In the midst of all I went through over the last few days, I sought escape in writing, and this short story came to me in the space of a single afternoon. The life of Alexander Hamilton has always fascinated me, long before HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL came along. What might have happened had he lived to a ripe old age, and fulfilled the promise of his earlier political career? Of course, for that to happen, a certain encounter along the shores of the Hudson on the morning of July 11, 1804 would have to have gone a little differently . . . .
Alexander Hamilton grasped the gunwales of the barge as the murky waters of the Hudson rolled beneath them. The sun was just clearing the horizon, and the bluffs at Weehawken loomed ahead, illuminated by early morning rays. Atop those bluffs was a flat area, lush with summer greenery, about a hundred yards in length by forty in breadth. It was out of sight of the nearby docks and walkways, a secluded field where duelists had met off and on for over a century. There Hamilton would face a man whom he had despised for years, a man he believed had every intention of killing him. This man was also the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr of New York.
Hamilton was deep in thought. He did not want to fight this duel, and despite his contempt for Burr, he had no particular desire to kill the man. He had made out his will the night before, and in it he had announced his intention of throwing away his shot. As a Christian, Hamilton had come to despise dueling -especially since his beloved son, Philip, had lost his life in a duel three years before. Certainly, he had no wish to die – indeed, he felt he had much to live for. He had not abandoned all hope of becoming President someday, despite the scandal of his well-known affair with Maria Reynolds. Someone would have to undo the damage Thomas Jefferson was busily inflicting on the country; why not Hamilton? There was no other leader in the Federalist Party who had his credentials, or his political ingenuity. He was not yet fifty years old, and in excellent health. His prospects were still bright.
And yet – he could have evaded this duel had he really wanted to, but the cost would have been his personal honor. He meant everything he had said about Burr – the man was an unscrupulous snake who coveted power at all costs. Hamilton could not apologize to Burr without retracting what he had said, and what he had said was true. Jefferson, his former cabinet colleague and great rival, had often denounced Hamilton as an ambitious, unscrupulous monarchist – a charge Hamilton resented. Certainly, Hamilton lacked Jefferson’s blind faith in the wisdom of the masses, but there was a far cry between believing the country should be led by wise, educated men of substance and property, and actually craving a scepter! Hamilton found it ironic that a man who accused him of royalist ambition should take as his running mate someone who truly lusted for that kind of power. Even Jefferson had come to realize what Burr was, finally, and had already let it be known that he would run for re-election that fall with a different Vice Presidential candidate.
Burr had seen the handwriting on the wall, and had switched parties yet again, trying to win the Federalist nomination for Governor of New York. Although he had not held political office in a nearly a decade, Hamilton was still the leader of New York’s Federalists, and he had let it be known to all and sundry that he was adamantly opposed to Burr’s nomination. Burr had lost both the nomination and the election, in which he had run as an independent. Seeing his political career in ruins, he blamed Hamilton for his failure – and he was right. Hamilton took a certain grim pride in destroying Burr’s prospects. He had not done so out of malice, but out of genuine concern for his country’s future.
Now, however, he was paying the price. In a newspaper interview, one of Hamilton’s friends, Charles Cooper, had mentioned some of the things Hamilton had said about Burr, and the Vice President, incensed by the statement that Hamilton had a “yet more despicable” opinion he had left unuttered, had issued a challenge that Hamilton could not refuse.
The former Treasury Secretary looked at the portmanteau containing the dueling pistols. One of them, he knew, was the same gun that had killed his son Philip three years before. Philip – Hamilton still had to stifle sobs of grief when he thought of his beautiful son, a bright and shining light snuffed out before his time, killed defending his father’s honor on this same bloody ground. He still remembered the grief on his wife Eliza’s face as their son had breathed his last, and closed his eyes, trying not to imagine her expression if he, too, died in the same place.
“Are you well, my friend?” Nathaniel Pendleton asked him. One of Hamilton’s close friends, he had volunteered to act as second in this “affair of honor.”
Hamilton forced a smile he did not feel.
