Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 42. FATAL ERRAND
In his last days, Hamilton seemed wistful but not distraught. He seems to have made peace with his decision to duel and elected to savor his remaining hours with his family. On Sunday morning, July 8, he, Eliza, and the children wandered the shady grounds of the Grange in the morning coolness. Back at the house, encircled by his family, he “read the morning service of the Episcopal church,” recalled John Church Hamilton.1 Then, later in the day, “gathering around him his children under a near tree, he laid with them upon the grass until the stars shone down from the heavens.”2
On Monday morning, July 9, Hamilton left Eliza at the Grange and rode down to lower Manhattan, where he drafted a will at his last Manhattan town house at 54 Cedar Street. He named John B. Church, Nicholas Fish, and Nathaniel Pendleton as executors. In this document, he again stated, with more hope than true conviction, that his assets would extinguish his debts: “I pray God that something may remain for the maintenance and education of my dear wife and children.”3 As a man devoted to property rights and the sanctity of contracts, he also fretted about the fates of his creditors: “I entreat my dear children, if they or any of them shall ever be able, to make up the deficiency.”4 And again he expressed the tentative hope that the Schuyler fortune would save Eliza: “Probably her own patrimonial resources will preserve her from indigence.”5 That the methodical Hamilton left dangling the critical question of Eliza’s future solvency seems shockingly out of character.
More than Hamilton, Burr found waiting for the duel unbearable, telling William Van Ness that he preferred an afternoon duel and did not care to “pass over” another day of delay. “From 7 to 12 is the least pleasant [time], but anything so we but get on,” he moaned.6 A surgeon usually attended duels, and Hamilton proposed his friend Dr. David Hosack. Burr seemed inclined to skip medical attention, appending this curious postscript to Van Ness: “H[osack] is enough and even that unnecessary.”7 Does this signify that Burr planned to kill Hamilton, making a surgeon superfluous? Did he hope that, if wounded, Hamilton would simply bleed to death? Or did he think that nobody would be injured? We’ll never know. On the afternoon of July 9, Van Ness and Pendleton finalized plans for the duel, which would take place at dawn on Wednesday, July 11, across the river in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Right up until the end, Hamilton comported himself with stoic gallantry, giving no hint of what was to come. He spent the afternoon and evening of July 9 with his old Treasury protégé, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who found Hamilton “uncommonly cheerful and gay.”8 On his last workday, July 10, Hamilton ran into a family friend and client on Broadway, Dirck Ten Broeck, who reminded him that he had forgotten to deliver a promised legal opinion. Afterward, Ten Broeck reflected with astonishment on Hamilton’s reaction: “He was really ashamed of his neglect, but [said] that I must call on him the next day, Wednesday—(the awful fatal day)—at 10 o’clock, when he would sit down with me, lock the door, and then we would finish the business.”9 This represents, again, extraordinary proof of Hamilton’s sense of responsibility. Far from being suicidal, Hamilton planned to go straight from the early-morning duel to his office to catch up on work—hardly the behavior of a depressed man meditating suicide. Nobody who saw Hamilton right before the duel reported any special symptoms of gloom.
