The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book V. The Last Battle of the Giants and the End
The challenge was delivered on Wednesday. Hamilton refused to withdraw his services from his clients in the midst of the Circuit Court, and July 11th, a fortnight later, was appointed for the meeting. When Hamilton was not busy with the important interests confided to him by his clients, he arranged his own affairs, and drew up a document for publication, in the event of his death, in which he stated that he had criticised Burr freely for years, but added that he bore him no ill-will, that his opposition had been for public reasons only, that his impressions of Burr were entertained with sincerity, and had been uttered with motives and for purposes which appeared to himself commendable. He announced his intention to throw away his fire, and gave this reason for yielding to a custom which he had held in avowed abhorrence: "The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular."
Burr spent several hours of each day in pistol practice, using the cherry trees of Richmond Hill as targets. Thurlow Weed, in his "Autobiography," has told of Burr's testament, written on the night before the duel. Having neither money nor lands, but an infinitude of debts, to bequeath his daughter, he left her a bundle of compromising letters from women. The writers moved in circles where virtue was held in esteem, and several were of the world of fashion. They had, with the instinct of self-defence, which animates women even in that stage where they idealize the man, omitted to sign their names. Burr supplied the omission in every case and added the present address. That Hamilton would throw away his fire was a possibility remote from the best effort of Burr's imagination, and although he knew that no one could fire more quickly than himself, he was not the man to go to the ground unprepared for emergencies: if his daughter, now Mrs. Alston, would obey his hint and blackmail, she might realize a pretty fortune. That Theodosia Burr, even with the incentive of poverty, would have sunk to such ignominy, no one who knows the open history of her short life will believe; but the father, whose idol she was, insulted her and stained her memory, too depraved and warped to understand nobility in anyone, least of all in one of his own blood. In the study of lost souls Burr has appealed to many analysts, and by no one has been made so attractive as by Harriet Beecher Stowe; who, knowing naught by experience of men of the world, either idealized them as interesting villains or transformed them into beasts. In Burr she saw the fallen angel, and bedewed him with many Christian tears. But I doubt if Burr, the inner and real Burr, had far to fall. His visible divergence from first conditions was as striking as, no doubt, it was natural. As the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the son of the Reverend Aaron Burr, and reared by relatives of that same morbid, hideous, unhuman school of early New England theology, it only needed a wayward nature in addition to brain and spirit to send him flying on his own tangent as soon as he was old enough to think. After that his congenital selfishness did the rest. For a time he climbed the hill of prizes very steadily, taking, once in a way, a flight, swift as an arrow: in addition to great ability at the bar, and a cunning which rose to the dignity of a talent, he was handsome, magnetic, well-bred, and polished, studied women with the precision of a vivisectionist, assumed emotions and impulses he could not feel with such dexterity that even men yielded to his fascination until they plumbed him; had in fact many of the fleeting kindly instincts to which every mortal is subject who is made of flesh and blood, or comes of a stock that has been bred to certain ideals. Every wretch has a modicum of good in him, and in spite of the preponderance of evil in Burr, had he been born under kindly Southern skies with a gold spoon in his mouth, if, when ambitions developed, he had had but to stretch out his hand to pluck the prizes of life, instead of exercising the basest talents of his brain to overreach more fortunate men, why it is possible that his nature might not have hardened into a glacier: its visible third dazzling and symmetrical, its deadly bulk skulking below the surface of the waters which divided the two parts of him from his victims; might have died in the chaste reclusion of an ancestral four-poster, beneficiaries at his side. But that immalleable mind lacked the strong fibre of logic and foresight--which is all that moral force amounts to--that lifts a man triumphant above his worst temptations; and he paid the bitter and hideous penalty in a poverty, loneliness, and living death that would have moved the theologians of his blood to the uneasy suspicion that punishment is of this earth, a logical sequence of foolish and short-sighted acts. Both men and women are allowed a great latitude in this world; they have little to complain of. It is only when the brain fails in its part, or the character is gradually undermined by lying and dishonour, that the inevitable sequence is some act which arouses the indignation of society or jerks down the iron fist of the law. When Burr took to the slope he slid with few haltings. In his long life of plottings and failures, from his sympathy with the Conway Cabal to his desperate old age, there were no depths of blackguardism that he did not touch. Whether Madame Jumel spoke the truth or not to Hamilton on that night of their last interview, it was entirely in keeping with his life and character that he should kill for hire.