“Well enough, Nathaniel,” he said. “My bosom and I have been debating each other.”
The keel of the barge grated on the sand and gravel of the shoreline, and Hamilton rose and sprang lightly to the shoreline. A clear-cut path led up the bluff, and Pendleton and Dr. David Hosack started after Hamilton as he briskly climbed up. Hamilton turned at the sound of their steps and frowned.
“Doctor, you should wait with the barge and the rowers. You will be called if your services are needed,” he said.
Hosack nodded. Dueling was illegal in New Jersey, although it was not prosecuted as vigorously there as it was in New York. As the attending physician, he could be called on to testify in court if he actually watched the duel in progress. Granting the witnesses a level of deniability was customary in such affairs; the doctor always remained out of the line of sight, and the seconds turned their backs to the duelists.
When they reached the top, Hamilton found Colonel Burr and his seconds, William van Ness and Matthew Davis, as well as another man Hamilton did not know, had already arrived and cleared away the brush that had grown up that spring. Pendleton and van Ness conferred for a moment, then Hamilton and Burr drew for position. Hamilton won the draw and chose the high ground, facing across the river to the city. The sun was now well above the horizon, so that its glare would not blind him.
“Gentlemen, now is the moment. Should either of you wish to end this affair, you may do so now,” said William van Ness. “General Hamilton, will you apologize for your egregious insults to the honor of Colonel Burr?” During duels, it was customary to refer to one’s opponent by his military rank, if he had one.
“Had the Colonel confined his demands to a single remark, I might have been prevailed upon to consider an apology,” Hamilton said. “But what he has required is that I recant every opinion I have ever held of him and publicly expressed. That I cannot do and retain my honor. Will the Colonel modify his demand?”
Burr shook his head silently, refusing to meet his opponent’s eyes.
“Then we shall proceed,” said van Ness. “Do you have the weapons, Judge Pendleton?”
“I do,” replied Hamilton’s second, opening the portmanteau and presenting the well-oiled dueling pistols. Burr chose first, and Hamilton followed. The two men walked ten paces and turned to face each other.
“You may each have a moment to confer with your men,” said Davis.
Pendleton leaned in close to Hamilton.
“Do you wish to activate the hair-trigger?” he asked.
Hamilton thought for a moment and shook his head. He knew that each pistol contained a gear that made the trigger much more responsive, but he was more accustomed to the traditional heavy pull flintlocks required. Besides, he fully intended to throw away his shot, so aim would not matter.
But should he throw it away? This was the question that had raged through his thoughts ever since he had accepted Burr’s challenge. The Vice President was a dangerous man, a man whose ambitions boded ill for the country. If he killed Hamilton, it was quite possible the consequences of that deed would destroy Burr’s political prospects forever. But what if they did not? There was not a single Federalist leader who had Hamilton’s stature or connections. Jefferson detested Burr, to be sure – but Jefferson would not be President forever. Who would be left to check Burr’s path the Presidency if Hamilton died. James Madison? The diminutive Secretary of State was a brilliant man, but a poor politician. Burr was effortlessly ingratiating, a man who could easily persuade gullible people of his sincerity. His path to the Executive Mansion would be easier with Hamilton out of the way.
Still in an agony of indecision, Hamilton reached into his pocket and retrieved his spectacles. If he did decide to shoot, he thought, he wanted his aim to be true. He surveyed the ground one last time and nodded.
“Back to back, gentlemen,” van Ness said. The Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary took their positions. Pendleton, van Ness, and the others stepped away from them and turned their backs.
“I will count to ten, and then you may turn, face each other, and fire at will,” said Burr’s second. “One, two . . .”
As he marked off his paces, Hamilton’s mind was still racing. Finally, as van Ness got to the count of seven, he decided. He would let Burr shoot first, and then respond accordingly. Let God decide the outcome – if he died, then Burr was meant to go on to greater things. But if Burr missed -
“Ten!” Burr’s second said, and the two men turned. Burr’s face was twisted with wrath; he had been practicing with a pistol all week, and now he took deadly aim at his hated rival.
