A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Book Corner – May 2017 (1)


Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

This is a tome of a book and not one for the faint-hearted. At times it is heavy going – for a non-American the detailed analysis of Hamilton’s Federalist papers which played a major part in defining the constitutional arrangements that define the workings of the government in the States to this day almost persuaded me to give the book up. But perseverance is well rewarded and the reader comes away with a profound understanding of what made one of the most colourful characters of the post-revolutionary United States tick.

For those who like to see such things, there are some astonishing modern parallels. Hamilton was born in the West Indies and he could never free himself from the jibes of his critics that he was a foreigner and had no right to hold high office in the States. He possessed incredible amounts of energy and as soon as he was appointed to the position of Treasury Secretary by George Washington he unleashed a flurry of orders and initiatives that would have made the Donald blanche. He was a prolific writer of pamphlets and articles. He would have been inexhaustible on Twitter.

Hamilton’s greatest achievements were in establishing the American economy on a firmer footing, nationalising debt, binding the rather fractious individual states together and establishing banks, stock markets and credit, the familiar instruments that fuel a modern economy. In many ways Hamilton’s legacy is the thriving and influential country that the States is today.

But Hamilton was clearly a Marmite character – you either loved him or loathed him – and he had the unerring knack of rubbing powerful enemies up the wrong way and rarely knew when to back down. He hitched his horse close to that of Washington – he was effectively Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and was rewarded for his efforts with high office – but he had an uneasy relationship which became toxic with Washington’s successor, Adams. Worse still, Jefferson, the third President, represented much of what he abhorred – land owning, slave-owning and enamoured with the French Revolution – and their feud ultimately wrecked Hamilton’s political ambitions. Even worse, both Adams and Jefferson outlived Hamilton by decades and had plenty of time to tarnish their opponent’s reputation and burnish their side of the story.

Mind you, Hamilton made his own significant contributions to his own downfall. Bizarrely, he had a dalliance with a married woman which exposed him to blackmail. Equally astonishingly, he decided to make a clean breast of it by publishing a detailed account of the affair, to the mortification of his long-suffering wife, Eliza, to whom Chernow takes quite a shine and to the gratification of his enemies. And then there was the simmering rivalry and feud with Aaron Burr who by the time of the fateful duel was Vice President, albeit effectively sidelined by Jefferson.

The fateful duel occurred on July 11th 1804 at Weehawken. Chernow makes a convincing case that Hamilton intended to waste his shot, hoping that Burr would return the compliment. It is not clear, though, who fired first. Hamilton’s shot was way off target which might have meant that he fired first and was true to his word or it may have been an involuntary shot after he had been winged. The awful tragedy was that he never signalled his intentions to Burr and paid for it with his life. The reintroduction of duelling would certainly brighten up our politics.

For all its length and wearisome passages and at times Chernow is too close and defensive of his subject, I came away with a better understanding of a remarkable man. I can’t believe they have made a musical out of it, though.


What Is The Origin Of (95)?…


A tinker’s damn

This phrase usually follows “not worth a” and means that the subject matter is worthless. You may find that damn is replaced by cuss or curse or that the final n has been dropped in an attempt to bowdlerise the phrase. I have been known to use it but have never given any thought to how it may have come about.

The starting point in our exploration is the term tinker. The noun tinker has been in use since the 13th century at least  often pejoratively, to describe a craftsman, usually itinerant, who mended pots, kettles and other metal household utensils. There is no common consensus on the origin of the word although one theory, which I quite like, is that is from the noise made by lightly hammering on metal.

Although they doubtless performed a useful function, there was a general distrust in mediaeval times of strangers and travellers and tinker – the Scottish variant was tinkler – soon became a portmanteau term for vagrants, travellers, Romanies and the like. As well as enduring a peripatetic lifestyle the tinker was not known for the politeness and subtlety of their language. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) rather sniffily notes “the low repute in which these, especially the itinerant sort, were held in former times is shown by the expressions “to swear like a tinker, a tinker’s curse or damn, as drunk or as quarrelsome as a tinker””. A tinker had become firmly established as a simile for a reprobate.

Moving on into the 18th century phrases such as “not giving a curse or a damn” or “not worth a curse or a damn”  became common as expressions of studied indifference or worthlessness. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in an essay in 1760, “not that I care three damns what figure I may cut” and one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in a letter in 1763 “I do not conceive that any thing can happen ..which you would give a curse to know”.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given the tinker’s noted predilection for swearing, that the two were conflated into one by the early 19th century. John McTaggert wrote in his The Scottish Gallovidian Dictionary of 1824, “a tinkler’s curse she did na care” while Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal in 1839, “’tis true they are not worth a tinker’s damn”. Towards the end of the century Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his novel, St Ives, published in 1894, “I care not a tinker’s damn for his ascension”.

What is not worth a tinker’s damn is Edward H Knight’s alternative suggestion of the derivation of the phrase which appeared in his 1877 edition of The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics. There he defines a tinker’s dam (note the absence of the n) as “a wall of dough raised around a place which a plumber desires to flood with a coat of solder. The material can be but once used, being consequently thrown away as worthless. It has passed into proverb usually involving the wrong spelling of the otherwise innocent word dam”. Alas, for Knight there are earlier examples to be found, all of which restore the innocent n.

And to finish off, to tinker appeared as a verb meaning to work as a tinker around 1590 and then acquired a secondary meaning of being engaged in a worthless or useless way in the mid 17th century. Throughout the centuries the tinker has had to battle with a bad reputation.