The Other Duel

Everyone who has studied any American history is familiar with the basic story of Alexander ;Hamilton and his role as one of our eminent Founding Fathers.  That honorific is well deserved due to his active role is the early days of the armed rebellion against England and his position as the chief aide to General Washington throughout the entire Revolutionary War.  Of course there is also his role in the Constitutional Convention and then his dominant position in writing  the bulk of the Federalist Papers.  Lastly, there was his influence and ideas establishing the banking and commercial direction of the early Republic as the first Secretary of the Treasury.  Then the tragic end with his death at the hands of Aaron Burr across from Manhattan in 1804.  That is probably the most famous duel in all of American history bar none.   But there was another duel that touched his life probably more profoundly than even his own duel and death.

Alexander and his wife Eliza had 8 children.   He did one dalliance that costs him greatly politically but he and Eliza worked through that and he became an even more devoted father and husband in the last years of his short life.  In 1801 he was out of office and was a bitter enemy of Adams and the Jefferson branch of the Republicans for many reasons having to do with the vision for the American commercial future and the cozy relationship that Jefferson favored with the French government.   The nation was badly split over the attitude and support we should give to the French revolution.  Many believed they were are compatriots in revolution and overturning the moribund ways of the established monarchies of Europe.   Others, including Hamilton were appalled at the bloody excesses of the reign of Terror of that revolution and the apparent inclination of the French to allow mob rule rather than any established order.  

Hamilton’s oldest son was a very loyal son as one would expect.  His father was regularly vilified in the Republican press for his illegitimate birth and his alleged profiting from his position when Secretary of the Treasury.  That allegation was completely false as he was cleared by Congress and the later record demonstrated that he never received any secret funds from the British as alleged repeatedly nor did his profit from any banking arrangement when he created the First Bank of the United States or the Bank of New York.

His son was about 20 and a student in New York city.  He and a friend knew of another young man attending the theater one evening who was a vocal critic of his father and the Federalists generally.  Philip the son and the friend had  words with the young man by entering his box.  Philip was out of line.  He was mouthing off.  Today it would be considered nothing but a nuisance.  But 1801 was a different world with different standards.  The young man took offense as was to be expected and retaliated with words of his own.  In short order they had issued challenges for a duel through their seconds.  The job of a second was first to try to resolve the dispute amicably with an apology or some rephrasing of offensive comments to allow the offended party to withdraw the challenge without losing honor and for the challenged to do the same.  This couldn’t be achieved.   It had all started with a speech made by the young  man that vilified his father a few months earlier. 

The location of the duel was the current Jersey City.  Philip had on the advice of his father withheld his fire.  Then the young man raised his gun and Philip did likewise after that.  The young man fired and his Philip in the hip and the ball careened through his body up to his armpit.  He was rushed back to Manhattan to the home of his aunt.  Alexander and Eliza came, she being several months pregnant with their last child.  They stayed by their son’s bedside throughout the long day.  Their son professed his love and belief in Christ and then died in the late afternoon.

Hamilton and his wife was both grief-stricken beyond relief.  It affected his last few years tremendously and that of his wife.  More tragically, their oldest daughter was 17 at the time.  The death of her brother altered her mind.  She had diminished capacity the rest of her life.   She was under the care of doctors or family for the rest of her life and never recovered his mental abilities after this duel.  They lost two children in that one episode.  The daughter lived to age 73 never forgetting her brother; his memory was all she could cling to.

It was a time and age when such things occurred as it did with Hamilton himself only three years later.   But the loss of the son affected and touched so many lives as it always does with any parent.  

Hamilton had many honors and positions during his life of service to the country.  We always refer to former Presidents or Secretaries at the cabinet level with that honorific even after the leave office.  Of his many positions in government the honorific he liked best and the one most often attached to him in his last years was “General Hamilton”.  It is mostly forgotten that he was the general in charge of the army created to thwart the possible and threatened French invasion of American in the late 1790’s.  There was open war on the seas for a while under Adams but the dispute was resolved and the army disbanded.


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Filed under Culture, family, history

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