Story type: Essay
The objects to be attained are: To justify and preserve the confidence of the most enlightened friends of good government; to promote the increasing respectability of the American name; to answer the calls of justice; to restore landed property to its due value; to furnish new sources both to agriculture and to commerce; to cement more closely the union of the States; to add to their security against foreign attack; to establish public order on the basis of an upright and liberal policy: these are the great and invaluable ends to be secured by a proper and adequate provision, at the present period, for the support of public credit.
—Report to Congress
We do not know the name of the mother of Alexander Hamilton: we do not know the given name of his father. But from letters, a diary and pieced-out reports, allowing fancy to bridge from fact to fact, we get a patchwork history of the events preceding the birth of this wonderful man.
Every strong man has had a splendid mother. Hamilton’s mother was a woman of wit, beauty and education. While very young, through the machinations of her elders, she had been married to a man much older than herself–rich, wilful and dissipated. The man’s name was Lavine, but his first name we do not know, so hidden were the times in a maze of obscurity. The young wife very soon discovered the depravity of this man whom she had vowed to love and obey; divorce was impossible; and rather than endure a lifelong existence of legalized shame, she packed up her scanty effects and sought to hide herself from society and kinsmen by going to the West Indies.
There she hoped to find employment as a governess in the family of one of the rich planters; or if this plan were not successful she would start a school on her own account, and thus benefit her kind and make for herself an honorable living. Arriving at the island of Nevis, she found that the natives did not especially desire education, certainly not enough to pay for it, and there was no family requiring a governess. But a certain Scotch planter by the name of Hamilton, who was consulted, thought in time that a school could be built up, and he offered to meet the expense of it until such a time as it could be put on a paying basis. Unmarried women who accept friendly loans from men stand in dangerous places. With all good women, heart-whole gratitude and a friendship that seems unselfish ripen easily into love. They did so here. Perhaps, in a warm, ardent temperament, sore grief and biting disappointment and crouching want obscure the judgment and give a show of reason to actions that a colder intellect would disapprove.
On the frontiers of civilization man is greater than law–all ceremonies are looked upon lightly. In a few months Mrs. Lavine was called by the little world of Nevis, Mrs. Hamilton, and Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton regarded themselves as man and wife.
The planter Hamilton was a hard-headed, busy individual, who was quite unable to sympathize with his wife’s finer aspirations. Her first husband had been clever and dissipated; this one was worthy and dull. And thus deprived of congenial friendships, without books or art or that social home life which goes to make up a woman’s world, and longing for the safety of close sympathy and tender love, with no one on whom her intellect could strike a spark, she keenly felt the bitterness of exile.
In a city where society ebbs and flows, an intellectual woman married to a commerce-grubbing man is not especially to be pitied. She can find intellectual affinities that will ease the irksomeness of her situation. But to be cast on a desert isle with a being, no matter how good, who is incapable of feeling with you the eternal mystery of the encircling tides; who can only stare when you speak of the moaning lullaby of the restless sea; who knows not the glory of the sunrise, and feels no thrill when the breakers dash themselves into foam, or the moonlight dances on the phosphorescent waves–ah, that is indeed exile! Loneliness is not in being alone, for then ministering spirits come to soothe and bless–loneliness is to endure the presence of one who does not understand.
And so this finely organized, receptive, aspiring woman, through the exercise of a will that seemed masculine in its strength, found her feet mired in quicksand. She struggled to free herself, and every effort only sank her deeper. The relentless environment only held her with firmer clutch.
She thirsted for knowledge, for sweet music, for beauty, for sympathy, for attainment. She had a heart-hunger that none about her understood. She strove for better things. She prayed to God, but the heavens were as brass; she cried aloud, and the only answer was the throbbing of her restless heart.
In this condition, a son was born to her. They called his name Alexander Hamilton. This child was heir to all his mother’s splendid ambitions. Her lack of opportunity was his blessing; for the stifled aspirations of her soul charged his being with a strong man’s desires, and all the mother’s silken, unswerving will was woven through his nature. He was to surmount obstacles that she could not overcome, and to tread under his feet difficulties that to her were invincible.
The prayer of her heart was answered, but not in the way she expected. God listened to her after all; for every earnest prayer has its answer, and not a sincere desire of the heart but somewhere will find its gratification.
