“Hamilton” — About Alexander and Eliza’s Last Goodbye

Alexander Hamilton. Painting: John Trumbull. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

(Pauses.)

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.

Elizabeth Hamilton, nee Elizabeth Schuyler. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.”

Closing lines of Hamilton’s farewell letter to his wife, before being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. “Adieu best of wives and best of Women.” Manuscript Division.

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11 Comments

  1. Rohit Gupta
    July 13, 2020 at 11:34 am

    Neely, thanks for sharing these amazing pieces of information.
    We have discussed the lives of Hamilton, Eliza and Burr at the dining room table almost every day since July 3, when Disney released Hamilton. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Heidi Ziemer
    July 13, 2020 at 11:44 am

    Hello and thanks for the wonderful message about Hamilton’s final day alive – saw the musical and I believe Miranda was pretty accurate in his portrayal of Hamilton and the rest – I have also read “The Founders on the Founders” (Kaminski), a collection of their letters to and about each other. Hamilton did despise Burr and as you say, was an elitist – though I think extreme sensitivity about his background may be more the cause of that. And don’t forget, in the musical, many of his statements about slavery were made among friends and colleagues and not public pronouncements – the stage makes it seem they were more public than they were! As Miranda writes, “who tells your story” makes all the difference in perceptions!

  3. Neely Tucker
    July 13, 2020 at 11:49 am

    So glad you enjoyed it. Fun (and sad) to write. He likely would have lived another 20-25 years. Sigh.

  4. Pat
    July 14, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    I am a direct (5) generations of Nathaniel Pendleton, Hamilton’s second in the duel. My family has been long interested in the history so of course THIS is an interesting article. Thank you!

  5. Neely Tucker
    July 14, 2020 at 6:29 pm

    Such a cool family connection!

  6. Gale
    July 14, 2020 at 11:11 pm

    In the Phila.production Eliza sings ” I will see you in Heaven” a powerful ending. But it was not in the filmed version. Does anyone know why?

  7. Jacqueline A Swarthout
    July 15, 2020 at 12:10 am

    I love history and i love this article. The gift of Hamilton on Disney+ has made me so happy and i am reading about him and and singing the songs from Hamilton and just getting so much out of the musical and writers like you doing articles about him and his life.

  8. Frances
    July 15, 2020 at 12:36 am

    Thank you so much for this! I’m loving learning so much more since watching this musical. Thank you!!

  9. Muriel Baskerville
    July 15, 2020 at 6:12 am

    Thank you for this information. This play, and finally seeing it on Disney, has spurred a tremendous amount of interest among family, friends, colleagues, and me to explore the American Revolution story even further.

  10. Neely Tucker
    July 15, 2020 at 12:39 pm

    Hi Gale,
    This is interesting. In short, I don’t. All productions are slightly different, even from night to night, of course. For what it’s worth, the “I’ll see you in heaven” line isn’t in the original soundtrack or in the printed version of the lyrics in “Hamilton: The Revolution.” Then again, the gasp that ends the Disney film (and the DC production that I saw) isn’t in there, either.
    Your obedient servant,
    Neely

  11. Gary Mason
    July 15, 2020 at 5:24 pm

    Two genius,but what Hamilton wrote about burr’s daughter, was a bad decision. Be careful about our words,make them short and sweet,I’m sure I’ll have eat

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