A shrill shriek broke the silence of the morning. It was only an osprey, stooping to catch a fish, but for that split second, to Alexander Hamilton, it sounded like the anguished scream Eliza had uttered the moment she saw Philip’s pale, stricken face after their son’s fatal duel. Hamilton swiveled his head to track the sound, and as he did so, his body rotated slightly.
The osprey saved his life. Burr’s bullet struck his side, penetrated his clothes, and glanced off his ribs, leaving a gash but doing no serious damage. The pain of the impact caused Hamilton to wince. He looked at his side, where the blood was already staining his jacket, and then looked down the field at Burr.
The man’s sneer slowly faded to shock as he realized that his shot had failed to finish his opponent. In that moment, Hamilton saw in Burr’s eyes the fury of the man’s ambition and folly suddenly giving way to fear. The former Treasury Secretary slowly clenched his jaw. Burr had indeed tried to kill him – and failed! In that moment, Hamilton saw all that he had nearly been robbed of – the love of Eliza, the best of wives and best of women, who had stood by him, forgiven him when he strayed, and comforted him in his grief when their son died. He saw Philip’s face, his beloved son, killed by one of Burr’s more scurrilous minions. His beloved mentor, the father figure who had raised him from obscurity and seated him at the right hand of power, George Washington, stood there in his mind, unbowed by age or sickness. Hamilton thought of himself as the guardian of Washington’s legacy, and he had nearly let Burr destroy that legacy. In that realization, he made up his mind.
He took careful aim at Aaron Burr’s heart, and pulled the trigger. Burr’s eyes widened as the bullet struck home, and the Vice President slowly sank to the ground. At the sound of the second shot, the seconds slowly turned around.
Van Ness quickly strode to Burr’s side and spoke his name. Burr opened his eyes briefly, and then they closed for the last time.
“General, are you all right?” Pendleton asked, his voice full of concern.
“His bullet grazed me, nothing more,” said Hamilton. “Let us go.”
A week later, the President of the United States sat down to the breakfast table with his Secretary of State, James Madison. Jefferson’s red hair had gone grey in his later years, but his face was unlined and youthful still, and his gaze as piercing as ever.
“Can we somehow hold Hamilton accountable?” asked Madison.
“That would be most difficult,” said Jefferson. “Burr shot first, he shot to kill, and Hamilton, by all the codes of honor, was fully justified in returning fire. Not only that, but the fact that I had already made up my mind to replace Burr as Vice President will be cited as evidence that I agreed with Hamilton’s assessment of his character.”
“So Hamilton is still a force to be reckoned with, then?” Madison said. “That is most unfortunate. Without him, the Federalists are a motley crew of miscellaneous dissidents. But with his mind and pen to guide them, they can easily become a potent threat.”
“I do not doubt that he aspires to occupy the chair where I now sit,” Jefferson said. “He might have been here already, were it not for his feud with Adams and his involvement with Mrs. Reynolds.”
“Surely the electors would never choose as President a man who is a self-confessed adulterer and killer!” said Madison.
“America is changing,” said the President, rising and sipping his coffee. “It is a change you and I have worked for, putting the choice for the next President more into the hands of the people and less into those of the political elites. Hamilton will not run against me this fall – it is too soon. He will bide his time. I imagine he will campaign for the Senate in two years, and from there establish a platform from which he can step into the Presidency. The people love a man who is willing to defend his personal honor, and who is humble enough to confess his sins publicly and seek forgiveness. We should never have threatened to expose Hamilton’s affair! The ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’ may have hurt him in the short term, but over time his honesty will be remembered above his indiscretions.”
Madison sighed, and walked to the window, looking out on the capitol city. Washington, DC, was still a work in progress – stumps stuck out of its muddy streets, and half the buildings were unfinished. But the seeds of the Republic had been planted there already, and were beginning to bear fruit. Jefferson came up behind his friend and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“I will admit, Thomas, I had hoped to succeed you in the Presidential chair,” Madison said wistfully.
“You may do it yet,” said Jefferson. “But first you will have to face the candidacy of Alexander Hamilton.”