But earth’s buffets were too severe for the brave young woman; the forces in league against her were more than she could withstand, and before her boy was out of baby dresses she gave up the struggle, and went to her long rest, soothed only by the thought that, although she had sorely blundered, she yet had done her work as best she could.
* * * * *
At his mother’s death, we find Alexander Hamilton taken in charge by certain mystical kinsmen. Evidently he was well cared for, as he grew into a handsome, strong lad–small, to be sure, but finely formed. Where he learned to read, write and cipher we know not; he seems to have had one of those active, alert minds that can acquire knowledge on a barren island.
When nine years old, he signed his name as witness to a deed. The signature is needlessly large and bold, and written with careful schoolboy pains, but the writing shows the same characteristics that mark the thousand and one dispatches which we have, signed at bottom, “G. Washington.”
At twelve years of age, he was clerk in a general store–one of those country stores where everything is kept, from ribbon to whisky. There were other helpers in the store, full grown; but when the proprietor went away for a few days into the interior, the dark, slim youngster took charge of the bookkeeping and the cash; and made such shrewd exchanges of merchandise for produce that when the “Old Man” returned, the lad was rewarded by two pats on the head and a raise in salary of one shilling a week.
About this time, the boy was also showing signs of literary skill by writing sundry poems and “compositions,” and one of his efforts in this line describing a tropical hurricane was published in a London paper.
This opened the eyes of the mystical kinsmen to the fact that they had a genius among them, and the elder Hamilton was importuned for money to send the boy to Boston that he might receive a proper education and come back and own the store and be a magistrate and a great man. No doubt the lad pressed the issue, too, for his ambition had already begun to ferment, as we find him writing to a friend, “I’ll risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station.”
Most great things in America have to take their rise in Boston; so it seems meet that Alexander Hamilton, aged fifteen, a British subject, should first set foot on American soil at Long Wharf, Boston. He took a ferry over to Cambridgeport and walked through the woods three miles to Harvard College. Possibly he did not remain because his training in a bookish way had not been sufficient for him to enter, and possibly he did not like the Puritanic visage of the old professor who greeted him on the threshold of Massachusetts Hall; at any rate, he soon made his way to New Haven. Yale suited him no better, and he took a boat for New York.
He had letters to several good clergymen in New York, and they proved wise and good counselors. The boy was advised to take a course at the Grammar School at Elizabethtown, New Jersey.
There he remained a year, applying himself most vigorously, and the next Fall he knocked at the gate of King’s College. It is called Columbia now, because kings in America went out of fashion, and all honors formerly paid to the king were turned over to Miss Columbia, Goddess of Freedom.
King’s College swung wide its doors for the swarthy little West Indian. He was allowed to choose his own course, and every advantage of the university was offered him. In a university, you get just all you are able to hold–it depends upon yourself–and at the last all men who are made at all are self-made.
Hamilton improved each passing moment as it flew; with the help of a tutor he threw himself into his work, gathering up knowledge with the quick perception and eager alertness of one from whom the good things of earth have been withheld.
Yet he lived well and spent his money as if there were plenty more where it came from; but he was never dissipated nor wasteful.
This was in the year Seventeen Hundred Seventy-four, and the Colonies were in a state of political excitement. Young Hamilton’s sympathies were all with the mother country. He looked upon the Americans, for the most part, as a rude, crude and barbaric people, who should be very grateful for the protection of such an all-powerful country as England. At his boarding-house and at school, he argued the question hotly, defending England’s right to tax her dependencies.
One fine day, one of his schoolmates put the question to him flatly: “In case of war, on which side will you fight?” Hamilton answered, “On the side of England.”
But by the next day he had reasoned it out that if England succeeded in suppressing the rising insurrection she would take all credit to herself; and if the Colonies succeeded there would be honors for those who did the work. Suddenly it came over him that there was such a thing as “the divine right of insurrection,” and that there was no reason why men living in America should be taxed to support a government across the sea. The wealth produced in America should be used to develop America.
He was young, and burning with a lofty ambition. He knew, and had known all along, that he would some day be great and famous and powerful–here was the opportunity.
And so, next day, he announced at the boarding-house that the eloquence and logic of his messmates were too powerful to resist–he believed the Colonies and the messmates were in the right. Then several bottles were brought in, and success was drunk to all men who strove for liberty.
