It was a sunny, beautiful July day. One of the most dramatic events in American history was about to take place, though only a handful of New Yorkers knew about it. It was July 11, 1804.
Two up and coming young men were about to meet in a duel, on a bluff in Weehawken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from what is now 42 St. The antagonists were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
They hated each other. Burr, who felt that Hamilton had ruined his political career, had challenged Hamilton to the duel. Hamilton detested Burr but didn’t believe in dueling. He barely knew how to shoot while Burr was an accomplished marksman.
But, if he had refused the challenge, Hamilton would have been considered a coward. And he was not ready to accept disgrace. On the day before the duel, he wrote a farewell letter to his wife Eliza and seven children. He drew up a will.
The two antagonists made the trip across the river in separate rowboats accompanied by their seconds. Then, as agreed beforehand, they entered the field. The seconds measured off 10 paces and the two men faced each other. As agreed beforehand, one second uttered the word: “Present!” and both men fired their guns. Hamilton, his second said, did not want to kill Burr. So he fired away from his enemy, the bullet lodging in a tree. But Burr’s aim was true. He mortally wounded his adversary, who fell to the ground.
As Ron Chernow relates in his biography titled “Alexander Hamilton,”when Hamilton plunged to the earth, “he seemed to know his wound was mortal and proclaimed instantly: ‘I am a dead man.’“
Lifted gently by his companions, he was placed in their boat and rowed gently back to the Manhattan shore. After suffering great pain, he died in a friend’s house the next day.
New Yorkers were stunned. Many people had high regard for this lieutenant of George Washington, this brilliant man who had laid the financial foundation for the new nation.
From his deathbed 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.”
His wife and seven children gathered at the bedside. Chernow quotes Hamilton’s friend, Gouverneur Morris, as describing the scene: “his wife almost frantic with grief. His children in tears, every person present deeply afflicted, the whole city agitated, every countenance dejected.”
It happened 207 years ago this week -- a traumatic moment that few contemporary New Yorkers know, and yet it had a great impact on America and New York. Hamilton, as Chernow’s editors say, was “the principal designer of the federal government, the catalyst for the emergence of the two-party system, the patron saint of Wall Street…the most important figure in American history who never attained the presidency.”
Hamilton believed fervently in establishing a sound financial structure for the new nation. And his careful planning for the fiscal future of the United States was his priority in his 49 years of life.
I asked Yale historian Joanne Freeman, who wrote an article about the duel in 2003, how Hamilton might have looked at the financial troubles afflicting the nation today.
She laughed. “He was all about the nation’s credit. He believed that this pipsqueak country could not prosper unless it established a strong credit in the world.
“The situation today would make him writhe in agony! He was all about the country’s financial stability and the current state of the nation would have bothered him a lot.”
It’s not likely that the protagonists in today’s battles on Capitol Hill will be dueling with pistols any time soon. We now do our dueling with words, sometimes on television. So we’ve made some progress, perhaps. But, on the substance of how to protect this country -- its credit and institutions -- that battle continues.
A portrait of Hamilton is on the face of the $10 bill. On the bill issued in 2006 are the words, inscribed in red: “We the people….” It’s from the preamble to the Constitution that meant so much to Hamilton. He fought hard for its adoption.
Hamilton’s tombstone in Trinity Churchyard, at Wall street, is a monument to this New Yorker who fought for what he believed in -- and died in a clash with a political enemy. In the words of the Constitution’s preamble, the object of the Constitution was “to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
Hamilton, an orphan boy from the Caribbean, loved this country and looked forward with hope to that posterity. How he would have responded to the political passions of this century is a matter for debate.