On the Fourth of July, the Society of the Cincinnati gave its annual dinner. This society, then the most distinguished in the Union, and membered by men who had fought in the War of Independence, had, upon the death of Washington, their first President, elected Hamilton to the vacant office. He presided at this banquet, and never had appeared nor felt happier. Not only did that peculiar exaltation which precedes certain death possess him, as it possesses all men of mettle and brain in a like condition, but the philosophy which had been born in him and ruled his imagination through life had shrugged its shoulders and accepted the inevitable. Hamilton knew that his death warrant had been signed above, and he no longer experienced a regret, although he had often felt depressed and martyred when obliged to go to the courts of Albany and leave his family behind him. He had lost interest in his body; his spirit, ever, by far, the strongest and the dominant part of him, seemed already struggling for its freedom, arrogant and blithe as it approached its final triumph. There is nothing in all life so selfish as death; and the colossal ego which genius breeds or is bred out of, isolated Hamilton even more completely than imminent death isolates most men. The while he gave every moment he could spare to planning the future comfort and welfare of his family, he felt as if he had already bade them farewell, and wondered when and how he should meet them again.
At this gathering he was so gay and sportive that he infected the great company, and it was the most hilarious banquet in the society's history. The old warriors sighed, and wondered at his eternal youth. When he sprang upon the table and sang his old camp-song, "The Drum," he looked the boy they remembered at Valley Forge and Morristown. There was only one member of the company who was unelectrified by the gay abandon of the evening, and his sombre appearance was so marked in contrast that it was widely commented on afterward. Burr frequently leaned forward and stared at Hamilton in amazement. As the hilarity waxed, his taciturnity deepened, and he finally withdrew.
The secret was well kept. Few knew of the projected meeting, and none suspected it, although Burr's pistol practice aroused some curiosity. He had been a principal in a number of duels, and killed no one. But he was known to have more than one bitter score to pay, for this last campaign had exceeded every other in heat and fury. So many duels had studded it, and so many more impended, that the thinking men of the community were roused to a deep disapproval of the custom. The excitement and horror over the sacrifice of Hamilton, full-blew this sentiment.
On Saturday, Hamilton gave a dinner at the Grange, and a guest was one of Washington's first aides, Colonel Trumbull. As he was leaving, Hamilton took him aside and said, with an emphasis which impressed Trumbull even at the moment: "You are going to Boston. You will see the principal men there. Tell them from me, as my request, for God's sake to cease these conversations and threatings about a separation of the Union. It must hang together as long as it can be made to. If this Union were to be broken, it would break my heart."
The following day preceded the duel. Hamilton attended an entertainment given by Oliver Wolcott, whose fortunes he had made, raising the capital of a business that could be presided over by no one so well as a former Secretary of the Treasury. It was a large reception, and he met many of his old friends. Lady Kitty Duer, widowed, but pleasantly circumstanced, was there, and Kitty Livingston, once more bearing her old name in a second marriage. Bitter as the feeling between her house and Hamilton still was, she had declared long since that she would not cut him again; and although they never met in private, they often retired to a secluded corner at gatherings and talked for an hour. His first reason for attending this reception was to shake her hand as they parted. Madame Jumel was there, paling the loveliness of even the young daughters of Mrs. Jay and Lady Kitty Duer. Those who did not mob about Hamilton surrounded her, and although her cheek was without colour, she looked serene and scornful.
After the reception Hamilton spent an hour with Troup. This oldest of his friends, and Angelica, were the only people whose suspicion he feared. Troup was quite capable of wringing Burr's neck, and his daughter of taking some other desperate measure. But it was long now since he had given Angelica reason for anxiety, and she had ceased to watch him; and to-day, Troup, whom he had avoided hitherto, was treated to such a flow of spirits that he not only suspected nothing, but allowed himself to hope that Hamilton's health was mending. Hamilton dared not even hold his hand longer than usual at parting, although he longed to embrace him.
That night, in the late seclusion of his library, Hamilton wrote two letters to his wife, in one of which he recommended Mrs. Mitchell to her care; then the following to Sedgwick, still a close friend, and probably the most influential man in New England:--
As he folded and sealed the letter he suddenly realized that the act was the final touch to the order of his earthly affairs, and he lifted his hand as though to see if it were still alive. "To-morrow night!" he thought. "Well, now that the hour has come, I go willingly enough. I have been permitted to live my life; why should I murmur? There has been sufficient crowded into my forty-seven years to cover a century. I have been permitted to play a great part in history, to patch together a nation out of broken limbs and inform it with a brain. It is right that I should regard myself in this final hour as a statesman and nothing more, and that I should go without protest, now that I have no more to do. I can only be deeply and profoundly thankful that out of three millions of Americans I was selected, that I have conquered in spite of all obstacles, and remained until I have nothing more to give. It is entirely right and fitting that I should die as I have lived, in the service of this country. Only a sacrifice can bring these distracted States to reason and eliminate the man most dangerous to their peace. If I have been chosen for this great part, I should be unworthy indeed if I rebelled."