Patriotic sentiment is at the last self-interest; in fact, Herbert Spencer declares that there is no sane thought or rational act but has its root in egoism.
Shortly after the young man’s conversion, there was a mass-meeting held in “The Fields,” which meant the wilds of what is now the region of Twenty-third Street.
Young Hamilton stood in the crowd and heard the various speakers plead the cause of the Colonies, and urge that New York should stand firm with Massachusetts against the further encroachments and persecutions of England. There were many Tories in the crowd, for New York was with King George as against Massachusetts, and these Tories asked the speakers embarrassing questions that the speakers failed to answer. And all the time young Hamilton found himself nearer and nearer the platform. Finally, he undertook to reply to a talkative Tory, and some one shouted, “Give him the platform–the platform!” and in a moment this seventeen-year-old boy found himself facing two thousand people. There was hesitation and embarrassment, but the shouts of one of his college chums, “Give it to ’em! Give it to ’em!” filled in an awkward instant, and he began to speak. There was logic and lucidity of expression, and as he talked the air became charged with reasons, and all he had to do was to reach up and seize them.
His strong and passionate nature gave gravity to his sentences, and every quibbling objector found himself answered, and more than answered, and the speakers who were to present the case found this stripling doing the work so much better than they could, that they urged him on with applause and loud cries of “Bravo! Bravo!”
Immediately at the close of Hamilton’s speech, the chairman had the good sense to declare the meeting adjourned–thus shutting off all reply, as well as closing the mouths of the minnow orators who usually pop up to neutralize the impression that the strong man has made.
Hamilton’s speech was the talk of the town. The leading Whigs sought him out and begged that he would write down his address so that they could print it as a pamphlet in reply to the Tory pamphleteers who were vigorously circulating their wares. The pens of ready writers were scarce in those days: men could argue, but to present a forcible written brief was another thing. So young Hamilton put his reasons on paper, and their success surprised the boys at the boarding-house, and the college chums and the professors, and probably himself as well. His name was on the lips of all Whigdom, and the Tories sent messengers to buy him off.
But Congress was willing to pay its defenders, and money came from somewhere–not much, but all the young man needed. College was dropped; the political pot boiled; and the study of history, economics and statecraft filled the daylight hours to the brim and often ran over into the night.
The Winter of Seventeen Hundred Seventy-five passed away; the plot thickened. New York had reluctantly consented to be represented in Congress and agreed grumpily to join hands with the Colonies.
The redcoats had marched out to Concord–and back; and the embattled farmers had stood and fired the shot “heard ’round the world.”
Hamilton was working hard to bring New York over to an understanding that she must stand firm against English rule. He organized meetings, gave addresses, wrote letters, newspaper articles and pamphlets. Then he joined a military company and was perfecting himself in the science of war.
There were frequent outbreaks between Tory mobs and Whigs, and the breaking up of your opponents’ meeting was looked upon as a pleasant pastime.
Then came the British ship “Asia” and opened fire on the town. This no doubt made Whigs of a good many Tories. Whig sentiment was on the increase; gangs of men marched through the streets and the king’s stores were broken into, and prominent Royalists found their houses being threatened.
Doctor Cooper, President of King’s College, had been very pronounced in his rebukes to Congress and the Colonies, and a mob made its way to his house. Arriving there, Hamilton and his chum Troup were found on the steps, determined to protect the place. Hamilton stepped forward, and in a strong speech urged that Doctor Cooper had merely expressed his own private views, which he had a right to do, and the house must not on any account be molested. While the parley was in progress, old Doctor Cooper himself appeared at one of the upper windows and excitedly cautioned the crowd not to listen to that blatant young rapscallion Hamilton, as he was a rogue and a varlet and a vagrom. The good Doctor then slammed the window and escaped by the back way.
His remarks raised a laugh in which even young Hamilton joined, but his mistake was very natural in view of the fact that he only knew that Hamilton had deserted the college and espoused the devil’s cause; and not having heard his remarks, but seeing him standing on his steps haranguing a crowd, thought surely he was endeavoring to work up mischief against his old preceptor, who had once plucked him in Greek.
It seems to have been the intention of his guardians that the limit of young Hamilton’s stay in America was to be two years, and by that time his education would be “complete,” and he would return to the West Indies and surprise the natives.
