Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hamilton, the Duel and Communion

In my previous posts, I mentioned that I recently finished Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton.

I found reading the biography so interesting because Hamilton had an almost Forrest Gump-like ability of being at the right place at the right time early in American History. As an aide to Gen. George Washington he was at many of the crucial battles with the British, even leading combat troops at the battle for New York and at Yorktown. He was a signer of the Constitution (the only signer from the state of New York), he was a founder of the First Bank of the United States, a general of the Army during John Adams' administration and even a founder of the New York Post.

Unfortunately, Hamilton was also present at what Henry Adams called "the most dramatic moment in the early politics of the Union" --- the famous duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804 that resulted in Hamilton's death.

Oddly enough, Hamilton and Burr had known each other since their early 20's and had much in common. Both had endured childhood tragedies and were both orphans, both were officers in the Revolutionary War, both studied for the bar at the same time in Albany, and both had been prominent attorneys in New York City for a number of years.

Over the years, however, Hamilton had grown to greatly dislike and distrust Burr (who was quick to shift his political beliefs in order to succeed). Their rivalry grew so divisive, that in the Presidential race of 1800, when the Electoral College dead-locked between Burr and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton put his support behind Jefferson, even though he and Jefferson had been bitter rivals for many years during George Washington's administration.

When forced to choose, Chernow wrote that, "Hamilton preferred a man with wrong principles (Jefferson) to one devoid of any (Burr)."

After thirty-six votes in the House of Representatives, Jefferson eventually won the Presidency, which made Burr the Vice President.

In 1804, while still Vice President, Burr ran for Governor of New York. Again Hamilton campaigned against him, causing Burr to lose to the candidate that Hamilton supported.

Burr had heard that Hamilton had defamed his character, and called for a duel. Hamilton, not wanting to look like a coward, accepted.

Early in the morning on July 11th, both men climbed a cliff across from New York City in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton had written earlier in the week that he intended to "throw away" his first shot by shooting away from Burr. In fact, it appeared that his shot hit the branch of a tree overhead. Burr's first shot hit Hamilton above the right hip.

"I am a dead man." Hamilton is said to have proclaimed when he was hit.

Hamilton did not die instantly. He was taken to a house of a friend along the Hudson River in Manhattan. Eventually his wife joined him. To comfort her he kept repeating the phrase:

"Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian."

In addition to feelings for his family, Chernow explained that Hamilton was "preoccupied with spiritual matters in a way that eliminates all doubt about the sincerity of his late-flowering religious interests."

As soon as he arrived he asked for last rites from the Episcopal Church and called for Rev. Benjamin Moore. (Moore was rector at Trinity Church and President of Columbia University...where Hamilton had attended as a youth, when it was called King's College). Initially Rev. Moore refused Hamilton's request, knowing that Hamilton had not been a regular at church-going and not wanting to sanction the duel.

Hamilton, ever the persuader, told Rev. Moore after professing his faith in Christ, "My dear Sir, you perceive my unfortunate situation and no doubt have been made acquainted with the circumstances which led to it. It is my desire to receive the communion at your hands. I hope you will not conceive there is any impropriety in my request."

Hamilton added, "I have no ill will against Col. Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened."

Chernow writes, "At that point Rev. Moore relented and gave holy communion to Hamilton, who then lay back serenely and declared that he was happy."

The following day he bid farewell to his children, repeated to Rev. Moore that he "had no malice toward Burr, that he was dying in a peaceful state, and that he was reconciled with God and his fate."

At 2:00pm on July 12, 1804, thirty-one hours after the duel, he died. Hamilton was forty-nine.

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