of the movement.  Despite Hamilton’s few speeches and then-still-anonymous masterpieces in print, he was hardly in a position to command respect from a revolutionary mob based on his own reputation.  Only Hamilton’s great oratorical gifts and brilliant rhetorical talent could serve his purpose that night.

An unarmed kid, blocking a door that separated an armed and angry mob from its quarry… clearly running the risk making that crowd distrust him in the future.  Why do it?

Hamilton certainly respected Dr. Cooper.  But he also respected the rebel leaders, his allies, friends, and mentors.  So the fact that he respected Cooper isn’t enough to explain his actions. 

We will find the heart of his motivation in Robert Troup’s account of the event:

“When the mob approached the college, Hamilton took his stand on one of the stoops, and proceeded with great animation to harangue on the disgrace it would bring on the cause of liberty, of which they avowed themselves to be the champions.”

It was the cause of liberty, which Hamilton served both by pen and ink and by daily drills with his militia company, that motivated his action that night.

For Alexander Hamilton, and so many others of our Founding generation, recognized the dangers of revolution.  They knew what could happen if a mob was unleashed.   Stores would be smashed, homes would be burned, neighbors would kill neighbors… relatives and friends would even find themselves shooting at each other.  Such events might sometimes be unavoidable, here and there, but it was the duty of the leaders of the movement to try their best to discourage such action.

In the months to follow the events of May 10, 1775, Hamilton learned of other such events that he was unable to prevent – the smashing of James Rivington’s press, the tarring-and-feathering of Thomas Randolph.  Hamilton wrote to John Jay at Congress, and encouraged the leaders in Congress to take action to discourage such excesses.

From then on, it is notable that the leaders of the Glorious Cause tried their best to confine violence to the battlefield, and to always be honorable in dealings with civilians.  Yes, there were more shopkeeper attacks, even a few tarrings-and-featherings in the years to follow, but they did not occur with the blessing of the patriots’ leadership, and they remained the exception, rather than the rule.

Five years earlier, John Adams had gained the world’s respect by going to court and defending the Redcoats involved in the Boston Massacre, proving that Americans would honor the rule of law even when King and Parliament chose tyranny.  And in the years to come, General Washington resisted every temptation to confiscate food or supplies, and scrupulously ensured that the army bought what it needed… perhaps with IOUs that would take another decade and a Constitutional Convention to honor, but yes, we did eventually honor them.

The American Revolution was so unlike other civil wars – ours was led by philosophers, by people who believed in God and Country, who dedicated themselves to honorable conduct from beginning to end. They knew there would be more than enough bloodshed on the battlefield; they did their best to keep it there, and to restrict its spread elsewhere, even though loyalist sympathies were sure to be numerous in some areas.

The French Revolution was born of hatred – hatred of the nobility, hatred of the church.  The Bolshevik revolution a century later, too, was born of hatred – an odd hatred of the middle class, and of work, and of the private sector.  And for so many of the revolutions in between – such as the string of rebellions in 1848 – the people didn’t even know what started their revolutions, it was just the successful oratory of the Marxists, as much as anything.

But the American War of Independence was special.  We declared our reasoning in a Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776, and both our military and civilian leaders kept those principles – the rights of the people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – at the forefront of their concerns and plans every day until the peace was signed, eight long years later.

Myles Cooper never appreciated all this; he was bitter for being chased away from a good job in Manhattan, angry at the audacity of these American rebels, throwing off their wonderful English yoke.

But we understand today.  With the advantage of hindsight, we can see the Myles Cooper incident as the American approach in a microcosm.  American soldiers paid farmers for food and supplies.  An American president pardoned Citizen Genet and gave him parole to settle here rather than returning to certain death by guillotine in Paris. 

And an American college student saved his dean’s life, despite his deep philosophical disagreement on the issue of the day, because to him, the honor of the Glorious Cause took precedence. 

To Alexander Hamilton and his colleagues, ours was to be a different kind of revolution. A decent one, an honorable one.  One that respected the liberty of the individual… sometimes, even his right to be wrong.

Copyright 2020 John F Di Leo

John F Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor.  His columns have been regularly found in Illinois Review now for over ten years.

For further readings on Alexander Hamilton and this period, I can recommend most strongly my main sources, Willard Sterne Randall’s “Alexander Hamilton, A Life” Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton,” and Richard Brookhiser’s “Alexander Hamilton, American.”

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  1. Every freshman at Columbia College in the 50s, the heir to the King’s College of NY, was privileged to hear a welcoming speech by Prof. Dwight Minor on the subject of Hamilton and the fateful night he saved Dean Cooper.
    Prof. Minor hammed it up by playing the parts of all the participants and I can still remember the portrayal of Den Cooper fleeing out the back door with his nightshirt flapping.
    Hamilton was such a singular talent that it is regrettable that his feud with another talented New Yorker ended with his premature death in a duel.

  2. Now, I’m more than happy to accept the clicks. So even if you want to make fun of the subject matter, I don’t mind, because it helps that little tiny bit to get the piece prominence in the search engines, and maybe someone more appreciative will see it as a result.
    But what Mr Westwood (who knows what his real name is) is saying here is, “there is no place for history … ever. Concentrate on the now; there’s nothing to learn from the past.”
    And this is completely in line with the communist dialectic. Those of us of a certain age – who remember the cold war – will recall that Soviet Russia was famous for its “five year plans.” Every 5 years, they’d announce a plan for the future… promising to do what they had promised to do 5 years prior and failed. But they didn’t admit they had failed; they pretended it hadn’t been attempted before.
    With the left, every day, you begin with a clean slate. Past failures don’t count, past experiences, past lessons, past history. Disregard the past, and look forward.
    In short, never learn from the past. Keep making the same mistakes, because that’s how we like it.
    That’s the left for you. And they always revert back to it. They can’t help it; the marxist dialectic is in their blood.
    (by the way, this was not intended to be a political post; I try very hard to keep political bias out of my history articles… but “Mr Westwood” opened the door.)