Sunday, August 20, 2017

The "Keenest Sorrows" in August, 1804, After Alexander Hamilton's Death

Sunday, August 20, 2017
Susan reporting,

One of the more interesting books that I discovered in my research for my new book I, Eliza Hamilton was a solemn compendium with a monumental title: A Collection of the Facts and Documents, Relative to the Death of Major-General Alexander Hamilton: With Comments: Together with the Various Orations, Sermons, and Eulogies, that Have Been Published Or Written on His Life and Character. 

Published not long after Alexander Hamilton died from wounds incurred in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr in July, 1804, the book is exactly what that title says it is. Today's publishers often rush such titles to press to cash in on a topical event, usually branding them as "special souvenir collector's editions" and the like, but in 1804, this was unusual. Then again, the circumstances were unusual, too. The country - and particularly Hamilton's hometown of New York City - were stunned by news of a duel between the former Secretary of the Treasury and the current Vice President, and shocked by Hamilton's subsequent death.

The outcry was immediate. Even those who didn't fault Burr and felt that duels of honor still had their place between gentlemen (the practice was already illegal in New York), no one could deny the tragic waste of Hamilton's life, or the terrible effect his death had on his widow and young family. Charges of murder were filed against Burr, who had fled New York for the more sympathetic southern states. The city of New York was plunged into official, black-draped mourning. More pointedly, ministers deplored the sinful practice of dueling from their pulpits.

A Collection....was assembled by William Coleman, a former lawyer (and former law partner of Aaron Burr) who had been chosen by Hamilton in 1801 to be the editor of the Federalist newspaper, The New York Evening Post. Coleman himself was no stranger to duels; earlier in 1804, he had killed a man in a duel over a dispute with a rival newspaper.

Nor was Coleman an impartial editor. In the preface, he described Hamilton as "my best earthly friend, my ablest adviser, and my most generous and disinterested patron." He quickly put together the collection both as a tribute to Hamilton, and a defense of his friend's actions relating to the duel, and the book was published before the end of the year. A 1904 edition of A Collection.... is available to read for free online here.

One article in particular - from the August 29, 1804 edition of The Albany Centinel - touched me the most since it focussed on Eliza. Immediately following her husband's death, Eliza was so distraught that friends and family feared for her sanity. She did not attend the funeral, and soon retreated with her daughters and younger sons to her father's house in Albany. Yet by the end of August, she must have been beginning to appear again in public - though as this excerpt shows, her grief was clearly still painfully raw.

"On Sunday morning the afflicted Mrs. HAMILTON attended divine service in the Presbyterian Church in this city, with her three little sons [I'm guessing that this must have been her youngest sons, John Church, 12, William Stephen, 7, and Little Phil, 2.]

"At the close of a prayer by the Rev. Mr. Nott, the eldest boy dropped on his face, in a fainting fit.

"Two gentlemen immediately raised him, and while bearing him out of the church, the afflicted mother sprung forward, in the agonies of grief and despair, towards her apparently lifeless son.

"The heart-rending scenes she had recently struggled with, called forth all the fine-spun sensibilities of her nature – and seemed to say, that nature must, and will be indulged in her keenest sorrows – She was overpowered in the conflict, and likewise sunk – uttering such heart-rending groans, and inward sighs, as would have melted into mingled sympathies, even Burr himself.

"Both of them soon recovered – and while the little son was supported standing on the steps, yet speechless, the most affecting scene presented itself – a scene, could it be placed on canvas by the hand of a master, would be in the highest degree interesting and impressive. The mother, in this tender situation, fastened herself upon the son, with her head reclining on his left shoulder – the agonies so strongly painted on her countenance – her long flowing weeds – the majesty of her person – the position of both – and above all, the peculiarity of their trying situation in the recent loss of a husband, and a father – who could refrain from invoking on the head of the guilty author of their miseries, those curses he so rightly merits? The curse of living despised, and execrated by the voice of a whole nation – the curse of being held up to the view of future ages – a MONSTER, and an ASSASSIN."

Poor Eliza!

Above: Gold mourning ring, containing the braided hair of Gen. Alexander Hamilton, presented to a friend of Hamiltons by his wife in 1805. New-York Historical Society.
Below: Title page, A Collection of the Facts and Documents, Relative to the Death of Major-General Alexander Hamilton.... New York: Printed by Hopkins & Seymour for I. Riley & Co, 1804. Collection, University of California Libraries.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.


Kelsey Keegan said...

This about breaks my heart. How painful for Eliza to have everyone staring at her at such a time, even in her church. Those poor little fatherless boys too. Such a loss for them all.
I've preordered your book and can't wait to read it.

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