Today is the 212th anniversary of the killing of Alexander Hamilton. The History Channel might do a special on the events leading up to the duel; millions of fans of the musical will mourn all over again the death of the first Secretary of the Treasury.
It is important therefore to make a distinction between what I will now discuss and what they (probably) will: I won’t go into huge historical detail of the feud between Hamilton and his killer, Aaron Burr. That story has been played out in the minds of historians, the texts of history, and now, thanks to the great mind that is Lin-Manuel Miranda, on stage. The horse is dead; I won’t beat it any more. Plenty of others will.
There is no doubt that there will be a good deal of vitriol directed, rightly or otherwise, at Burr. There will be an outpouring of support for the long-dead former Secretary, whose plans guaranteed the very existence of a United States of America. But it takes two to tango, and five to duel (two duelists, two seconds, one doctor). Why did Hamilton agree to the duel in the first place?
It’s important to understand the position of the world at the time. The year was 1804. Jefferson was President; Aaron Burr was Vice. Unlike the rightly-esteemed play implies, it had actually been three years of the Jefferson/Burr administration. Hamilton was the functional leader of a fractured Federalist Party. He was the opposition to everything the current administration stood for. He had, due to his impropriety, managed to torpedo his own chance at the Presidency. He and his ideas were being attacked on all sides. His own son had died in an attempt to protect his father’s legacy, in a duel eerily similar to the one that took place that fateful July 11. He wanted – or even, if you’re being generous, needed – to be available for the debates that were to come. The Hamilton name had been dragged through the mud so vehemently that it could not stand another blow without being rendered totally useless in any conflict that may occur.
Hamilton stood on a precipice, with a sheer drop on either side. If he chose to turn down a duel, he would be dishonored and useless no matter how many essays he could churn out (dozens, probably). On the other hand, he could die in the duel. Which to choose? Which would he regret more?
I like to identify with Hamilton. He was ambitious. He wasn’t from a political family; he wanted to prove himself. He wanted above all to change the world, to make an impact, to matter. He could be verbose sometimes, at least by the measure of his era, when everyone was verbose by modern standards (whoops?). The things he fought for were simple, but required a complicated defense. He walked in a time that was a minefield of opinions, when a simple, poorly thought-out statement could be turned into an unjustified slur that would nonetheless stick no matter what else one might do. He had to educate himself on many of the topics that interested him most. I like to think that he thought along the same lines that I do.
So it makes sense, if that’s true, that he would have done what I do when given a decision. The question is not simply “this or that” but “which will I regret more, if it turns out wrong? Which will bring the best consequences if it turns out right?” I put myself in my own future shoes and imagine how I’ll feel in those situations.
By that measure there is no real choice. Hamilton was a man of honor; he could not dishonor himself. He could not bring himself to retire (after all he wasn’t even fifty!); he could not force himself into retirement by rejecting the duel. Moreover, if he won the duel peacefully or otherwise, he’d be vindicated. By the generally unspoken rules of honor, once something was accounted for it was accounted for forever. He wouldn’t have to fight another duel over the same problems.
And it’s not as if Hamilton was known for being cautious, either. His whole life was a series of calculated risks. When he was just a teenager and still stuck clerking in the Caribbean, he wrote the following to his best friend of the time, Edward Stevens:
“Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.” (Letter to Edward Stevens, 11 November 1769, emphasis mine)
It’s clear that his involvement with every step of the United States’ fledgling development – before it even existed and during its tumultuous first years – was intentional. He was not swept along into the war, he actively sought it out. His later actions of the war, in which he insisted on being given a command, were also a calculated risk: if he could legitimately claim having had a command in the war and having seen combat, it would lend a level of experience and influence which he may not have had otherwise. It would have been easy to sit out the war as Washington’s de facto chief of staff, but he would not accept the sinecure out of a desire for the potential outcome. Benefits > risk.
Hamilton did not stop there. When his adultery, the one unequivocally negative thing he ever did in his life that we know of, was rumored, he chose to write the Reynolds Pamphlet, which would prove that he had not been treasonous while admitting his adultery. Calculated risk.
Hamilton did not elaborate on his reasons for accepting the duel in his last letter to his wife, Eliza. Instead, he said simply that “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.”
Hamilton’s death would today be considered murder. He was the most controversial figure in American politics at the time. His influence cannot be underestimated. It is only a shame that his life was cut short. 212 years later, it is imperative that the principles which he held dear are held in the minds of the people.