Okay, technically, there is a major PLOT SPOILER BELOW if you haven’t seen the play or watched the filmed version of “Hamilton” on Disney+, so this is your chance to leave RIGHT NOW.
That was your public service announcement that Alexander Hamilton was shot to death by Aaron Burr, then the Vice President, 216 years ago this past weekend. The fatal shot was fired about 7 a.m. on July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, N.J. It was a Wednesday, sunny and a little breezy.
The Library has a huge collection of Hamilton’s papers, more than 12,000 items, including dozens of letters and writings that made their way directly or indirectly into the musical. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden live-Tweeted the show last night, showcasing many of the Library’s holdings. The papers show that Hamilton’s life was much different than the play.
The quick version: Broadway musicals aren’t documentaries. The actual first secretary of the Treasury was opposed to slavery but not as vehemently as he is on stage; he and Burr moved in many of the same circles but their careers were not as intertwined as the play has it; and he was much more of an elitist than the hero of common man, as playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays him.
Still, much of the play really is based on history, particularly the 2004 Ron Chernow biography “Alexander Hamilton,” which, in turn, draws in part on Library documents. This brings us to one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the play, in which Alexander says goodbye to his beloved wife Eliza for the last time.
Although Eliza destroyed nearly all of their letters before she died (perhaps the inspiration for the “I’m erasing myself from the narrative,” line she says in the play), some letters do survive. These show that there was romantic passion throughout their 24-year marriage, which produced eight children. Although he infamously had an extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds — thus, “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” in 1797 — the couple conceived two children after that and remained devoted partners, hosting parties together even in the last week of his life. Their youngest child was just two when he was killed.
Hamilton, of course, did not tell Eliza or hardly anyone else of the impending duel with Burr, as was the custom. Burr and Hamilton had been social acquaintances, if not quite friends, for more than two decades. They had very different political views and had often clashed in that arena. After Hamilton had scuttled some of Burr’s political opportunities, he also made disparaging remarks about Burr’s character in the spring of 1804. This eventually made its way into the papers. Burr demanded an apology or retraction, which Hamilton peevishly declined to do. (They really did sign their letters to one another “Your obedient servant.”)
Burr then challenged him to a duel, a formal event that had, like any other social function, a required etiquette. (Thus in the play, the “10 Dual Commandments.”) As the date of the duel approached, Hamilton wrote Eliza two letters that were to be given to her only if “I shall first have terminated my earthly career.” The first of these was dated July 4; the second, at 10 p.m. on July 10, the night before the duel.
In the first, Hamilton writes that he had to show up for the duel because his honor compelled him to do so: “If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem.”
In the second, according to the transcription at the National Archives, he says that his Christian faith required him to throw away his shot and make no attempt to harm Burr. “The Scrup(les of a Christian have deter)mined me to expose my own li(fe to any) extent rather than subject my s(elf to the) guilt of taking the life of (another.)” Should he die, he urged her to “remember that you are a Christian. God’s Will be done! The will of a merciful God must be good.”
The next morning in Weehawken, on a small ledge just above the river and at the base of a high bluff, Hamilton fired a shot several feet to the right and a dozen feet above Burr, hitting a tree limb, according to Chernow’s account. Burr shot Hamilton in the abdomen.
The ball crashed through a rib, went through his liver and stuck in his spine. Hamilton gasped, “I am a dead man” and collapsed. He lapsed in and out of consciousness while being rowed back across the Hudson River to New York. He was taken to a friend’s mansion, his family rushing to his side. He was partially paralyzed by then. At one point, Eliza lined up all of their children at the foot of his bed so that he could see them one last time, Chernow writes. He died the day after the shooting.
So we can imagine Eliza’s state of grief when she opened these letters, her husband either dying or dead. The most famous excerpt is the closing line from the July 4 letter: “Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me. Ever yours, A.H.”
Miranda dramatized that last line. In the scene, it is the dead of the night, a few hours before the duel. Eliza awakens to find Alexander writing. She asks him to come back to bed, but he explains he has a meeting at dawn. “Hey,” he says fondly, as she turns to go back to bed, “best of wives and best of women.”
In the play (although not in history), it is the last thing he says to her.
He wasn’t yet 50.
Miranda, writing in “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a coffee-table book that reprints the play’s lyrics alongside his footnotes, says of that heartbreaking moment: “I wept the whole time I wrote this scene.”
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