"Hamilton in these years repeatedly spoke of retiring from the political scene and living the new life of religion that stirred within him. Yet, like Cincinnatus, he believed he must stand ready to draw his sword in defense of the nation he had founded. In the winter of 1804, Hamilton was alarmed by word that the man he had helped keep out of the White House was conspiring to dismember the Union. Burr, it was said, was seeking election as governor of New York so that he could deliver Hamilton's home state into the hands of a junto of New England secessionists...The Hamiltonian state, the bulwark of order against man's depraved nature, was in the greatest jeopardy ever. Burr, to Hamilton, was the very personification of that danger, the man in whom all the evils of personal and social disorder seemed concentrated.
"In the gubernatorial campaign that winter and spring, Hamilton lashed out against Burr on every occasion...they were public accusations and, by the accepted code of honor at the time, required Burr to take the initiative or be branded a coward. The vote in April, overwhelmingly rejecting Burr, marked the end of his political career. There was still the matter of his honor...
"Hamilton kept the duel a secret from Eliza. But one week before his death, he sat down at his desk and...wrote a letter to be given to her in the event of his death":
This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered
to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career, to begin, as I humbly hope, from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview [the duel], my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel from the idea of quitting you, and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me. The consololation of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you...Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu best of wives - best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.
"The dilemma for Hamilton was a new one and the most formidable of his life. He must meet Burr, pistol in hand, on the heights of Weehauken, or appear to the world not only cowardly but unworthy of the moral leadership of the great empire which was his creation. Yet, as a serious Christian, he must not kill...In his final letter to Eliza, written at 10 P.M. the eve of the fatal interview, Hamilton described what he would do:
The scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject myself to the guilt of taking the life of another. This much increases my hazards, and redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me, and I humbly hope will; but in the contrary event I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God's will be done. The will of a merciful God must be good.
"Then, in a tender gesture of love for his dead son, Phillip, and all his children, Hamiliton lay down next to twelve-year old John and recited with him the Lord's prayer.
"The next morning, July 11, 1804, Hamilton was mortally wounded by Aaron Burr as they faced each other - nationalist and disunionist - for the last time on the banks of the Hudson. The evil passions of man, which Hamilton had sought futilely to transcend mechanically in some visionary social and political system, were now overcome and transcended spiritually in Hamilton himself by an act of love for his fellow man in Christ. As he had said he would, in his letter to Eliza and in a memorandum discovered after his death, Hamilton had reserved and thrown away his first fire, and even his second.
"As he lay dying in the bosom of his loving family, one thing alone remained for Hamilton. He sent for Bishop Richard Moore, Episcopalian bishop of New York, and begged to be united to the church by receiving Holy Communion.
'Do you sincerely repent of your sins past? Have you a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of the death of Christ? And are you disposed to live in love and charity with all men?'
Yes. Yes. Yes.
"I have no ill-will against Colonel Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened."
"Alexander Hamilton: From Caesar to Christ", in The Spirits of '76, by Donald D'Elia. Christendom College Press, 1983
Very nice. My big high school Honors American History paper was on the Burr-Hamilton duel, and I have to admit I never came upon this moving aspect of the story in my research (if you can call what my junior-class self was doing "research"). The religious side of our Founding Fathers is so often downplayed that it's good to read Hamilton in his own words in those last days of his life when his mind was concentrated on his end.
Posted by R.W. email at November 23, 2003 04:39 PM
R.W., I can't tell you how good it is to hear from you again.
Posted by William Luse email at November 24, 2003 01:44 AM
I second that, Bill. It's great to have R.W. back.
And a fine post as well . . .
Posted by Paul Cella email at November 28, 2003 08:20 AM