Sunday, July 7, 2024

The Duel: “Once more Adieu”

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
From The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings

The Monument to Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, 1811–ca. 1813, watercolor and gouache on paper by Russian artist Pavel Petrovich Svinin (1787–1839). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of New York. Inset: The base tablet for the monument, which reads “On this Spot fell, July 11th 1804, Major General Alexander Hamilton. As an expression of their affectionate Regard to his Memory and of their deep regret for his Loss The St. Andrews Society of the State of New York have erected This Monument.” New-York Historical Society.

By the 1820s the site had been vandalized and the entire monument and fence had been removed or destroyed. The tablet was recovered in the years following by the owner of the property, James Gore King, who preserved the remnant at his estate. (King was the son of New York Senator Rufus King, a friend and supporter of Hamilton and one of the signers of the Constitution.) The tablet was later donated to the New-York Historical Society, where it can still be seen today.

On November 23, 1801, Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip was mortally wounded in a duel with George Eacker, a Republican lawyer who had vociferously criticized the elder Hamilton’s policies at a Fourth of July speech earlier that year. Philip and a friend, Stephen Price, had heckled Eacker while at the theater, and their argument was carried out onto the street, ultimately resulting in two duels between Eacker and the young men on consecutive days. The older man and Price emerged unharmed from their duel, while Philip died from Eacker's shot. “My loss is indeed great,” Hamilton wrote to the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a friend of the family, although a frequent critic of Hamilton’s politics. “The highest as well as the eldest hope of my family has been taken from me. You estimated him rightly—He was truly a fine youth.”

Less than three years after Philip’s death, Alexander Hamilton found himself near the spot in New Jersey where his son had been killed when he took part in the most famous duel in American history. The following summary explaining the events leading up to the duel is from
The Essential Hamilton, edited by Joanne B. Freeman, author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.


Hamilton’s political excesses and personal recklessness came to a head when he became entangled in an affair of honor with Aaron Burr. The two had known each other for decades; meeting during the war, mingling with the same friends, attending the same parties, even acting as co-counsel in court. As Hamilton had admitted in 1800, they liked each other personally. But politically, they clashed time and again.

In 1804, their ongoing rivalry reached its fatal culmination. Burr’s political career was foundering. Denied the possibility of a second term as vice-president by Jefferson, he had run for Governor of New York and lost. Eager to redeem his name and prove himself a leader worth following, he took notice when someone put a newspaper clipping in his hand reporting that at a dinner, Hamilton had claimed that Burr was unfit to hold the reins of government, and then said something “still more despicable” that the writer refused to put on paper. As Burr well knew, risking one’s life for one’s reputation in an affair of honor was considered a powerful display of leadership.

With this in mind, Burr seized at the word “despicable” and demanded an explanation, sending Hamilton the opening letter of a formal affair of honor on June 18. Hamilton’s response was an unfortunate blend of hedging and bravado; he debated the meaning of the word “despicable” and then declared himself responsible for anything he had said. Outraged at Hamilton’s tone and grammar lesson, Burr accused him of not behaving like a gentleman, an insult that Hamilton couldn’t ignore. For ten days, the two men negotiated through their seconds, hoping to find a way out of the tangle, until Burr—desperate to redeem his name—did what many grievously insulted gentlemen did during affairs of honor: he demanded an impossible apology to force his opponent to fight. When Burr asked Hamilton to apologize for every insult offered during their fifteen-year rivalry, Hamilton refused, and their duel was on.

Once the duel was agreed to, Hamilton struggled to put his affairs in order in case of his death. He wrote a financial statement admitting that he was deeply in debt. He wrote not one but two farewell letters to Elizabeth, on July 4 and 10, 1804. And remarkably, the night before the duel, he explained why he felt compelled to fight.

The next day, Hamilton rose at dawn and was rowed across the Hudson River to a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr’s shot pierced Hamilton’s liver and lodged in his spine. Hamilton died the next day, surrounded by family and friends.
For our Story of the Week selection, we present both letters Hamilton wrote to his wife, as well as the statement he left among his papers explaining his decision to fight in the duel.

Notes: The moderate and judicious friend referred to in the statement is Rufus King, whom Hamilton consulted about the propriety of Burr’s demand for an explanation. Ann Mitchell, mentioned in the second letter to Hamilton’s wife, was his cousin; she supported him during his youth in the West Indies.

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This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.