During Hamilton’s final day at his Garden Street (today Exchange Place) law office, his clerk, Judah Hammond, observed nothing untoward in his demeanor: “General Hamilton came to my desk in the tranquil manner usual with him and gave me a business paper with his instructions concerning it. I saw no change in his appearance. These were his last moments in his place of business.”10 Hamilton drafted an elaborate opinion in a legal matter. Late in the afternoon, he made a last stop on his itinerary, one that must have carried sentimental meaning. For weeks, his King’s College chum Robert Troup had lain bedridden with a grave illness that Hamilton feared might prove mortal. When he dropped by to visit Troup, Hamilton did not mention the duel and overflowed with medical suggestions. “The General’s visit lasted more than half an hour,” said Troup, “and after making particular inquiries respecting the state of my complaint, he favored me with his advice as to the course which he thought would best conduce to the reestablishment of my health. But the whole tenor of the General’s deportment during the visit manifested such composure and cheerfulness of mind as to leave me without any suspicion of the rencontre that was depending.”11
On the eve of the duel, Nathaniel Pendleton stopped by Hamilton’s town house and made a last-ditch effort to dissuade him from his resolution to squander his first shot. Once again, Hamilton insisted he would fire in the air. When Pendleton protested, Hamilton indicated that his mind was made up. “My friend,” he told Pendleton, “it is the effect of a religious scruple and does not admit of reasoning. It is useless to say more on the subject as my purpose is definitely fixed.”12
Hamilton dedicated his last night to the activity that had earned him such lasting fame: framing words. Since one purpose of the duel was to prepare to head off a secessionist threat, he wrote a plea to Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, warning against any such movement among New England Federalists: “I will here express but one sentiment, which is that dismemberment of our empire will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages without any counterbalancing good.”13 The secession movement would provide no “relief to our real disease, which is democracy”—by which he meant unrestrained, disruptive popular rule.14
That evening, in surveying his life, Hamilton was evidently transported back to his West Indian boyhood and the near-miraculous escape that he had made from St. Croix more than three decades earlier. His mind turned to his cousin, Ann Mitchell, who had rescued him with money for his education. At ten o’clock, Hamilton took up his quill and wrote to Eliza, “Mrs. Mitchell is the person in the world to whom as a friend I am under the greatest obligations. I have [not] hitherto done my [duty] to her.”15 Ann Mitchell was struggling in impoverished circumstances, and Hamilton expressed a fervent wish that his estate might “render the evening of her days comfortable.” Should that prove impossible, he told Eliza, “I entreat you to…treat her with the tenderness of a sister.”16 He also told Eliza that he could not bear to kill another human being and that the “scruples of a Christian” had convinced him to expose his life to Burr: “This must increase 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.”17 In contemplating the duel, Hamilton may have miscalculated, may have been egregiously foolish, may have talked himself into the mad and elliptical logic of dueling, but he definitely was not in a suicidal state of mind.
Many thoughts swirled through Aaron Burr’s brain in his last days, and some of the most vexing pertained to money. The profligate Burr was more than short of cash: he was dead broke. The previous fall, he had contemplated selling his Richmond Hill estate to ward off demanding creditors. That he faced financial as well as political ruin may help to explain his almost palpable mood of desperation while seeking a duel with Hamilton. According to John Church Hamilton, in the period immediately preceding the duel (presumably before the challenge was issued) Burr was so harried by debt that he appealed even to Hamilton for help. Hamilton’s son related this incredible tale that Eliza told her children:
Hamilton was at his country seat and, soon after the early summer sun had arisen, was awakened by a violent ringing at the bell of his front door. He arose, descended, and found Burr at the door. With great agitation, he related circumstances which rendered immediate pecuniary assistance absolutely necessary to him. On returning to his bed, Hamilton relieved the anxiety of his wife caused by his early call. “Who do you think was at the door? Colonel Burr. He came to ask my assistance.”18
With astonishing generosity, Hamilton solicited money from John Church Barker, who had dueled with Burr, and other friends to raise ten thousand dollars in cash. Burr also scrambled to scrounge up another $1,750 for an unforgiving creditor who had demanded sudden repayment.
Burr had always doted on his daughter, Theodosia, playing a Pygmalion role as he molded her into his image of womanly perfection. In so doing, he converted her into one of America’s most literate young women. Burr wrote to his daughter in an intimate shorthand, chockful of clever jokes and gossipy references to his various amours. He gave her critical appraisals of the faces and figures of his many lovers. On June 23, the day after writing the defiant letter to Hamilton that guaranteed the duel, he celebrated his daughter’s birthday at Richmond Hill in her absence, telling her the next day how the guests “laughed an hour and danced an hour and drank her health.”19 (Theodosia was then in South Carolina.) He advised her to study history, botany, and chemistry and gave her tips on how to form a first-class library. In these letters, Burr kept hinting at some unspoken crisis but never mentioned the duel. While Hamilton’s last days were crammed with family and friends, Burr spent much of his time in solitude. On July 1, he told his daughter that he was sitting alone by the library fire at sundown, shivering from a sudden chill in the summer heat.
Burr had taken a personal interest in educating his slaves, though he never planned to free them. The night before the duel, he jotted down a sheet of instructions dictating their fates. It showed that the previous fall, this so-called abolitionist was still buying slaves, in this case a black boy named Peter, whom he hoped to groom as a valet for his grandson. Burr spoke kindly of a slave named Peggy and hoped Theodosia would retain her ownership, but the other servants were not nearly so lucky. “Dispose of Nancy as you please,” he told his daughter. “She is honest, robust, and good-tempered.”20 Having married into a large South Carolina slave-owning family, Theodosia scarcely required more servants, making Burr’s refusal to free his slaves the more inexcusable.