But his father, who supplied the money, and the mystical kinsmen who supplied advice, and the kind friends who had given him letters to the Presbyterian clergymen at New York and Princeton, had figured without their host. Young Hamilton knew all that Nevis had in store for him: he knew its littleness, its contumely and disgrace, and in the secret recesses of his own strong heart he had slipped the cable that held him to the past. No more remittances from home; no more solicitous advice; no more kind, loving letters–the past was dead.
For England he once had had an almost idolatrous regard; to him she had once been the protector of his native land, the empress of the seas, the enlightener of mankind; but henceforth he was an American.
He was to fight America’s battles, to share in her victory, to help make of her a great Nation, and to weave his name into the web of her history so that as long as the United States of America shall be remembered, so long also shall be remembered the name of Alexander Hamilton.
* * * * *
What General Washington called his “family” usually consisted of sixteen men. These were his aides, and more than that, his counselors and friends. In Washington’s frequent use of that expression, “my family,” there is a touch of affection that we do not expect to find in the tents of war. In rank, the staff ran the gamut from captain to general. Each man had his appointed work and made a daily report to his chief. When not in actual action, the family dined together daily, and the affair was conducted with considerable ceremony. Washington sat at the head of the table, large, handsome and dignified. At his right hand was seated the guest of honor, and there were usually several invited friends. At his left sat Alexander Hamilton, ready with quick pen to record the orders of his chief.
And methinks it would have been quite worth while to have had a place at that board, and looked down the table at “the strong, fine face, tinged with melancholy,” of Washington; and the cheery, youthful faces of Lawrence, Tilghman, Lee, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and the others of that brave and handsome company. Well might they have called Washington father, for this he was in spirit to them all–grave, gentle, courteous and magnanimous, yet exacting strict and instant obedience from all; and well, too, may we imagine that this obedience was freely and cheerfully given.
Hamilton became one of Washington’s family on March First, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-seven, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was barely twenty years of age; Washington was forty-seven, and the average age of the family, omitting its head, was twenty-five. All had been selected on account of superior intelligence and a record of dashing courage. When Hamilton took his place at the board, he was the youngest member, save one. In point of literary talent, he stood among the very foremost in the country, for then there was no literature in America save the literature of politics; and as an officer, he had shown rare skill and bravery.
And yet, such was Hamilton’s ambition and confidence in himself, that he hesitated to accept the position, and considered it an act of sacrifice to do so. But having once accepted, he threw himself into the work and became Washington’s most intimate and valued assistant. Washington’s correspondence with his generals, with Congress, and the written decisions demanded daily on hundreds of minor questions, mostly devolved on Hamilton, for work gravitates to him who can do it best. A simple “Yes,” “No” or “Perhaps” from the chief must be elaborated into a diplomatic letter, conveying just the right shade of meaning, all with its proper emphasis and show of dignity and respect. Thousands of these dispatches can now be seen at the Capitol; and the ease, grace, directness and insight shown in them are remarkable. There is no muddy rhetoric or befuddled clauses. They were written by one with a clear understanding, who was intent that the person addressed should understand, too.
Many of these documents were merely signed by Washington, but a few reveal interlined sentences and an occasional word changed in Washington’s hand, thus showing that all was closely scrutinized and digested.
As a member of Washington’s staff, Hamilton did not have the independent command that he so much desired; but he endured that heroic Winter at Valley Forge, was present at all the important battles, took an active part in most of them, and always gained honor and distinction.
As an aide to Washington, Hamilton’s most important mission was when he was sent to General Gates to secure reinforcements for the Southern army. Gates had defeated Burgoyne and won a full dozen stern victories in the North. In the meantime, Washington had done nothing but make a few brave retreats. Gates’ army was made up of hardy and seasoned soldiers, who had met the enemy and defeated him over and over again. The flush of success was on their banners; and Washington knew that if a few thousand of those rugged veterans could be secured to reinforce his own well-nigh discouraged troops, victory would also perch upon the banners of the South.
As a superior officer he had the right to demand these troops; but to reduce the force of a general who is making an excellent success is not the common rule of war. The country looked upon Gates as its savior, and Gates was feeling a little that way himself. Gates had but to demand it, and the position of Commander-in-Chief would go to him. Washington thoroughly realized this, and therefore hesitated about issuing an order requesting a part of Gates’ force. To secure these troops as if the suggestion came from Gates was a most delicate commission. Alexander Hamilton was dispatched to Gates’ headquarters, armed, as a last resort, with a curt military order to the effect that he should turn over a portion of his army to Washington. Hamilton’s orders were: “Bring the troops, but do not deliver this order unless you are obliged to.”
Hamilton brought the troops, and returned the order with seal intact.
The act of his sudden breaking with Washington has been much exaggerated. In fact, it was not a sudden act at all, for it had been premeditated for some months. There was a woman in the case. Hamilton had done more than conquer General Gates on that Northern trip; at Albany, he had met Elizabeth, daughter of General Schuyler, and won her after what has been spoken of as “a short and sharp skirmish.” Both Alexander and Elizabeth regarded “a clerkship” as quite too limited a career for one so gifted; they felt that nothing less than commander of a division would answer. How to break loose–that was the question.
And when Washington met him at the head of the stairs of the New Windsor Hotel and sharply chided him for being late, the young man embraced the opportunity and said, “Sir, since you think I have been remiss, we part.”
It was the act of a boy; and the figure of this boy, five feet five inches high, weight one hundred twenty, aged twenty-four, talking back to his chief, six feet three, weight two hundred, aged fifty, has its comic side. Military rule demands that every one shall be on time, and Washington’s rebuke was proper and right. Further than this, one feels that if he had followed up his rebuke by boxing the young man’s ears for “sassing back,” he would still not have been outside the lines of duty.
But an hour afterwards we find Washington sending for the youth and endeavoring to mend the break. And although Hamilton proudly repelled his advances, Washington forgave all and generously did all he could to advance the young man’s interests. Washington’s magnanimity was absolutely without flaw, but his attitude towards Hamilton has a more suggestive meaning when we consider that it was a testimonial of the high estimate he placed on Hamilton’s ability.
At Yorktown, Washington gave Hamilton the perilous privilege of leading the assault. Hamilton did his work well, rushing with fiery impetuosity upon the fort–carried all before him, and in ten minutes had planted the Stars and Stripes on the ramparts of the enemy.
It was a fine and fitting close to his glorious military career.
* * * * *
When Washington became President, the most important office to be filled was that of manager of the exchequer. In fact, all there was of it was the office–there was no treasury, no mint, no fixed revenue, no credit; but there were debts–foreign and domestic–and clamoring creditors by the thousand. The debts consisted of what was then the vast sum of eighty million dollars. The treasury was empty. Washington had many advisers who argued that the Nation could never live under such a weight of debt–the only way was flatly and frankly to repudiate–wipe the slate clean–and begin afresh.
This was what the country expected would be done; and so low was the hope of payment that creditors could be found who were willing to compromise their claims for ten cents on the dollar. Robert Morris, who had managed the finances during the period of the Confederation, utterly refused to attempt the task again, but he named a man who, he said, could bring order out of chaos, if any living man could. That man was Alexander Hamilton. Washington appealed to Hamilton, offering him the position of Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton, aged thirty-two, gave up his law practise, which was yielding him ten thousand a year, to accept this office which paid three thousand five hundred. Before the British cannon, Washington did not lose heart, but to face the angry mob of creditors waving white-paper claims made him quake; but with Hamilton’s presence his courage came back.
The first thing that Hamilton decided upon was that there should be no repudiation–no offer of compromise would be considered–every man should be paid in full. And further than this, the general government would assume the entire war debt of each individual State. Washington concurred with Hamilton on these points, but he could make neither oral nor written argument in a way that would convince others; so this task was left to Hamilton. Hamilton appeared before Congress and explained his plans–explained them so lucidly and with such force and precision that he made an indelible impression. There were grumblers and complainers, but these did not and could not reply to Hamilton, for he saw all over and around the subject, and they saw it only at an angle. Hamilton had studied the history of finance, and knew the financial schemes of every country. No question of statecraft could be asked him for which he did not have a reply ready. He knew the science of government as no other man in America then did, and recognizing this, Congress asked him to prepare reports on the collection of revenue, the coasting trade, the effects of a tariff, shipbuilding, post-office extension, and also a scheme for a judicial system. When in doubt they asked Hamilton.
And all the time Hamilton was working at this bewildering maze of detail, he was evolving that financial policy, broad, comprehensive and minute, which endures even to this day, even to the various forms of accounts that are now kept at the Treasury Department at Washington.
