“A duel? Alex, how could you!?”
The smack of Eliza’s hand across his cheek echoed through the house like a thunderclap. They had been married for nearly twenty-five years, and Hamilton had seen his wife hurt, angry, mournful, happy, and excited, but the emotion that blazed from her eyes was one he had never seen before. It was pure rage; a towering fury that made him shrink back from her, combat veteran though he was. His cheek reddened from the resounding slap she’d given him, but her words hurt far worse than the blow he had taken.
“Our son died in one of those stupid, stupid ‘affairs of honor,’ and now you dare to go and engage in one yourself?” she shouted, her normally pale-tinted face flush with anger. “What would I have done if you had died? How could you even think about such a thing? To rob me of my husband, after fate has already stolen our sweet Philip from me? Do you think that I could possibly live without you?”
She burst into tears, but her gaze remained fixed on him and her anger did not relent.
“My dear Betsy,” he said, calling her by the pet name she loved. “Please forgive me. Honor required -”
“Bugger your honor!!” she shouted, and he flinched. He had never once, in all their years together, heard her use that phrase. She grabbed the sides of his head and tilted it downward so that their eyes were locked.
“I am sorry,” he began, but she placed her hand over his lips.
“I love you beyond all reason,” she said fervently. “I have borne your children, I have stood by your side even when you betrayed your vows to me. I have counted myself blessed to be wed to the most brilliant man on earth. I did not complain when you paid more attention to my sister than you did to me. I have endured, I have forgiven, and I have always been proud to be your wife. But I want you to swear a vow to me, here and now, Alex, that you will never fight in another duel. No matter what the provocation, no matter how deep the insult cuts, you will NEVER do this to me again. Because if you do, I will leave, and I will take our children with me. It will break my heart, and it will probably kill me – but I will do it. I cannot bear the thought of losing you. Am I clear? Will you promise me?”
“My dear heart, I could never refuse you,” he said. “This was the end. Enough is enough, as they say. I will toss these pistols into the Hudson tomorrow, and never own another set.”
She stared into his eyes for a long moment, trying to measure his words and the spirit behind them. Finally, she sighed deeply, and the anger in her eyes began to fade.
“Then we shall speak of this no more,” she said, “but I meant what I said. Do not forget that, my sweet, irreplaceable Hamilton!”
With that she threw her arms around him, and he winced even as he returned her embrace.
“Oh, Alex, you are hurt!” she said.
“Burr’s bullet grazed my ribs,” he said. “It is but a flesh wound.”
Doctor Hosack had bound the wound tightly before they left Weehawken, but the blood had soaked through the bandage and stained the clean shirt Alex had donned after the duel. The gash in his side was not deep, but it was painful.
“We’ll see about that,” Eliza said. “Up to the bedroom with you! Junior, fetch me hot water and some clean washcloths, please!”
Alex’s second son and namesake was eighteen years old and bore a distinct resemblance to his father, although he was not as much of a prodigy as his father and older brother had been. He had been listening to his parents’ quarrel from the door to the drawing room; and now he ran to the kitchen to follow his mother’s command.
Hamilton let himself be led upstairs. He was still shaken enough by the events of the morning and the unexpected fury his bride had directed at him that he dared not resist. Eliza set him down on the edge of the bed and used a sharp penknife to cut through the white linen that bound him around the chest, exposing the wound to the noonday light streaming in from the window.
The bullet wound was a bit worse than he realized at first – an ugly gash about four inches long, still seeping blood around its edges. The skin had been peeled back by the ball’s passage, and Hamilton realized that he could actually see the white bone of one of his ribs exposed.
“I’m sorry,” he managed to say before turning his head and throwing up the glass of brandy he’d accepted to steady his nerves after the duel. He had seen men killed, and done his share of killing, as a young man during the Revolution, but seeing one’s own bones shining in the light of day was a bit too much for him. As young Alex cleaned up the mess, Eliza busied herself wiping the wound down with hot water and new linens. There were tears streaming down her cheeks as she worked.
“My Hamilton,” she said after a moment, her voice catching. “A matter of an inch or so and you might have been lost to me forever! What were you thinking? Was Mister Burr so vile to you that you were left with no choice?”