The final letters written by Hamilton and Burr provide an instructive comparison. As the two men contemplated eternity, Hamilton feared for America’s future and the salvation of the union, while Burr worried about incriminating letters he had written to his mistresses, urging Theodosia to “burn all such as…would injure any person. This is more particularly applicable to the letters of my female correspondents.”21 Long reviled as an archconspirator by the Jeffersonians, Hamilton had nothing whatsoever to conceal and did not ask that any personal papers be destroyed. Burr, by contrast, wanted to incinerate many worrisome documents, telling Theodosia to burn one small bundle of letters tied with red string and another wrapped in a white handkerchief. Since he made these last-minute arrangements, Burr must have imagined, at least in theory, that he could die in the duel. This confirms that he had no idea that Hamilton planned to withhold his fire at Weehawken.
The night before the duel, Burr lost no sleep and dozed off quickly on the couch in his library. His slumber was neither fitful nor agitated. “Mr. Van Ness told me that the morning of the duel when he went to Colonel Burr, he found him in a very sound sleep,” reported Charles Biddle. “He was obliged to hurry on his clothes to be ready at the time appointed for the meeting.”22 Burr donned a black silk coat that was to provide grist for interminable speculation. James Cheetham described its fabric as “impenetrable to a ball”—a sort of eighteenth-century equivalent of a bulletproof vest.23 Burr partisans portrayed their hero as simply garbed in a bombazine coat and cotton pants. Burr was escorted to a boat awaiting him at a Hudson River dock by the most trusted lieutenants of his recent campaign—John Swartwout, Matthew L. Davis, and others—as if they were sending him off to a rousing election rally.
After Hamilton completed his valedictory note to Eliza in his upstairs study at 54 Cedar Street, he went downstairs and entered a bedroom where a boy was reading a book. This must have been the orphaned boy who had attended the recent outdoor party at the Grange. In an unpublished fragment that may have embroidered the truth, John Church Hamilton reveals that his father entered the room, gazed pensively at the boy, and asked if he would share his bed that night. Hamilton “soon retired, and placing [the boy’s] little hands on his own, he repeated with him the Lord’s Prayer.”24 The child then fell asleep in his arms. This image of Hamilton sleeping with his arms wrapped around an orphaned youth during his last night on earth is inexpressibly poignant and makes one think that his own tormented boyhood weighed on his mind that night. At three o’clock in the morning, Hamilton awoke one of his sons and asked the drowsy boy to light a candle. He made up a story that his four-year-old sister, Eliza, who had stayed at the Grange with her mother, had been taken ill and that he had to head up there with Dr. Hosack. In the dim candlelight, Hamilton composed a beautiful hymn to Eliza that was to become one of her sacred heirlooms.
By the time he finished, Nathaniel Pendleton and Dr. Hosack had arrived, ready to accompany him to Weehawken, and they all went off in a carriage. To avoid detection, Pendleton and Van Ness had worked out a precise timetable, with both parties scheduled to depart from separate Manhattan docks around 5:00 A.M. Each boat was to be rowed by four weaponless oarsmen whose identities would remain secret, sparing them any legal liability. The pistols were secreted in a leather case so that the boatmen could later swear under oath that they had never set eyes on any guns. Aside from the oarsmen, only the duelist, his second, and his surgeon were allowed on each boat.
Instead of the usual muggy July weather, the day dawned fine and cool on the water. Weehawken then stood far north of the city, so the seconds had allotted two hours for the journey upriver. (The dueling ground stood opposite today’s West Forty-second Street.) Hamilton’s boat departed from the vicinity of Greenwich Village. As the boat pushed north across a brightening river, Hamilton seemed relaxed and reiterated to Pendleton his vow “that he should not fire at Col. Burr as he had not the most distant wish to kill him.”25 At one point, Hamilton glanced back at the raucous, lively city that had given this outcast of the West Indies a home. During the past decade, New York’s population had doubled to eighty thousand, and the vacant downtown lots had disappeared. The sight of the growing city apparently touched something in Hamilton, for “he pointed out the beauties of the scenery and spoke of the future greatness of the city,” wrote his son.26
Because New York law dealt severely with dueling, local residents frequently resorted to New Jersey, where the practice was also banned but tended to be treated more leniently. At Weehawken, the Hudson Palisades form a steep cliff rising nearly two hundred feet from the water, and they were overgrown by thick woods and tangled brush. From afar, the cliff looked like a straight drop to the water, an impenetrable wall of rock clothed with dense vegetation. But at low tide, a little beach appeared down below. If the duelists pushed aside the bushes and tramped up a narrow path, they came upon a rocky ledge twenty feet above the Hudson that was well screened by trees. Idyllic and secluded, it faced an uninhabited stretch of Manhattan shoreline. Flanked by boulders and an old cedar tree, this level shelf was about twenty-two paces long and eleven paces wide—just large enough to accommodate a duel. The property was owned by Captain William Deas, who resided atop the cliff and was frustrated that his ledge was constantly used for duels. He heard the pistol reports, but could not see the duelists.