His insistence that to preserve the credit of a nation every debt must be paid, is an idea that no statesman now dare question. The entire aim and intent of his policy was high, open and frank honesty. The people should be made to feel an absolute security in their government, and this being so, all forms of industry would prosper, “and the prosperity of the people is the prosperity of the Nation.” To such a degree of confidence did Hamilton raise the public credit that in a very short time the government found no trouble in borrowing all the money it needed at four per cent; and yet this was done in face of the fact that its debt had increased.
Just here was where his policy invited its strongest and most bitter attack. For there are men today who can not comprehend that a public debt is a public blessing, and that all liabilities have a strict and undivorceable relationship to assets. Alexander Hamilton was a leader of men. He could do the thinking of his time and map out a policy, “arranging every detail for a kingdom.” He has been likened to Napoleon in his ability to plan and execute with rapid and marvelous precision, and surely the similarity is striking.
But he was not an adept in the difficult and delicate art of diplomacy–he could not wait. He demanded instant obedience, and lacked all of that large, patient, calm magnanimity so splendidly shown forth since by Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Jefferson, his great rival, he could not calmly and silently bide his time. But I will not quarrel with a man because he is not some one else.
He saw things clearly at a glance; he knew because he knew; and if others would not follow, he had the audacity to push on alone. This recklessness to the opinion of the slow and plodding, this indifference to the dull, gradually drew upon him the hatred of a class.
They said he was a monarchist at heart and “such men are dangerous.” The country became divided into those who were with Hamilton and those who were against him. The very transcendent quality of his genius wove the net that eventually was to catch his feet and accomplish his ruin.
* * * * *
It has been the usual practise for nearly a hundred years to refer to Aaron Burr as a roue, a rogue and a thorough villain, who took the life of a gentle and innocent man.
I have no apologies to make for Colonel Burr; the record of his life lies open in many books, and I would neither conceal nor explain away.
If I should attempt to describe the man and liken him to another, that man would be Alexander Hamilton.
They were the same age within ten months; they were the same height within an inch; their weight was the same within five pounds, and in temperament and disposition they resembled each other as brothers seldom do. Each was passionate, ambitious, proud.
In the drawing-room where one of these men chanced to be, there was room for no one else–such was the vivacity, the wit, and the generous, glowing good-nature shown. With women, the manner of these men was most gentle and courtly; and the low, alluring voice of each was music’s honeyed flattery set to words.
Both were much under the average height, yet the carriage of each was so proud and imposing that everywhere they went men made way, and women turned and stared.
Both were public speakers and lawyers of such eminence that they took their pick of clients and charged all the fee that policy would allow. In debate, there was a wilful aggressiveness, a fiery sureness, a lofty certainty, that moved judges and juries to do their bidding. Henry Cabot Lodge says that so great was Hamilton’s renown as a lawyer that clients flocked to him because the belief was abroad that no judge dare decide against him. With Burr it was the same.
Both made large sums, and both spent them all as fast as made.
In point of classic education, Burr had the advantage. He was the grandson of the Reverend Jonathan Edwards. In his strong, personal magnetism, and keen, many-sided intellect, Aaron Burr strongly resembled the gifted Presbyterian divine who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” His father was the Reverend Aaron Burr, President of Princeton College. He was a graduate of Princeton, and, like Hamilton, always had the ability to focus his mind on the subject in hand, and wring from it its very core. Burr’s reputation as to his susceptibility to women’s charms is the world’s common–very common–property. He was unhappily married; his wife died before he was thirty; he was a man of ardent nature and stalked through the world a conquering Don Juan. A historian, however, records that “his alliances were only with women who were deemed by society to be respectable. Married women, unhappily mated, knowing his reputation, very often placed themselves in his way, going to him for advice, as moths court the flame. Young, tender and innocent girls had no charm for him.”
Hamilton was happily married to a woman of aristocratic family; rich, educated, intellectual, gentle, and worthy of him at his best. They had a family of eight children. Hamilton was a favorite of women everywhere and was mixed up in various scandalous intrigues. He was an easy mark for a designing woman. In one instance, the affair was seized upon by his political foes, and made capital of to his sore disadvantage. Hamilton met the issue by writing a pamphlet, laying bare the entire shameless affair, to the horror of his family and friends. Copies of this pamphlet may be seen in the rooms of the American Historical Society at New York. Burr had been Attorney-General of New York State and also United States Senator. Each man had served on Washington’s staff; each had a brilliant military record; each had acted as second in a duel; each recognized the honor of the code.
