Monday, July 11, 2005


The Scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject my self to the guilt of taking th elife of another. This must increase my hazards & redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me and I humbly hope will but in the contrary event, I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God's Will be done. The will of a merciful God must be good.

Once more Adieu My Darling darling Wife.

So ends a letter, dated July 10, 1804, by Alexander Hamilton. The next morning, July 11, he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr, and he died the afternoon of the 12th. There is a great deal of mystery about his death. The two 'seconds' to the duel each signed a statement about the events. They do not agree. Hamilton's second insists that Hamilton did not fire first, and when he did, that he did not fire at Burr at all. Burr's second insists that Hamilton was the one fired first. We know that Hamilton did not intend to fire first, going into the duel; whether he maintained this resolution in the heat of the moment we will perhaps never really know. One possible scenario is that Hamilton did, in fact, fire first, but did not realize it; he later made comments about his gun that suggested that he thought he had not fired at all.

It was a peculiar end to a man opposed to dueling (on religious principles, but also perhaps on personal principles, since his eldest son had died in a duel just a few years before). Hamilton was, at the theoretical level, one of the great geniuses among the Founding Fathers. He was an active campaigner for what he called a 'more energetic magistrate' -- he is one of the chief architects of the Office of the President as it falls under the Constitution, which seems to be one of the several reasons he was haunted his entire life with insinuations by his enemies that he was a crypto-monarchist.

He was not, it must be said, a bad politician. He was a good friend of George Washington, he was the first Secretary of the Treasury, he was a major leader of the Federalist party, all with good reason. But he made many, many enemies in his lifetime, and his odd and high-strung sense of honor seems to have made things worse. Reading Hamilton on Madison and Jefferson is a salutary treatment for any tendency to think that the Founding Fathers had any unified theory of government, or that they somehow managed to be political saints. An example, from a 1792 letter to Edward Carrington:

Mr. Jefferson, it is known, did not in the first instance cordially acquiesce in the new constitution for the U States; he had many doubts & reserves. He left this Country before we had experienced the imbicillities [sic] of the former....

He came here probably with a too partial idea of his own powers, and with the expectation of a greater share in the direction of our councils than he has in reality enjoyed. I am not sure that he had not peculiarly marked out for himself the department of the Finances....

The course of this business & a variety of circumstances which took place left Mr. Madison a very discontented & chagrined man and begot some degree of ill humour in Mr. Jefferson.

As I said, Hamilton was not in any absolute sense a bad politician. At the practical level, however, Hamilton made repeated bad judgments. A case in point is the infamous Reynolds pamphlet, in which he defended himself against charges of abuse of his position as Secretary of the Treasury in the following remarkable way:

The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.

He was one of the most devoutly religious of the Founding Fathers, an Anglican who once proposed the creation of a 'Christian Constitutional Society' devoted to supporting Christianity and the Constitution by diffusion of information, charitable work, and the "use of all lawful means in concert to promote the election of fit men". It is sometimes forgotten that he was the one who first drafted Washington's famous Farewell Address; it was his intent, he said, "to embrace such reflections and sentimetns as will wear well, progress in approbation with time, & redound to future reputation," a goal at which he certainly succeeded, although Washington perhaps helped by cutting down Hamilton's wordiness. Compare Hamilton's draft suggestion (which bears the traces of its draft nature):

Let it simply be asked where is the security for property for reputation for life if the sense of moral and religious obligation deserts the oaths which are administered in Courts of Justice? Nor ought we to flatter ourselves that morality can be separated from religion. Concede as much as may be asked to the effect of refined education in minds of a peculiar structure--can we believe--can we in prudence suppose that national morality can be maintained in exclusion of religious principles? Does it not acquire the aid of a generally received and divinely authoritative Religion?

Tis essentially true that virtue or morality is a main & necessary spring of popular or republican Governments. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to all free Governments. Who that is prudent & sincere friend to them can look with indifference on the ravages which are making in the foundation of the Fabric? Religion? The uncommon means which of late have been directed to this fatal end seem to make it in a particular of manner the duty of the Retiring Chief of a nation to warn his country against the tasting of the poisonous draught.

to Washington's actual address:

Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Notice, by the way, that Washington eliminates Hamilton's insistence on the need for a divinely authoritative revelation. The Founding Fathers, too, ran the spectrum of opinion on the role religion should play in American society and political life.

In any case, Hamilton is an interesting figure. You can find a number of his writings at Alexander Hamilton on the Web.

[Hamilton quotations are from Hamilton, Writings, The Library of America. New York: 2001.]