Vice President Burr arrived at 6:30 A.M. He and Van Ness stepped from their boat, ascended the dirt path, and began to sweep away underbrush and other debris from the dueling space. The rising sun began to shine down and they peeled off their jackets as they worked. Shortly before 7:00, the second barge arrived with Hamilton and Pendleton, who clambered up to the ledge and left Dr. Hosack down below. This was to protect the surgeon and boatmen from any legal consequences. The surgeon was expected to be close enough to the duel to heed cries for help but far enough away to profess ignorance, if necessary, of the whole transaction.
Thus, at 7:00 A.M. on July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr stood face-to-face, ready to settle their furious quarrel. Both gentlemen followed strict etiquette and “exchanged salutations.”27 Twenty-three days had elapsed since the onset of their clandestine imbroglio. For two decades, they had met in New York courtrooms and salons, election meetings and legislatures, and had preserved an outward cordiality. Had it not been for their political rivalry, they might have been close friends. Both entered the duel from weak positions, hoping to reap some measure of political rehabilitation. To judge from a final painting of him by John Trumbull, Hamilton retained his keen, steady gaze, but melancholy clouded his face. And to judge from a John Vanderlyn painting done two years earlier, Burr had receding hair, graying at the edges, and a hint of anger darkened his expression. He was handsome and elegantly attired, however, and fearless on the field of honor.
In businesslike fashion, Pendleton and Van Ness marked out ten paces for the duel and drew lots to choose positions for their principals. When Pendleton won, he and Hamilton oddly decided that Hamilton would take the northern side. Because of the way the ledge was angled, this meant that Hamilton would face not just the river and the distant city but the morning sunlight. As Burr faced Hamilton, he would have the advantage of peering deep into a shaded area, with his opponent clearly visible under overhanging heights.
As the challenged party, Hamilton had picked the weapons and chosen flintlock pistols. Pendleton and Van Ness had drawn up guidelines specifying that the barrels could not extend more than eleven inches and had to be smoothbore. (Smoothbore pistols were unreliable; by contrast, if the pistol barrels were rifled, the inner grooves made possible greater accuracy.) Hamilton brought the brace of dueling pistols owned by John Barker Church, the same pistols used by Philip Hamilton and George Eacker in 1801. Hamilton might have wanted to use these pistols in homage to his dead son. More likely, he needed to confine knowledge of the duel to a tiny circle of confidants. John Barker Church was a trusted, intimate friend, possibly the only one with a pair of dueling pistols, though many fashionable gentlemen of the day owned such pistols. Though he often had recourse to affairs of honor, Hamilton himself possessed no such pistols, underscoring that he had used these affairs to silence critics, not to harm them. The Church pistols had been manufactured by a celebrated London gunsmith, Wogden, in the mid-1790s. They were long, slim, and elegant, with lacquered walnut handles, ornamental designs, and gold mountings along their brass barrels. While they looked light and easy to handle, they weighed several pounds apiece, and their large lead bullets weighed an ounce apiece. It took practice to handle these unwieldy guns with speed and finesse.
During an examination of the pistols for the 1976 bicentennial celebration, experts discovered an optional hair-trigger mechanism, which, when set, allowed a much lighter squeeze than if the regular trigger was used. Some commentators have found something suspect about Hamilton’s choice of these pistols, as if this hidden feature unmasked his true intention to fire at Burr. Yet historians have always known about the hair trigger. When Pendleton handed Hamilton his weapon on the dueling ground, he asked “if he would have the hair spring set” and Hamilton replied, “Not this time.”28 Thus, even if Hamilton had intended to conceal the hair trigger from Burr, he decided not to exploit it. Hamilton’s reply shows that he was still vacillating over whether to throw away his fire on the second shot as well.29
Pendleton and Van Ness again drew lots, and it fell to Pendleton to supervise the duel. The seconds loaded the pistols in each other’s presence, then handed them, already cocked, to Hamilton and Burr, who took up their assigned places. Pendleton recited the rules. He would ask them if they were ready. If they agreed, he would say “Present,” at which point they could fire. If one party fired and the other did not, the duelist who had fired had to wait for the opposing second to say, “One, two, three, fire,” giving his foe a chance to return fire. If the opponent refused to do so, then the sides would confer to see whether the dispute could be settled verbally or whether a second round was required.