Stern political differences arose, not so much through matters of opinion and conscience, as through ambitious rivalry. Neither was willing the other should rise, yet both thirsted for place and power. Burr ran for the Presidency, and was sternly, strongly, bitterly opposed as “a dangerous man” by Hamilton.
At the election one more electoral vote would have given the highest office of the people to Aaron Burr; as it was he tied with Jefferson. The matter was thrown into the House of Representatives, and Jefferson was given the office, with Burr as Vice-President. Burr considered, and perhaps rightly, that were it not for Hamilton’s assertive influence he would have been President of the United States.
While still Vice-President, Burr sought to become Governor of New York, thinking this the surest road to receiving the nomination for the Presidency at the next election.
Hamilton openly and bitterly opposed him, and the office went to another.
Burr considered, and rightly, that were it not for Hamilton’s influence he would have been Governor of New York.
Burr, smarting under the sting of this continual opposition by a man who himself was shelved politically through his own too fiery ambition, sent a note by his friend Van Ness to Hamilton, asking whether the language he had used concerning him (“a dangerous man”) referred to him politically or personally.
Hamilton replied evasively, saying he could not recall all that he might have said during fifteen years of public life. “Especially,” he said in his letter, “it can not be reasonably expected that I shall enter into any explanation upon a basis so vague as you have adopted. I trust on more reflection you will see the matter in the same light. If not, however, I only regret the circumstances, and must abide the consequences.”
When fighting men use fighting language they invite a challenge. Hamilton’s excessively polite regret that “he must abide the consequences” simply meant fight, as his language had for a space of five years.
A challenge was sent by the hand of Pendleton. Hamilton accepted. Being the challenged man (for duelists are always polite), he was given the choice of weapons. He chose pistols at ten paces.
At seven o’clock on the morning of July Eleventh, Eighteen Hundred Four, the participants met on the heights of Weehawken, overlooking New York Bay. On a toss Hamilton won the choice of position and his second also won the right of giving the word to fire.
Each man removed his coat and cravat; the pistols were loaded in their presence. As Pendleton handed his pistol to Hamilton he asked, “Shall I set the hair-trigger?”
“Not this time,” replied Hamilton. With pistols primed and cocked, the men were stationed facing each other, thirty feet apart.
Both were pale, but free from any visible nervousness or excitement. Neither had partaken of stimulants. Each was asked if he had anything to say, or if he knew of any way by which the affair could be terminated there and then.
Each answered quietly in the negative. Pendleton, standing fifteen feet to the right of his principal, said: “One–two–three–present!” and as the last final sounding of the letter “t” escaped his teeth, Burr fired, followed almost instantly by the other.
Hamilton arose convulsively on his toes, reeled, and Burr, dropping his smoking pistol, sprang towards him to support him, a look of regret on his face.
Van Ness raised an umbrella over the fallen man, and motioned Burr to be gone.
The ball passed through Hamilton’s body, breaking a rib, and lodging in the second lumbar vertebra.
The bullet from Hamilton’s pistol cut a twig four feet above Burr’s head.
While he was lying on the ground Hamilton saw his pistol near and said, “Look out for that pistol, it is loaded–Pendleton knows I did not intend to fire at him!”
Hamilton died the following day, first declaring that he bore Colonel Burr no ill-will.
Colonel Burr said he very much regretted the whole affair, but the language and attitude of Hamilton forced him to send a challenge or remain quiet and be branded as a coward. He fully realized before the meeting that if he killed Hamilton it would be political death for him, too.
At the time of the deed Burr had no family; Hamilton had a wife and seven children, his oldest son having fallen in a duel fought three years before on the identical spot where he, too, fell.
Burr fled the country.
Three years afterwards, he was arrested for treason in trying to found an independent State within the borders of the United States. He was tried and found not guilty.
After some years spent abroad he returned and took up the practise of law in New York. He was fairly successful, lived a modest, quiet life, and died September Fourteenth, Eighteen Hundred Thirty-six, aged eighty years.
Hamilton’s widow survived him just one-half a century, dying in her ninety-eighth year.
So passeth away the glory of the world.