Alexander Hamilton's Duel with Aaron Burr
Upon the accession of the Republicans to the control of the government, Jefferson ordered the books of Hamilton searched to ascertain what charges could be made against him, and to discover the alleged blunders and frauds perpetrated by the Federal official while in office. Albert Gallatin, himself one of the greatest financiers of his age, undertook the task with a hearty relish as he at that time entertained no great esteem for the great Federalist. Struck by the almost absolute perfection of the system, Gallatin reported to the President that any change would certainly injure it and that no blunders or frauds had been committed.
This great man was born on one of the West India Islands, January 11th, 1757. His father failed when he was young and his mother died leaving the poor child in actual want. He was taken by friends at Santa Cruz. He had no great educational advantages there, but being able to read both English and French he devoured all such books as fell in his way. He was placed in a counting-house in Santa Cruz and, although he detested the business, applied himself diligently to his task and the knowledge here gained was no small factor of his future great success as a financier.
He applied every spare moment to study and early began to use his pen. In 1772 a hurricane passed through St. Christophers, and an account which young Hamilton then wrote for the papers attracted so much attention that his friends decided to give him a better chance. They accordingly raised the money with which to send him to New York to school, and after a few months spent at a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, he entered Columbia College, New York—then called Kings College. Here he began study preparatory to a medical course.
About this time his attention became drawn toward the struggle which was about to commence between Great Britain and America, and at a public meeting he made a short speech which attracted general attention. He was now but seventeen years of age, yet his pen was keenly felt in the interest of America, through the columns of Holts Journal, to which he had become a regular contributor. He entered the army as captain of an artillery company which he was the chief means of raising, and did good service at White Plains, Trenton and Princeton.
He secured this position through the influence of General Schuyler and, although but nineteen years of age, he was well qualified for the position, having made a study of artillery tactics. His ability had not escaped the attention of the army, and he was placed upon Washington's staff with rank of lieutenant-colonel. Washington needed some one to take charge of his great correspondence,—some one who could think for himself. Young as Hamilton was he assumed the entire responsibility of chief secretary, besides rendering much valuable assistance as aid. He married one of General Schuyler's daughters, and this alliance with one of the wealthiest families in the State proved a most fortunate epoch in his life. A difference arising between Washington and himself he resigned and, although Washington sent an apology, he refused to recall his resignation however their mutual esteem was continued. He subsequently commanded a brigade at the battle of Yorktown.
He now took up his residence at Albany and began the study of law with his wife's father. He was soon licensed to practice, and was chosen one of the delegates to the Continental Congress. He realized the necessity of vesting more power in congress and secured the adoption, by the State of New York, of a resolution urging the amendment of the constitution with that object in view. He now moved to New York where he soon acquired an immense practice. His efforts in behalf of the constitution were untiring and useful.
When Washington became president he selected Hamilton as his Secretary of Treasury. It was a wise choice as financial difficulties were the most formidable of any in the way of the administration, and no man was more capable of bringing order out of chaos than Alexander Hamilton. All parties agreed that the debts incurred abroad must be met according to contract, but as a large amount of the domestic debt was in the hands of men who had bought it for a rise it had been suggested that these obligations be settled upon the basis of the amount paid for them by their present holders. This measure Hamilton opposed. While acknowledging that speculation was an evil, still he saw that such a measure would tend to weaken our financial credit. He also brought about the assumption by the government of the entire State debt incurred during the war. This measure was strongly opposed by Jefferson, and its passage had a marked effect on our system tending to centralize authority.
It will thus be seen that to Alexander Hamilton belongs no small share of founding and shaping the destiny of this powerful country of to-day. Like many other great and good men, he was obliged to suffer the slander of the press, which charged him with a misappropriation of the public money, but as has already been shown in this narrative, it proved nothing but a foul story concocted through jealousy and partisan hate, and is no longer countenanced. His salary being insufficient for his support, he resigned his position and resumed the practice of his profession in New York. In the warlike demonstration of 1798 he became, upon the death of General Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of all the armies of America, but happily the war with France was averted and peace restored.
Now we come to the saddest page of American history. We have followed this poor homeless boy from childhood; we have seen him rise from obscurity to a leading position at the bar, become a gallant soldier and the greatest financier in America. And yet, when his country most needs his council and help, we see him, at the age of fifty-seven, stricken down by an assassin.
Aaron Burr was an ambitious politician. His alleged intrigues with the Federalists, whereby he sought to effect the election of himself to the presidency instead of Jefferson, the people's choice, cost him the confidence of his own party. Knowing New York to be the pivotal State, he sought the gubernatorial chair through an independent vote, hoping to secure Federal support, as it was conceded that they could not elect a candidate of their own. Hamilton, himself as pure as the bright sunshine, felt his party to be imposed upon by this intruder who, while professing to be a Republican, was seeking to thrust himself upon the other party.
At a caucus Hamilton warmly opposed the endorsement of a man whom he characterized as dangerous and who had not ought to be trusted with the reins of government. Hamilton took no active part in the campaign, but his opinion was frequently quoted by those who did, and the result was Burr's defeat by Morgan Lewis. Attributing his defeat to Hamilton, and feeling him to be his greatest political rival, he early sought a duel with him. Hamilton detested this practice, and sought by all honorable means, as he wrote to his wife, to avoid it. But finally he accepted, not in the spirit of a professed duelist, but in the character of a public man. They met on the morning of July 11th, 1804, on the fatal field of Weehawken, New Jersey.
At the first fire Hamilton sprang on his tip-toes, and, after a convulsive movement, fell forward on his face. At the same time his weapon was accidentally discharged, his missile flying wide of its mark. Indeed, Hamilton did not fire; in reality, he had resolved not to return his antagonist's fire, and never knew that his weapon was discharged, as he was insensible when he fell. He died within thirty hours, and his funeral was the most imposing ever witnessed in that day. Around the name of Hamilton there glows a halo which has brightened in the ages. Thus was America robbed of her brave soldier and pure statesman.