Alex sat up, his head still swimming but the nausea gone for the moment. He leaned forward and kissed his dear bride on her forehead, his own tears falling onto her upturned face and mingling with hers.
“Oh, Eliza, my honor is dear to me, but not so much as you!” he said. “I will say this much, and then speak of this matter no more. Aaron Burr was a great threat to our Republic; he was the American Catiline, and I had to act the part of Cicero without the powers of a consul. I baited him, and he challenged me. But, as God is my witness, I let him take the first shot! I gave him every chance to abandon his challenge, and instead he did his best to kill me. I was not going to return fire, but when I thought of all that I had nearly lost – I could not help myself. I took my shot, and I killed a man. I killed the Vice President of the United States. Now I must ponder what to do next. Burr is not without friends, you know. I am afraid this matter is not settled yet.”
“Do what you must, dear husband,” Eliza said as she wound clean strips of cloth around his midsection. “But remember my words! No more duels, ever, or you will lose me and the children, whether you survive or not.”
“Then my dueling pistols will be retired permanently,” he said. “I have risked all once; I will not do so again. From now on, words will be my only weapons.”
Hamilton stood so that his wife could finish applying the bandage, and then reached into his wardrobe for a clean shirt and waistcoat. He looked down at his trousers and saw that his blood had dripped down onto them, too, so he returned to the wardrobe and retrieved a complete change of clothes and began to get dressed.
“You need to lie down!” Eliza said. “You’ve lost a good deal of blood, and that wound will reopen if you strain yourself.”
“I must speak to someone,” Alex said. “It is a short walk, and when I am done, I promise to return and spend the remainder of the day resting.”
“You should let it wait,” she gently scolded him.
“Eliza – I must do this,” he said firmly. “My conscience will not let me rest until I do.”
“Your conscience?” his wife asked.
Hamilton bowed his head, and then opened his heart to his wife.
“I killed a man, Betsy,” he said. “Not in the heat of battle, or under the moral cloak of a just war for one’s country. I stared down the barrel of a pistol and pulled the trigger and watched his spirit leave his body. I need to know . . .” He hesitated and swallowed hard. “I need to know if my soul will be damned for all eternity as a murderer,” he finished.
He retrieved his walking stick from the corner and gingerly made his way downstairs and thence out onto the street. He could hear the hue and cry of the great city of New York as it sprawled out around him, the fastest-growing city in America, and his adoptive home for thirty years now. It was a short walk from his house to Trinity Church, and the rectory where Bishop Benjamin Moore lived was right next door.
The news of the duel had spread rapidly, and a news crier was standing on the corner selling a special edition of The National Gazette, the Republican newspaper once edited by Philip Freneau.
“Vice President Burr Murdered by the Monarchist Alexander Hamilton!” the crier proclaimed. “Read all about it! General Hamilton guns down Burr in cold blood!”
On the next corner, a rival news crier for Hamilton’s New York Daily Post was touting the alternative version of the story.
“Aaron Burr nearly kills Secretary Hamilton! Vice President killed in self-defense after shooting the Federalist leader!” the newsboy screamed out.
Hamilton took little note of either of them; the fact that Burr had shot first and wounded him rendered Alex legally untouchable. Duelists were occasionally prosecuted in New York, but when they were, it was invariably the person who shot first and killed his foe that drew the ire of prosecutors. As for New Jersey, where the fatal encounter had taken place, dueling was also illegal there, but prosecutions were quite rare. Hamilton was more concerned about the judgment of a much higher authority, and that was what drove him to the rectory despite the aching wound in his side.
Trinity Church was the tallest structure in New York City, its central spire rising two hundred feet into the air. There was a large burial ground in the back; Hamilton’s son Philip was interred there. As Alex surveyed the modest marker that he and Eliza had placed over his son’s grave, he swallowed hard and touched the throbbing bullet gash in his side. A matter of inches, and his own grave would have been dug there, next to Philip’s. He imagined how different life in New York – indeed in America – might be if Burr’s bullet had found its mark. Would anyone remember Alexander Hamilton, if he died now? Perhaps his tenure as treasury secretary might earn him a footnote in the history books, but Alex had little doubt that had he perished that morning, as Burr intended, his legacy would have been small and soon forgotten. No more, he swore to himself! America had not heard the last of Alexander Hamilton. His life’s work was not yet finished.