Fanned by a light morning breeze, Hamilton and Burr now assumed sideways poses, presenting the slim silhouettes preferred by duelists. The sun was rising fast, and when Pendleton asked if they were ready, Hamilton, unnerved by light bouncing off the river, called out, “Stop. In certain states of the light one requires glasses.”30 He lifted his pistol and took several sightings, something that might have misled Burr about his intentions. Then he fished in his pocket for spectacles, put them on with one hand, and aimed the pistol in several directions. Burr and Van Ness later made much of the fact that Hamilton aimed the pistol once or twice at Burr. “This will do,” Hamilton finally said, apologizing for the delay. “Now you may proceed.”31 That Hamilton put on his glasses has been given a sinister meaning by some commentators, but he may have wanted to ensure that he didn’t hit Burr. We also know that he had not ruled out firing accurately on a second round.
Van Ness later confirmed that Burr had no idea of Hamilton’s vow to fire into the woods. Hamilton did not have the option of standing there with his arms slackly at his sides. To have done so would have been interpreted as a cowardly refusal to duel, detracting from the heroic aura that Hamilton wished to project and defeating the whole purpose of submitting to the duel. So as Burr glared at Hamilton, he saw a guilt-ridden malevolence that did not exist. “When he stood up to fire,” Burr later said of Hamilton, “he caught my eye and quailed under it. He looked like a convicted felon.”32 On another occasion, Burr said that Hamilton “looked as if oppressed with the horrors of conscious guilt.”33 Hamilton gave no evidence to anyone else of being bowed down by guilt.
Hamilton and Burr now braced for the event that Henry Adams later described as “the most dramatic moment in the early politics of the Union.”34 When Pendleton asked if they were ready, they both answered yes, and he then uttered the word Present. Hamilton lifted his pistol, as did Burr. Both guns were discharged with explosive flashes, separated by a split second or perhaps several seconds. Pendleton was adamant that Burr had fired first and that Hamilton’s shot was merely “the effect of an involuntary exertion of the muscles produced by a mortal wound,” a terrible blow in the abdominal area above his right hip, Pendleton wrote.35 Hamilton rose up on his toes, writhing violently and twisting slightly to the left before toppling headlong to the ground. Hamilton seemed to know that his wound was mortal and proclaimed instantly, “I am a dead man.”36 Pendleton called for Hosack, who came charging up the path. In Pendleton’s recollection, Burr started toward the fallen Hamilton in a manner “expressive of regret,” until Van Ness warned him that Hosack and the boatmen were approaching. From a legal standpoint, Van Ness feared this would place Burr at the crime scene in full view of witnesses, and the two men therefore withdrew as Van Ness tried to shield Burr’s face with an umbrella. Right before they stepped onto their boat, Burr said to Van Ness of Hamilton, “I must go and speak to him!”37 Van Ness counseled him that this was ill-advised. To placate Burr, Van Ness ran up the footpath himself and reported back on Hamilton’s condition before they pushed off from shore.
Van Ness never deviated from his insistent claim that Hamilton had fired first. “That Gen[era]l Hamilton fired first, I am as well persuaded as I ever was of any fact that came under my observation,” he said.38 He recalled this distinctly, he contended, because as soon as he heard the first shot, he swiveled around to see if Burr had been struck by Hamilton’s bullet. For a moment, he even imagined that Burr had been hit because he seemed to falter. Afterward, Burr told Van Ness that he had stumbled on a stone or branch in front of him and sprained his ankle. He also explained that he had paused several seconds before firing back at Hamilton because the breeze had swirled the smoke from Hamilton’s pistol in obscure eddies before his face and he was waiting for the smoke to clear.
