Rockets burst high over Manhattan and church bells are pealing from every steeple. Sudden flashes of light turn night into day, and loud blasts shake the ground, then roll away like thunder. Thousands of New Yorkers clog the waterfront to cheer the climbing rockets, the deafening explosions, then moan as sparkles shimmer down through the rigging of ships from many lands.
Now and then long muzzles of cannon shoot orange flame from the Battery out over the black water. Dogs are barking and children wailing. Gnarled veterans scowl at the explosions and the stink of gunpowder. They are recalling the incessant pounding of British warships. But this is no siege. It’s the first Independence Day in the reign of Thomas Jefferson. A quarter century ago, Jefferson dipped his quill and scribbled, “All men are created equal.” Now he is president. The age of the common man has dawned.
Two lads, loose as greyhounds, amble up Broadway, admiring the young ladies. When one spins her parasol or dips an eye, the boys laugh and shove each other. They’re in the silly stage of intoxication.
“There’s a saucy one for you, Phil!”
“Tad plump for me, Ricky, but be my guest.”
“Did you see her eyes, though? It’s always in the eyes.”
“Ah, buck up! You’ll have a new sweetheart by next week.”
Down Broadway a bugle blows reveille. The boys watch a company of militia fall in, then step off smartly in ruddy torchlight to a snare drum and fife. As the bursting fireworks throw belfries and steeples into silhouette, the parade approaches and continues up Broadway. The boys follow in the trailing crowd to Brick Church, where the soldiers stop and mark time until the commander barks: “Company, halt!” The crowd cheers as Edward Livingston, New York City’s new mayor, steps to a rostrum on the church steps, unrolls a scroll and with the flourish of a frilled cuff, calls:
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .”
The taller boy, Philip Hamilton, listens reverently.
“. . . a decent respect to the opinion of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation . . .”
But the speech bores Ricky Price, and he looks around.
“Listen!” Hamilton urges. He’s transported by cadences of the Declaration of Independence. Price rolls his eyes and falls quiet.
As the mayor finishes, “. . . that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States . . .” Price pulls at Hamilton’s sleeve, “Come on. Let’s go. I’m thirsty.”
“Sure,” Hamilton says, but as they move away, a second speaker replaces the mayor and launches into a passionate tirade. “Wait a minute.”
“Not another speech!”
“He just mentioned my father.”
The tall, dark-haired orator is sweating and gesticulating in the light from torches: “. . . even as we celebrate our freedom tonight, Alexander Hamilton drills his New Army in secret, plotting a military coup.” The orator pulls a sheaf of papers from his breast pocket and waves it high. “I hold here documents intercepted from a spy that prove Hamilton is colluding with the British. Soon he will march upon Washington City, take President Jefferson prisoner and raise himself up as king!”
“No!” the crowd cries.
“Stop it!” Philip Hamilton shouts. “Stop your lies!”
The speaker’s fists are pumping the air. “Alexander Hamilton is a monarchist! A British sympathizer! An adulterer! A fraud!”
“No!” the crowd cries.
“Stop it!” Philip calls. “Stop it right now!”
Price pulls his sleeve. “Let it go, Phil. Come on.”
“I can’t listen to this!” Hamilton throws off Price’s grip and elbows his way to the front of the crowd: “Liar!” He cups his hands and shouts, “Liar!”
The speaker stops and looks down. Hamilton climbs the spokes of a wheel onto the bed of a wagon: “People!” He spreads his arms over the crowd, “Don’t listen to these lies! General Hamilton is a patriot. He’s not plotting to overthrow the government. He’s working in his law office tonight, only blocks from here. He’s my father. I just left him!”
“And we should believe his son?” The orator laughs and shakes his sheaf of papers. “Here is written proof that Hamilton corresponds with British spies!”
“No!” the crowd calls.
“Stop your lies, or I’ll stop you!” Hamilton jumps from the wagon and begins shoving through the crowd. He doesn’t get far, though, when a large man seizes him by the shoulders.
“Let’s call it a night, shall we, lad?” A smile spreads across the man’s broad face and gleams in his pale blue eyes.
“Let me go!” Hamilton struggles.
“I smell the son of a monarchist,” the orator cries from the church steps, and he pinches his nostrils to the laughter of the crowd, “a boy by the name of Hamilton!”
“Listen to that!” Philip pleads to the large man restraining him.
“Nothing good can come of this now. Come along and I’ll stand you a drink.”
“Let me go!” Hamilton breaks the grip on his coat and faces the man. He’s startled by the man’s colorful dress: a coat of red plaid, canary yellow vest, and maroon breeches. A battered old top hat is pulled low over long, greasy locks. “I won’t allow this scoundrel to spread his lies!”
“Sticks and stones, lad. Let it ride.” With a strong grip on his elbow the big man escorts Hamilton away from the crowd. “I knew your daddy when he was a slip of a lad like you, and it’s an honor to meet his heir apparent. Come along.” Philip motions to Price, then looks back.