Benjamin Moore was a tall, long-nosed Episcopal bishop of the traditional sort; his sermons were longwinded and pedantic, but he had a solid grasp of doctrine and was a sound scholar of the Christian faith. The Hamiltons rented a pew in Trinity Church and attended services occasionally, even though Alexander was not an Episcopalian. It was, however, the closest church to their modest Wall Street home. Beyond that, Alex liked the man, pure and simple, and had ever since the first time he met him.
“General Hamilton?” Moore said when he came to the door. “Good afternoon, sir, what may I do for you?”
“I take it you have not heard the news, then?” Hamilton asked him.
“I have been in my study, preparing my Sunday sermon,” Moore replied. “I have heard no news of anything today.”
Hamilton sighed and summoned up his most engaging smile.
“I need to speak with you at length, sir,” he said. “May I come in?”
“Of course, General,” the bishop said. He was a courtly gentleman, only six years older than Hamilton, but he carried himself with the dignity of a venerable greybeard. “It was inconsiderate of me to leave you standing on my doorstep.”
Hamilton entered and sat down on a comfortable, padded chair near the fireplace. Since it was high summer, there was no fire, but the drawing room was comfortable, well-lit, and inviting. Bishop Moore called for tea, and the maid brought in a steaming pot and two cups a few moments later. Hamilton gratefully took a sip and then leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes for a moment. All the adrenalin that had fueled him since he woke long before dawn was spent, and he felt exhausted.
“So, what brings such a noteworthy person to my door on this fine Wednesday afternoon?” the bishop finally asked.
“I killed a man today,” Hamilton said, too weary for pretense. “I shot Vice President Burr. He had challenged me to a duel, and I would not retract my assessment of his character, so I met him at Weehawken this morning. I had fully intended to throw away my shot, but when he fired first, his bullet grazed me and but for sheerest chance would have killed me. At that moment I returned fire and struck him in the heart. Sir, I am a military man, as you know. I personally killed men during the Revolution, and I felt that the righteousness of our cause removed the stain of that sin from me. But this was different. I looked at Colonel Burr down the barrel of my pistol and pulled the trigger and sent him to his grave. My conscience is deeply troubled.”
“It should be,” said Moore. “Murder is a mortal sin, my friend, and dueling is nothing short of legalized murder. It is a holdover from an age of barbarism and savagery and has no place in a civilized society.”
Hamilton nodded sadly. He knew that Moore had publicly condemned dueling from the pulpit on more than one occasion.
“I have not always been a good man, Bishop Moore,” he said. “But I have tried hard, in my latter years, to atone for the sins of my youth and to be a good Christian. I’ve tried to become a better man. I have raised my children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and read the Bible to them every day. I pray with them every morning, and I spend my own time in prayer each day. You are a man of God, sir, deeply read in the Holy Scriptures. In your learned opinion, have I damned my soul by doing this?”
“You have sinned, there is no doubt, General,” he said. “You have killed another man in a violent affair that we dubiously call a matter of honor. I cannot think that God is pleased with what you have done. But I also believe that even the worst of sinners is not beyond redemption. While the Holy Writ teaches us that grace is given, not earned by our own works, I do believe that there is something to be said for making restitution for our sins. God accepts the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart, General Hamilton. Is your heart grieved that you have done this?”
“It is,” Hamilton nodded as he spoke. “I had no desire to kill Colonel Burr when we rowed out to Weehawken. But it was obvious that he had every intention of killing me. If I had thrown away my shot, I am sure he would have demanded another round of fire, and another. I could see my death in his eyes, and I killed him to save my own life. I was thinking of my wife and children at that moment, more than anything. I wanted to live for their sakes, and the only way to do that was for me to pull the trigger.”
The Bishop sighed, and rose from his seat, staring out the window into the busy New York streets. He remained silent for a long moment, and then spoke again.
“I cannot absolve you from this, General Hamilton,” he said. “But you can atone for what you have done, I think. You say that the Vice President fired first, and that he intended to kill you. Were you struck?”
“Yes,” Hamilton said. “The bullet grazed my side. An inch or two more, and it would have gone through my vitals.”
“Then God spared you for a reason,” Moore said. “His purpose for your life is not yet accomplished. Redemption remains possible. I would say to you, though – do not squander the second chance you have been given! Humble yourself before the Lord and seek His purpose for the life that remains to you. God does not hide His will from us, Alexander. If he has some object you are intended to achieve, He will lay it before you. Be attentive and listen for His voice. I do not think the gates of heaven are shut before you because of this one act.”
Hamilton nodded and rose with a groan. The wound was positively throbbing now, as if someone was jabbing him in the side with a red-hot fireplace poker.
“Are you well, General?” the Bishop asked. “Do you need me to call you a carriage?”
“I will be fine,” Hamilton said. “The wound is painful, but not serious. My home is not far distant; I prithee come and visit me soon. Help me seek the will of Christ for the rest of my life.”
“I will gladly do that,” said Moore. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost; how can I do any less? And you, neglect not the Lord’s house on Sundays!”
“I’ll be here as often as I can,” said Hamilton. “That I promise.”
With that he rose and made his way to the door, grateful he had brought his walking stick. The late afternoon skies were bright and clear; the day had gone from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably hot, and Hamilton’s vision was swimming. As he made his way up the street, he saw people pointing and whispering. The word of Burr’s death had spread like wildfire through the city, thanks to the intense competition between political newspapers. He was not afraid; he had braved angry mobs all over New York when he battled the powerful Clinton faction during the debate on ratifying the new U.S. Constitution in the summer of 1788. Besides, Alex knew that Burr was not as popular with New Yorkers as he had been a few years previously – the man’s constantly shifting political allegiances had disillusioned many of his supporters.
“Hamilton!” a familiar voice called. It was Pendleton, his second from the morning’s affair. “Egad, Alex, are you all right? You look as white as a sheet!”
“I am well enough, Nathaniel,” he said, “but I am very weary, and this wound is paining me. Will you walk with me to my door?”
“Gladly,” his friend said. “The city is all abuzz regarding this morning’s duel. Burr’s faction is trying to paint you as a murderer, but most people don’t seem to be buying into that idea. The fact that he shot first, and struck you, shows that you acted in self-defense. I think you will have no legal worries.”
“That is comforting,” Hamilton said. “I wish my own conscience would let me off as easily. I tell you, Nathaniel, as dangerous as Burr was, I still would undo this entire confrontation if I could. The Vice President’s death is on my hands, morally speaking, even if I am not legally culpable.”
“You said nothing of Burr that was not true,” Pendleton told him.
“I know,” Hamilton said. “The man was dangerously ambitious. But I wish there had been another way to end our dispute. Here, help me up the steps, please.”
They had arrived at Hamilton’s house as they spoke, but Alex found he simply did not have the energy to mount the few steps up to the front door. Pendleton took him by the arm and let Alex lean on him. Eliza was already opening the front door by the time they got to the top step.
“Alex!” she said, and he could tell she had been weeping while he was gone. ‘Heart of mine, are you well?”
He summoned up the strength to smile, even though the room was spinning all around him. Her eyes anchored him, and his love for her was like a lifeline in a storm.
“I am absolutely fine, my love,” he said, and then fell headfirst into the front corridor. He was saved from smashing his face on the floor only by Eliza catching him and breaking his fall.
“Mister Pendleton, please fetch us a doctor!” she exclaimed. “Junior! James! Help me get your father into bed!”
Hamilton protested feebly as his wife and sons half carried him up the stairs, but he no longer had the strength to stand alone. Alex Junior held him upright as Eliza stripped off his waistcoat and shirt. Both were stained with blood, and his bandage was soaked.
“Whatever it was, it could have waited!” Eliza snapped. “You have reopened your wound. Now lay back and be still. James, get me hot water and more clean kerchiefs.”
“I will be fine, I am sure,” Hamilton said, and then darkness closed in around him.