Neither Burr nor Van Ness ever explained why, if Hamilton shot first, he missed his target by so wide a margin. When Pendleton returned to the scene the next day, he tracked down Hamilton’s bullet and discovered that it had smashed the limb of a cedar tree more than twelve feet off the ground. The spot was also approximately four feet to the side of where Burr had stood—in other words, nowhere in his vicinity. (Pendleton sawed off the limb and gave it to John Barker Church, as either legal evidence or a memento.) If Hamilton had shot first, he had wasted his fire, exactly as foretold. And if Burr had fired first, as Pendleton alleged, then Hamilton seems to have squeezed the trigger in a reflexive spasm of agony and shot involuntarily into the trees. In neither scenario did Hamilton aim his gun at Aaron Burr.
Curiously enough, twenty-five years later, apparently without realizing the significance of his own statement, Burr himself confirmed that Hamilton’s bullet had hit the tree overhead. In his seventies, he returned to the dueling ground with a young friend and relived the dramatic encounter. Of Hamilton’s shot, he remembered that “he heard the ball whistle among the branches and saw the severed twig above his head.”39 Burr thus corroborated that Hamilton had honored his pledge and fired way off the mark. In other words, Burr knew that Hamilton had squandered his shot before he returned fire. And how did he react? He shot to kill, even though he had a clear shot at Hamilton and could have just wounded him or even stopped the duel. The most likely scenario is that Hamilton had fired first but only to show Burr that he was throwing away his shot. How else could he have shown Burr his intentions? As he had written the night before, he wanted to give Burr a chance “to pause and to reflect.” He must have assumed that, once he fired, Burr would be too proud or too protective of his own political self-interest to try to kill him.
Once Hamilton had been shot, Pendleton propped him up on a reddish-brown boulder that is still preserved at Weehawken, the sole relic of the duel to survive other than the pistols. Hosack found his friend sitting on the grass, his face livid and ghastly. “His countenance of death I shall never forget,” Hosack wrote. “He had at that instant just strength to say, ‘This is a mortal wound, Doctor,’ when he sunk away and became to all appearance lifeless.”40 Hosack slit away Hamilton’s bloodstained clothes and examined the dying man. The bullet had fractured a rib on the right side, ripped through Hamilton’s liver and diaphragm, and splintered the second lumbar vertebra, coming to rest in his spine. Hamilton was so weak that Hosack could not locate a pulse or detect any breathing and feared that his friend was dead. The only hope, he thought, was to get Hamilton out on the water. Assisted by the oarsmen, Pendleton and Hosack lifted Hamilton and carried the bleeding man down the footpath. They spread him out in the bottom of the boat and departed immediately for Manhattan, as Hosack administered ammonia-based smelling salts to his unconscious friend: “I now rubbed his face, lips, and temples with spirits of hartshorne, applied it to his neck and breast and to the wrists and palms of his hands, and endeavoured to pour some into his mouth.”41
As they crossed the Hudson, Hamilton was revived by the river breeze and suddenly blinked open his eyes. “My vision is indistinct,” he said, and his gaze appeared to wander.42 Hamilton spotted the pistol he had used in the duel and, apparently convinced that he had never fired it, said, “Take care of that pistol. It is undischarged and still cocked. It may go off and do harm. Pendleton knows that I did not intend to fire at him.”
“Yes, I have already told Dr. Hosack that,” Pendleton rejoined.43
It was a very characteristic moment for Hamilton: the instinctive sense of responsibility, the fear of violence and disorder, the mental lucidity and self-possession even in his greatest agony. Hamilton’s comments also suggest that Burr may have fired first and that his own unremembered shot had been a spasmodic reaction. Trying to conserve his ebbing energy, Hamilton again shut his eyes. He informed Hosack that he had lost all feeling in his legs, and the doctor verified this total paralysis. When the boat approached William Bayard’s dock on the Manhattan shore, Hamilton told the doctor, “Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for. Let the event be gradually broken to her, but give her hopes.”44 Eliza, still at the Grange, knew nothing of what had happened, and it would take time to bring her downtown.
Notified by his servant that Hamilton and Pendleton had pushed off toward New Jersey at dawn, apparently from his own dock, the waiting William Bayard later said that “too well he conjectured the fatal errand and foreboded the dreadful result.”45 Bayard, a rich merchant and Bank of New York director, watched the incoming boat with trepidation and burst into tears when he saw Hamilton lying at the bottom. Servants brought a cot down to the water and gently transported Hamilton across Bayard’s garden to his mansion, which stood at what is now 80–82 Jane Street. Taken to a large, second-floor bedroom, Alexander Hamilton was never to emerge from the house.
Soon after Hamilton was deposited in the upstairs room, word of what had occurred spread with electrifying speed. At the Tontine Coffee House, watering hole for the city’s business elite, a sensational bulletin was posted: “GENERAL HAMILTON WAS SHOT BY COLONEL BURR THIS MORNING IN A DUEL. THE GENERAL IS SAID TO BE MORTALLY WOUNDED.”46 As onlookers absorbed this shocking news, they blanched with horror. Dirck Ten Broeck, threading his way through the streets en route to his scheduled appointment with Hamilton, encountered a friend who told him of the duel. “I was thunderstruck,” he said, “but alas the report was true.”47 Pretty soon, knots of anxious New Yorkers gathered on street corners to discuss the still fragmentary reports. As the hours passed, the frenetic life of the city that Hamilton had enriched so immeasurably ground to a halt. “This is indeed a sad day,” wrote Hamilton’s associate David Ogden. “All business seems to be suspended in the city and a solemn gloom hangs on every countenance.”48 Throughout the day came bulletins on the dying man’s state, and a mass of people congregated before the Bayard mansion. Some French ships anchored in New York harbor sent surgeons specially trained in treating gunshot wounds to see if they could resuscitate Hamilton.
At first, Hamilton suffered such exquisite pain that Dr. Hosack did not strip off his bloody garments but just plied him with weak wine and water. When Hamilton complained of acute back discomfort, Hosack and other attendants took off his clothes, darkened the room, and began to administer sizable doses of laudanum to dull the ache. Despite the pain, Hamilton reacted to the situation with stoic fortitude and an impressive regard for others, worrying constantly about the plight of Eliza and the children. Following his advice, Eliza had been summoned from the Grange but was told at first only that her husband was suffering from “spasms.” Initially she trusted this fiction, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., wrote, and nobody dared to tell her the truth because it was “feared she would become frantic.”49 The concern for Eliza’s mental health was not misplaced. When she discovered the horrid truth, she grew “half-distracted” and gave way to “frantic grief,” said Hosack.50 To comfort her, Hamilton kept intoning the one refrain he knew would soothe her troubled spirit above all others: “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.”51
For those packed into the Bayard household, the scene of grief was unbearable. David Ogden watched as Eliza sat devotedly at her husband’s bedside, fanning his feverish face. Ogden wrote a friend that “it is but two years since her eldest son was killed in the same manner. Gracious God! What must be her feelings?”52 Angelica Church hastened to succor the man who had been her obsession for so many years. Gouverneur Morris would remember an inconsolable Angelica “weeping her heart out.”53 She expressed her profound admiration for Eliza in the face of such intolerable adversity. “My dear sister bears with saintlike fortitude this affliction,” she told their brother Philip.54
Aside from his strongly protective feelings toward his family, Hamilton was preoccupied with spiritual matters in a way that eliminates all doubt about the sincerity of his late-flowering religious interests. It is not certain that Hamilton was as eloquent on his deathbed as his friends later attested, but their accounts corroborate one another and are remarkably consistent. No sooner was he brought to the Bayard house than he made it a matter of urgent concern to receive last rites from the Episcopal Church. He asked to see the Reverend Benjamin Moore, who was the rector of Trinity Church, the Episcopal bishop of New York, and the president of Columbia College. The eminent Moore balked at giving Hamilton holy communion as he wrestled with two nagging reservations. He thought dueling an impious practice and did not wish to sanction the confrontation with Burr. He also knew that Hamilton had not been a regular churchgoer. As a result, Bishop Moore could not, in good conscience, comply with Hamilton’s wishes.
In desperation, Hamilton turned to a dear friend, the Reverend John M. Mason, the pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, which stood near the Hamilton home on Cedar Street. A Columbia College graduate and trustee and a confirmed Federalist, Mason revered Hamilton’s talents, and the latter reciprocated the affection. “He is in every sense a man of rare merit,” Hamilton once said.55
When Mason entered the chamber, he took Hamilton’s hand, and the two men exchanged a “melancholy salutation” before they studied each other in mournful silence.56 Hamilton asked if Mason would administer communion to him. The abashed pastor said that it gave him “unutterable pain” to receive from Hamilton any request to which he could not accede, but in the present instance any compliance would be incompatible with his obligations. He explained that “it is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.”57 Hamilton respected Mason’s candor and prodded him no further.