From the church steps the speaker taunts: “Run home to papa, little man!” and he continues his rant in the torchlight, lit by the rosy light of rockets flashing off the steeple.
Price catches up and the big man guides them along the cobblestones for three blocks, then up a mud alley to a tavern where lively fiddle music pours through an open window. Inside the swinging doors there’s dancing, and a hoarse woman is singing “The Rose of Tralee.”
A massive ginger barmaid swaggers over with a tray. “Usual, Mulligan?”
“Aye, Margie, and get my young friends a drink as well. This here’s Marge, boys.” He slaps her bottom.
“Show some respect, bucko, or I’ll see you die of thirst.” Marge is missing her front teeth. “What’ll it be, boys?”
“Cherry bounce,” Price says.
“Not on my watch!” Mulligan says. “When you drink with Hercules Mulligan, you drink as men!” To Marge: “Extra gill of rum, Marjorie darling, and blackstraps all around.” He leads the boys to a table near the wall.
“Why did you stop me back there?” Philip protests.
“Get you out of harm’s way. Give you some advice. Aye, but first things first.” He tips back the crushed top hat and sticks out his hand. “Hercules Mulligan at your service. Your daddy’s spoken of me, I’m sure.”
“Hercules? No. I would’ve remembered that.”
“Why, I gave him his start when he first arrived in New York.”
“Never heard of you.” Hamilton shakes Mulligan’s fleshy hand. “I am Philip, Philip Hamilton, and this is Richard Price.”
“Sit down, boys, sit down.”
The barmaid’s back. She hoists three foaming tankards off her tray and sets them on the table. Mulligan and the boys clink the pewter mugs together and drink deeply. The ale-and-molasses concoction is sweet, frothy, and strong. Mulligan groans with pleasure as he’s swallowing, then slams down his tankard and sighs with satisfaction. He removes his hat, wipes his forehead with a kerchief, and raises his index finger to dispatch a word of wisdom.
“You got to pick your battles better, lad.”
“He called my father a traitor!”
“Free country, free speech.” Mulligan points his thumb at his chest. “Now, I was born in the Land of Ire, and I spat fire at your age, too, so let me pose you a riddle. How can you spot a well-balanced Irishman?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Marge says.
“He’s the one with a chip on both shoulders.” Mulligan laughs at his own joke and takes another deep swig. “Look at this face! This busted jaw and flattened nose taught me to fight only battles I can win. Georgie Eacker’s a sight bigger, older, and stronger than you.”
“I can hold my own. I’ll meet him anytime, anywhere.”
“Aye, you got the old man’s spunk, but Eacker’s one mean customer. Runs with the crew that loafs about Brom Martling’s dive. Pack of rabid Republicans and nasty drinkers. Eacker’s a lawyer, but he don’t play by any rules I know. His daddy was one of Burr’s crooks up in Albany. Watch yourself around him. Say the wrong word, you’ll be staring down the barrel of a pistol.”
“Is that supposed to frighten me?”
“Well, it scares the shite out of me.” Mulligan lets out a great belly laugh. “I’ve become rather fond of this life.” He gives the barmaid a squeeze and clinks down three coins. “Only one they give us, eh, Marge?”
“And you’re none too shy about sharing yours.” She swats him affectionately and picks up the coins.
Mulligan leans in and winks and bunches up his big hands. “Now, fists don’t do much harm, and they can settle any grudge.”
“On a question of honor?” Philip is offended.
“Honor? Georgie Eacker?” Mulligan shakes his head and laughs. “Burr surrounds himself with vicious curs, and honor ain’t what gets ’em up in the morning. Besides, your daddy can defend himself. Never was shy that way.”
Hamilton looks sullen and suspicious. “You say you met my father during the war?”
“Met him? He lived with me for a spell. You sure he never mentioned me?”
Philip shakes his head and motions to Price. “No, he didn’t, sir, but we appreciate the drink.”
Mulligan sighs in mock disgust. “Now, ain’t that the way of the world?”
“You can tell us more next time we meet,” Philip says, and he stands up. “We’ll be on our way now.”
Price nods and joins him.
“Well, tell your da you met old Hercules. Our paths don’t cross much these days since he’s risen so high, but I’m proud of what he’s become, and I’ll do him any service I can.” Mulligan stands and grabs their hands. “Damned glad to meet you boys.”
“Thanks for the drink.”
He winks. “Be careful, both of you!”
Philip and Price push out of the ale house into the humid summer evening.
“Nice fellow,” Price observes.
“Meddlesome Irishman,” Hamilton says. “Why’d he pull me away?” Hamilton looks down the street to the empty church steps. A warm breeze, smelling of the sea, blows up from the docks, and the last of the fireworks fizzles in the sky. “George Eacker has not heard the last of me.”