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My Beloved Eliza: The Final Letters from Alexander Hamilton to his Wife

Hamilton-Burr

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr, 1756-1836, bust portrait. Engraving by G. Parker of painting by John Vanderlyn. (New York, 1836). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b00529. Alexander Hamilton, 1757-1804, half-length portrait.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b37446.

On the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton met in Weehawken, New Jersey for a duel that would prove fatal for Alexander Hamilton. Burr was outraged over derogatory comments made by Hamilton regarding Burr’s character at a dinner hosted by Judge John Tayler in March of 1804. These comments were recorded by a Dr. Charles D. Cooper who sent off an account to his friend, stating that Hamilton described Burr as a “dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted.” These comments were ultimately published in the New-York Evening Post. Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, responded by drafting a letter insisting that Hamilton had pledged to remain neutral in the upcoming New York gubernatorial election in which Burr was a candidate, and that Hamilton could not have made the comments about Burr that were attributed to him. Dr. Cooper, annoyed by the implication that he had invented the story, responded by affirming his comments, declaring that he had been cautious in recounting them, and stating “for really, sir, I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

Weeks after his defeat in the New York gubernatorial election, Burr channeled his rage into a series of letters with Hamilton, demanding that Hamilton disavow the comment attributed to him that impugned Burr’s character. Hamilton’s legalistic response did little to placate Burr, with Hamilton insisting that Burr recount specific, offensive observations he had made about Burr’s character, which he would then affirm or deny. The men who would ultimately serve as seconds in the duel, William Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton, also shuttled back and forth between the principals in a vain attempt to negotiate a settlement to the matter.

Correspondence between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton from The New York Evening Post as printed in The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser. (Washington City [D.C.]), 23 July 1804. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045242/1804-07-23/ed-1/seq-2/

Click on the image to read correspondence between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton from The New York Evening Post as printed in The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser. (Washington City [D.C.]), 23 July 1804. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress,  //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045242/1804-07-23/ed-1/seq-2/.

With efforts to peacefully resolve the matter at an impasse, the combatants arranged to meet on the dueling ground of Weehawken for an affair of honor. Alexander Hamilton believed dueling to be a barbarous practice, but he could not refuse to participate in the duel without being branded a coward, a stigma that would forfeit his ability to command respect in public life. Torn between his principled opposition to the practice and a (chivalric) code of honor that demanded a gentleman maintain his social standing by demonstrating courage in the face of death, Hamilton resolved to participate in the duel, but to throw away his first shot. Hamilton communicated his intention to Nathaniel Pendleton and Rufus King and documented it in a letter.  But it does not seem that this intention was communicated to Aaron Burr.

On the morning of July 11, the principals, seconds, and Dr. David Hosack were rowed along the Hudson River to the dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, a site chosen due to New Jersey’s more lenient treatment of dueling. True to his convictions, Hamilton fired into the woods. Burr fired his shot and hit his mark, striking Hamilton in the abdomen.  Immediately realizing the gravity of his injury, Hamilton declared, “I am a dead man,” before falling to the ground. Pendleton then called for Dr. Hosack, who attended Hamilton as he was rowed back to New York. Hamilton briefly rallied, long enough to tell Hosack, “Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for. Let the event be gradually broken to her, but give her hopes.” After arriving in New York, Hamilton was taken to a mansion owned by William Bayard, where he died.

Burr-Hamilton Duel

Detail from a print of The Burr and Hamilton duel, 11 July, 1804, at Weehawken, N.J. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b23125.

These two letters from Alexander Hamilton to his wife, Elizabeth, were written during the week preceding the duel, with instructions that they should only be delivered if “I shall first have terminated my earthly career.” The letters explain Hamilton’s reason for participating in the duel and his determination to maintain his religious convictions by sparing the life of Aaron Burr.

A letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, dated July 4, 1804. Transcript available at http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0248

A letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, dated July 4, 1804. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Transcript available courtesy of the National Archives at http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0248.

A letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, dated July 10, 1804. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Transcript available at http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0262

Part one of a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, dated July 10, 1804. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Transcript available courtesy of the National Archives at http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0262.

Part two of a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, dated July 10, 1804. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Transcript available at http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0262

Part two of a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, dated July 10, 1804. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Transcript available courtesy of the National Archives at http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0262.

 

Sources consulted:
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
The Alexander Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress Manuscripts Division

10 Comments

  1. Amy Trout Hughes
    September 19, 2016 at 11:29 am

    I was a tour guide at the Library in the mid-1990s and will never forget seeing such joy on visitors’ faces as they saw the treasures of the LOC! I met so many special people doing research for books, movies, articles and their own personal education.

    You all are the keepers of amazing memories and treasures of our country. Thank you for the work you continue to do.

  2. Gautham Rao
    September 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Thank you LOC for this wonderful content. The students in my Founding Fathers (?) course in the History Department at American University will be studying these letters tomorrow in conjunction with the lyrics from Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.

  3. Patti Myers
    September 26, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    How heartbreaking it is to see this letter, surely one of the last things Alexander Hamilton wrote, after a lifetime filled with writing; it moves me to tears. I cannot come close to imagining his state of mind as he wrote his farewell to his “darling darling wife” on the eve of the infamous duel. Thank you for preserving this and so many other treasured documents of our history, and giving us the opportunity to connect so intimately with our founders.

  4. Missy Hawes
    May 24, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    I cannot tell what the letters are saying. Do you think it is possible to update this page with the letter ty[ed out so that one may be able to read it?

  5. Robert Brammer
    May 30, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Thanks for your question. Underneath each scanned letter, you will find a link to a transcript by the National Archives.

  6. Chloe Vasas-Anderson
    November 10, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    I cry every time I read through these. They cared so much about each other. Alexander didn’t want this, to put Eliza through such pain. He states in the letter that it physically and mentally hurts him to do this because he knew Aaron Burr was truly set out to get him. He knew he probably wouldn’t make it out alive. He tried to stay alive, he tried hard enough to stay alive for another 31 hours. He wanted to see his seven children again, his sister-in-law and his father-in-law. He hadn’t grown up with much of a family so he cherished what he had. If he didn’t accept the duel he would’ve been called a coward and he cared a whole lot about his reputation. He just wanted the best for his family and himself and I honestly don’t blame him.

  7. Macy
    January 14, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    after reading into the history of alexander hamilton and the duel it breaks my heart to read these letters. Even after destroying Eliza’s trust with the reynolds pamphlet, he expresses his love to his dear wife; knowing he won’t make it out of the duel alive.

  8. kathy clewell
    February 20, 2018 at 1:40 am

    I also have a hard time reading the letters. They are an amazing piece of American history. If a translation of the letter could be typed and available to read- it would be appreciated

  9. Robert Brammer
    February 20, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Thanks for your question. Underneath each scanned letter, you will find a link to a transcript by the National Archives.

  10. yaboi
    August 24, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Maybe this would be good if you could actually read the letters, but you can’t so what is the point of having

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