Mason tried to console Hamilton by saying that all men had sinned and were equal in the Lord’s sight. “I perceive it to be so,” Hamilton said. “I am a sinner. I look to His mercy.”58 Hamilton also stressed his hatred of dueling: “I used every expedient to avoid the interview, but I have found for some time past that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.”59 As Mason told how Christ’s blood would wash away his sins, Hamilton grasped his hand, rolled his eyes heavenward, and exclaimed with fervor, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”60 Hamilton, struggling for breath, promised that if he survived he would repudiate dueling.
Rebuffed by Mason, Hamilton redirected his hopes of communion to the skittish Benjamin Moore. The bishop now faced considerable pressure to appease Hamilton, whose friends thought it heartless to refuse a dying man’s last wish. “This refusal was cruel and unjustifiable,” wrote David Ogden. “Why deny a man the consolation and comforts of our holy religion in his last moments?”61
Willing to reconsider, the stern prelate with the bald pate and long, grave face returned to the scene at one o’clock that afternoon. As befits a great orator, Hamilton roused himself for one last burst of persuasion. “My dear Sir,” he told Moore, “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.” Then he added, “It has for some time past been the wish of my heart and it was my intention to take an early opportunity of uniting myself to the church by the reception of that holy ordinance.”62Hamilton expressed his faith in God’s mercy. When Moore termed dueling a “barbarous custom,” Hamilton assured him, too, that he would renounce it if he lived.63 Lifting his hands beseechingly, he said, “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.”64 At that point, Moore relented and gave holy communion to Hamilton, who then lay back serenely and declared that he was happy.
The next morning, Hamilton’s mind was still clear, though his strength was depleted and his body motionless. He could speak only with difficulty. Except for one heartbreaking moment, he managed to maintain his exceptional composure. Eliza had not allowed the children into their father’s presence the previous day, but she now realized that the time had come for Hamilton to bid them farewell. She held up their two-year-old boy, Philip, to his lips for a final kiss. Then Eliza lined up all seven children at the foot of the bed so that Hamilton could see them in one final tableau, a sight that rendered him speechless. According to Hosack, “he opened his eyes, gave them one look, and closed them again till they were taken away.”65
In Hamilton’s last hours, more than twenty friends and family members pressed into his chamber, most praying on their knees with their eyes fixed on Hamilton’s every expression. David Ogden said they gave way to “a flood of tears” and “implored heaven to bless their friend.”66 For some, the deathwatch became insupportable. “The scene is too powerful for me,” Gouverneur Morris wrote. “I am obliged to walk in the garden to take breath.”67 Morris later recalled the scene around Hamilton, “his wife almost frantic with grief, his children in tears, every person present deeply afflicted, the whole city agitated, every countenance dejected.”68 Hamilton alone seemed resigned as the end neared. At one point, speaking of politics, he said, “If they break this union, they will break my heart.”69 He could have left no more fitting political epitaph.
Hamilton repeated to Bishop Moore that he bore no malice toward Burr, that he was dying in a peaceful state, and that he was reconciled to his God and his fate. His faculties stayed intact until about fifteen minutes before the end. Then, at 2:00 P.M. on Thursday, July 12, 1804, thirty-one hours after the duel, forty-nine-year-old Alexander Hamilton died gently, quietly, almost noiselessly. After a frenzied life of passion and drama, of incomparable heights and depths, it proved a mercifully easy transition. “Thus has perished one of the greatest men of this or any age,” Oliver Wolcott, Jr., wrote to his wife.70 A large bloodstain soaked into the Bayards’ floor where Hamilton expired, and for many years the family refused to expunge this sacred spot.
Eliza snipped a lock of hair from her husband’s head and commenced the long rites of widowhood. She was tortured with grief. “The poor woman was almost distracted [and] begged uncle Gouverneur Morris might come into her room,” said David Ogden. “She burst into tears, told him he was the best friend her husband had, begged him to join her in prayers for her own death, and then to be a father for her children.”71 Normally a witty, cosmopolitan man and bon vivant, the peg-legged Morris could only stare at Eliza with tears streaming down his cheeks.
We do not know when Eliza first saw the hymn that Hamilton had written for her in the early-morning hours before the duel. Nor do we know when she tore open the envelope and read the farewell letter that Hamilton had composed for her on July 4, the day he attended the bittersweet banquet of the Society of the Cincinnati. At some moment during the next few days, a tearful Eliza sat down and read the lines that her dead husband had prepared for her:
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, 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 consolations of religion, my beloved, can alone support you and these you have a right to enjoy. 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 and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.