Thrust out of influence, bankrupt in purse and prospects, politically discarded by the State and national Republican party, his Federal coalition a failure, Burr now sought a desperate revenge. Of all men none had so marred his fortune as Hamilton, his rival at the bar, and constant enemy. Of Hamilton's exposures in 1801 he knew something. On this State campaign Hamilton had resolutely held back his fellow-Federalists by a similar course, while avoiding the canvass as much as possible. Unable to make specific charges, Burr demanded imperiously of Hamilton a broad disavowal of all offensive expressions concerning him, or else the satisfaction usual among gentlemen.
Finding Burr inflexible, Hamilton chose the latter alternative; reason and conscience protesting against an encounter to which his romantic sense of honor impelled him and which he hoped to justify by sparing in any event the life of the man who sought his blood. He was not without presentiment that he would be a victim; and Burr, who felt no compunction, practised carefully at a mark to make sure of it. The duel, postponed to an opportunity mutually convenient, took place in the gray of a July morning, on the Jersey shore. The parties were prompt with their seconds and attendants. On the signal Burr raised his arm, took aim with coolness and precision, and shot Hamilton in the right side. Hamilton's pistol went off in the air as if involuntarily, and he fell upon his face mortally wounded. On the same ground, and nearly on the same spot, fell Hamilton's eldest son, in a miserable political duel, three years before. Burr fled; his fainting victim was conveyed across the river by boat once more; and in the house of his second, after suffering great agony of mind and body, he expired the next day.
Thus, unhappily, was flung away one of the most vivacious spirits ever yet vouchsafed to this New World. Hamilton's soaring greatness, his energy, his fertility in resources, and the faults of his remarkable character we have sought to depict. As his views on political subjects were exprest plainly in writing on every emergency, exploring from top to bottom, so to speak, and his writings have been published, only they need misunderstand Hamilton at this day, who rely upon the exaggerated phrase of contemporaries, of those on the one hand who felt that the Union could not endure with him, and of those on the other who were assured that it could not last without him.
No estimate, however, of Hamilton can be complete which fails to take into account the precocity of his intellect and the almost juvenile stage of that career which was so illustrious under all discouragements. This prodigy of executive ability; this Cæsar of a commonplace world, which yielded unfortunately for the scope of his powers, more to laws than to individuals; this financier, whose feats with the public credit had astonished two continents; this imperial soul, which had dwelt in near companionship to Washington; this statesman, who at thirty-five despised the subtle Jefferson, a man nearly fifty, who sought to bend that venerable oak, John Adams, who never doubted his own position among the wealthiest, the oldest in family influence, in a country upon which he had been cast, a waif this wonderful American reached the zenith of his public influence when about thirty, and died at forty-seven.
What might he not have accomplished, it may be asked, had he lived to devote his riper years to his fellow-countrymen? Not, we apprehend, a new and more brilliant public career. For the more that political power passed to the American mass, the more surely he was cut off from participating in it. Hamilton was fitted to rule a decaying, not to lead a rising republic. He was boldest in time of public danger, and only despaired when all was peace and safety, so that personal prowess was impossible. As Gouverneur Morris, his sympathetic friend and eulogist, felt compelled to admit, Hamilton was covetous of glory more than of wealth or power, and while conscious that a monarchy in America was unattainable, so constantly and indiscreetly avowed his attachment to it, that he cut himself off from all chance of rising into office. And it is certain that to Washington's personal friendship and protection he owed almost solely his political opportunities, the strongest partizans not daring to expose him to the test of the ballot. . . .
But an assassin's bullet stopt all opportunities for good or ill. Hamilton perished untimely; a disbeliever in national dismemberment, but to the last a dreamer, a fatalist, lamenting a political system which seemed poisoned with democracy, and recognizing it as his paramount duty to maintain the code of honor in view of emergencies which might later arise. A grand impulse to our national system, with consolidation as the corrective of a confederacy; liberal national powers; protection, force, and energy in the central government; financial stabilitythese were Hamilton's great legacy to the American Union.
Hamilton was idolized by his personal friends, his very frailties moving those to compassion who acknowledged his superior intellect; while Burr was regarded as a cold and heartless libertine. The duel and its fatal issue startled the public, so stealthy had been all the preparations. To Hamilton's followers it seemed a martyrdom; nor could Jefferson and his party resist the idea that the victim had fallen in their cause. Grief and indignation mingled in the funeral rites paid to his remains. His widow and young children left with an embarrassed property were relieved by a public subscription. Burr was pursued as a wilful murderer; indictments were found against him in New York and New Jersey; and such was the public feeling that he had to take temporary refuge in Georgia.
1 From Schouler's "History of the United States." By permission of Mr. Schouler, owner of the copyright, and of his publishers, Dodd, Mead & Co. Copyright 1880, 1891.
THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION