22 Hamilton Lyrics, Explained
After centuries of being best known as that guy who was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical, Hamilton, brought the achievements of the "10-dollar founding father" front and center—and rewrote what we think we know about history. The musical's lyrics are packed with references that made our inner history nerds rejoice. Ahead of a movie version of the show featuring the original version of the cast hitting Disney Plus on July 3, we explain some lyrics below—make sure to read and listen along! (And these explanations are just the beginning; you can find more over at Genius.)
1. From the Song “Alexander Hamilton”
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By 14, they placed him in charge of a
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up...
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain
Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland …
Early life was not easy for Alexander Hamilton. Born on the West Indies island of Nevis in either 1755 or ‘57, his father was a Scottish trader named James, and his mother, Rachel Fawcett Lavine, was married to someone else at the time (though they were separated). Hamilton's father abandoned them when he was a baby; at some point, his mother moved the family to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. When Rachel died of a fever in 1768, Hamilton and his older brother went to live with a relative, Pyer Lytton.
At just 14, Hamilton became a clerk at the import-export firm Beekman and Cruger, where he handled the money, charted routes for ships, and tracked goods (which, unfortunately, included slaves; his abolitionist leanings later in life were probably influenced by what he saw). He must have been good at it: According to Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (which inspired Miranda’s show), at one point, proprietor Nicholas Cruger had to return to New York for health reasons, and left Hamilton in charge for five months.
After Lytton died by suicide in 1769, Hamilton—but not his brother—went to live with merchant Thomas Stevens (who some have suggested is Hamilton’s real father, based on Hamilton’s resemblance to Stevens’s son Edward).
In 1772, a hurricane hit; Hamilton wrote an account of the event in a letter to his father and was persuaded by an older friend, Henry Knox, to send it to the Royal Danish American Gazette. It was published, anonymously, in the October 3 issue. In response to the letter, residents of St. Croix took up a collection to send Hamilton—who was previously self-educated—to America for more schooling.
2. From the Song “My Shot”
But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I. Do or die. Wait till I sally in
On a stallion with the first black battalion…
Like Hamilton, John Laurens served as an aide-de-camp to Washington (a position initially obtained for him by his father). The London-educated Laurens was an abolitionist, and in 1778, he came up with a radical—and controversial—idea: Recruit enslaved people to the patriots' cause, then free them when their service was done. Though the Continental Congress considered his plan, it ultimately rejected the idea.
Later, Laurens would participate in a duel against Charles Lee, a general who, embarrassingly, retreated at the Battle of Monmouth against General George Washington’s orders, then proceeded to badmouth both Laurens and Washington. The duel is outlined in the musical's “Ten Duel Commandments.” (Hamilton served as Laurens's second and, after Laurens hit Lee in the side, convinced them not to go a second round.) Laurens was killed in August 1782 in a skirmish with British soldiers in South Carolina.
3. From the Song “The Schuyler Sisters”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson … I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!
Not a throwaway line! After Angelica Schuyler (Hamilton's soon-to-be sister-in-law) eloped with John Barker Church, a British entrepreneur, in 1777, the couple settled in Boston. When the revolution was over, they moved abroad, and Angelica was eventually introduced to Jefferson in Paris in 1787. The two became friends, and exchanged letters in which Jefferson expressed his affection and respect for her. But it’s doubtful that they discussed politics: The future president didn’t think it was an appropriate topic for women, writing in one letter that “the tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsion…” (An exception? Abigail Adams, who Jefferson relied on for political news.)
4. From the Song “Farmer Refuted”
“Hear ye, hear ye! My name is Samuel Seabury, and I present ‘Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress!’”
Samuel Seabury was a rector (soon to become the first American Anglican bishop) and a Loyalist living in New York City who actually did write an essay titled “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” under the pen name “A.W. Farmer.” Soon after, he wrote “The Congress Canvassed or an Examination into the Conduct of the Delegates at Their Grand Convention.” Hamilton responded to Seabury’s writings with some essays of his own: First, “A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress” (which he signed “A Friend to America”), and when Seabury hit back with yet another essay, Hamilton penned “ The Farmer Refuted.” Seabury was eventually captured by patriots and thrown in prison.
5. From the Song “Right Hand Man”
Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us.
Hamilton won’t abandon ship,
Yo, let’s steal their cannons.
Two years after Hamilton arrived in New York, war broke out, and the future founding father (who, as a 14-year-old, had written “I wish there was a War”) quickly joined a militia. In August 1775, under orders from Continental Army Artillery captain John Lamb, Hamilton’s company and other infantrymen tried to seize 24 cannons from the British stronghold at the southern tip of Manhattan, where they drew British fire (they ended up with 21 of them in spite of being fired upon by a 32-gun broadside). “I was engaged in hauling off one of the cannons, when Mister Hamilton came up and gave me his musket to hold and he took hold of the rope,” Hercules Mulligan later recalled, continuing:
“Hamilton [got] away with the cannon. I left his musket in the Battery and retreated. As he was returning, I met him and he asked for his piece. I told him where I had left it and he went for it, notwithstanding the firing continued, with as much concern as if the [British warship Asia] had not been there.”
Afterward, Hamilton was offered jobs by both a Lord Stirling and Major General Nathanael Greene, but declined both posts and instead took a job as Captain of an artillery unit. He served in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, after which he was promoted by Washington to lieutenant-colonel and joined Washington’s “military family” as an aide-de-camp, where he earned the nickname “The Little Lion.” As in Hamilton, Washington spurned Hamilton’s many requests for field command.
6. From the Song “A Winter’s Ball”
Ladies! … There are so many to deflower
… Looks! Proximity to power …
They delighted and distracted him.
Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him!
Well, maybe. We don’t have any word from Martha herself on the subject, but according to Mount Vernon’s website, secondary sources say she named a male cat at Washington’s Morristown, New Jersey, headquarters after Hamilton, as “a way of teasing him, for his roving eye and romantic escapades, in other words, for acting the part of a tomcat.”
7. From the Song “Helpless”
Laughin’ at my sister, cuz she wants to form a harem.
I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him.
Angelica and Hamilton met in 1780, three years after Angelica had married Church—but they were apparently flirtatious. As Chernow writes, "the attraction between Hamilton and Angelica was so potent and obvious that many people assumed they were lovers. At the very least, theirs was a friendship of unusual ardor, and it seems plausible that Hamilton would have proposed to Angelica, not Eliza, if the older sister had been available. Angelica was more Hamilton’s counterpart than Eliza."
The line in Hamilton is a reference to a letter Angelica sent to Eliza, in which she said she loved Hamilton "very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while."
8. From the Song “Wait for It”
My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher …
My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions
Just a legacy to protect
Fire and brimstone preacher, indeed: Aaron Burr’s grandfather was none other than Jonathan Edwards, who wrote the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Burr’s parents, meanwhile, died when he was very young. Aaron Burr, Sr. was the second president of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. (Still, he was its first significant one: His predecessor died the same year he took office.) He married Esther Edwards in 1752. Esther, 15 years his junior, kept a daily journal from the time she was 9 and began learning Latin with her new husband shortly after they were married. Burr Sr. died in 1757, and Esther died of smallpox in April 1758, leaving Burr, then 2, and his older sister Sarah, 4, orphans.
9. From the Song “Guns and Ships”
I go to France for more funds
I come back with more
And so the balance shifts
We rendezvous with Rochambeau, consolidate their gifts
We can end this war at Yorktown, cut them off at sea ...
Marquis de Lafayette was just 19 when he traveled to the United States. He was so hungry for glory (and probably also for revenge—his father was killed by the British in the Seven Years War) that he came up with a scheme to evade his disapproving family and abandon his pregnant wife to help the American cause. Once in America, he served for free, hustled for his troops by securing provisions from civilians, and returned to France in part to convince Louis XVI to send money and, yes, guns and ships.
The ships, under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, were instrumental in defeating the British at Yorktown: By keeping British ships from the harbor there, General Charles Cornwallis and his troops were unable to escape by sea, and American troops blocked their escape by land. After the Americans captured two key defensive positions (more on Hamilton’s role on that in a moment) and surrounded Yorktown, the patriots bombarded the British troops for three weeks until Cornwallis finally surrendered.
Lafayette really was, as Miranda writes, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” When he came back to tour the United States in 1824 and ‘25, “he was just embraced by the whole country,” Sarah Vowell, author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, told Mental Floss in 2015. “Two-thirds of the population of New York City came to meet his ship, and every night there was a party in his honor. He was just so beloved by literally everyone.”
10. From the Song “Yorktown (World Turned Upside Down)”
How did we know that this plan would work?
We had a spy on the inside. That’s right,
A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and
then I smuggle it!
Hercules Mulligan was a tailor and one of Hamilton’s first friends when he arrived in New York; Hamilton even lived with Mulligan's family when he was attending King's College (now Columbia University). Mulligan's clients at his shop included Tories and Brits, and he eavesdropped to get military intel. He would then place messages in packages with clothing and give them to his enslaved man, Cato. Mulligan put a stop to Cato's trips after he was captured, beaten, and questioned by the British for his numerous trips out of the city; Cato gave up nothing, and afterward, Mulligan used other methods to get his messages to Washington. According to Stephen F. Knott in his book Secret and Sanctioned, Mulligan warned the general in April 1777 that British General William Howe intended to go to Delaware; in 1781, he may have also tipped the patriots off to a British plot to kidnap Washington as he traveled to meet with the Comte de Rochambeau. Based on that information, Washington changed his travel route and successfully met with Rochambeau.
Yorktown was also where Hamilton finally got the field command he had wanted for so long. Though he had resigned as aide-de-camp after being accused of disrespect by Washington, Hamilton came to Yorktown and led the attack on a fortification called Redoubt 10, a key British defensive position. As Miranda writes in “Yorktown,” the American troops did, indeed, storm the fort with bayonets—gunfire would have given away their position—using the code word Rochambeau . They took the redoubt in just 10 minutes, with nine men killed and 31 wounded. (Compare that to the French, who captured Redoubt 9 with their weapons fully loaded: 77 soldiers were wounded, and 15 were killed.)
11. From the Song “Non-Stop”
Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me.
Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry?
This is the first murder trial of our brand new nation ...
Hamilton, sit down.
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent.
At the end of 1799, a young Quaker woman named Elma Sands disappeared; her body was found in a well less than two weeks later (in 1800). Levi Weeks, a carpenter and boarder at Sands’s cousin’s boarding house, was accused of killing her. Burr and Hamilton—at that point already enemies—teamed up to defend him, along with another lawyer named Brockholst Livingston. It was the new nation’s first murder trial, and the best documented of its time.
As Paul Collins recounts in his book Duel with the Devil, both Hamilton and Burr had dealings with Levi’s brother, carpenter Ezra Weeks: He was building Hamilton’s country estate, The Grange, and was constructing the wooden piping for Burr’s Manhattan Company, which supplied water to homes in the city. Ezra had also provided the supplies for the well in which Sands’s body was found, which was owned by the Manhattan Company.
Levi Weeks’s guilt was pretty much assumed, and prosecutor Cadwallader D. Colden lined up a long slate of witnesses to put together a circumstantial case that had Weeks promising to marry Sands, then cruelly murdering her and dumping her body in the well. But Colden was no match for Burr and Hamilton, who managed to establish that Sands had been having an affair with her cousin’s husband. Using medical experts, they even cast doubt on the assumption that Sands had been murdered, and instead put forth a theory that she had died by suicide. The prosecution failed to make their case, and it took the jury five minutes to find Weeks not guilty.
Despite their theory, though, it was likely that Sands was murdered—just not by Weeks. Unbeknownst to the attorneys, or those at the boardinghouse, one of the boarders, Richard Croucher, was mentally ill and had a violent past. After he was banished from the United States following the rape of his 13-year-old stepdaughter, Croucher returned to London, where he was eventually executed for a terrible crime.
12. From the Song “Say No to This”
I know you are a man of honor,
I’m so sorry to bother you at home
but I don’t know where to go, and I came here
My husband’s doin’ me wrong
beatin’ me, cheatin’ me, mistreatin’ me...
Suddenly he’s up and gone.
I don’t have the means to go on.
Yes, Alexander Hamilton was, in fact, involved in the first sex scandal in American politics. In the summer of 1791, the Secretary of Treasury was living in Philadelphia when a 23-year-old named Maria Reynolds showed up at his house. Maria claimed that her abusive husband had abandoned her and left her destitute; she asked Hamilton for help getting to relatives in New York, and he agreed. He told her he’d come to her house with the money and when he arrived, she took him to a bedroom, where, in Hamilton’s words, “Some conversation ensued, from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable … After this I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house; Mrs. Hamilton with her children being absent on a visit to her father.”
Maria’s husband, James, found out about the affair that December. Rather than work it out in a duel, James, a con man, decided he wanted money. In a letter to Hamilton, he wrote (sic throughout):
“I have this preposial to make to you. give me the Sum Of thousand dollars and I will leve the town and take my daughter with me … and leve her to Yourself to do for her as you thing proper. I hope you wont think my request is in a view of making Me Satisfaction for the injury done me. for there is nothing that you Can do will compensate for it.”
The affair continued. At some point, Maria likely became an accomplice in her husband’s scheme; she would write to Hamilton when her husband was away, pleading with him to come visit her. Then, James would write to Hamilton, requesting small sums of cash. Hamilton complied, eventually shelling out more than $1000.
Then, in November, James—who had been working a scheme to buy the pension and back-pay claims of soldiers—landed in jail for committing forgery. When Hamilton refused to help him, James reached out to the Federalist’s Democratic-Republican rivals. Congressmen James Monroe (not James Madison, as it is in Hamilton, probably for simplicity's sake), Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable spoke with both James and Maria, revealing Hamilton’s affair with Maria, implicating him in James’s plan, and accusing him of giving James insider tips on government securities. Maria even gave them letters that Hamilton had written to her.
When the congressmen confronted Hamilton in December 1792, he readily admitted to the affair, and produced documents to show he was innocent of James’s other accusations:
"One or more of the gentlemen … were struck with so much conviction, before I had gotten through the communication, that they delicately urged me to discontinue it as unnecessary. I insisted upon going through the whole … The result was a full and unequivocal acknowledgment on the part of the three gentlemen of perfect satisfaction with the explanation, and expressions of regret at the trouble and embarrassment which had been occasioned to me."
Muhlenberg and Venable, he noted, were exceedingly sensible; Monroe was "more cold but entirely explicit."
The congressmen agreed to keep what they knew about Hamilton’s affair with Maria a secret. But Monroe didn’t quite keep his promise: He made copies of the letters Maria had given to him and sent them to Thomas Jefferson. According to Smithsonian, John Beckley, Republican clerk of the House of Representatives, may have made a copy.
Then, in 1796, Hamilton penned an essay that attacked Jefferson’s private life. He would come to regret it.
In June 1797, Republican muckraker James Thomson Callender published The History of the United States for 1796, which not only discussed the details of Hamilton’s affair but also published letters from Reynolds to Hamilton. Hamilton, by this time no longer Secretary of the Treasury, blamed Jefferson and Monroe for the reveal (though, according to Smithsonian, it was probably Beckley who did the honors).
Hamilton accused Monroe of impugning his character and challenged him to a duel—but Burr interceded, and the duel never went down. (Fun fact: Burr also served as Maria Reynolds’s divorce attorney.)
In August 1797, Hamilton printed his own pamphlet in response, which discussed the affair in detail. In drafts, it was referred to as "The Reynolds Pamphlet," but when the 95-page missive was published, he called it “Observations on Certain Documents contained in Nos. V. and VI. of The History of the United States for the Year 1796, in which the Charge of Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, late Secretary of the Treasury, is fully refuted. Written by himself.” It ruined his reputation, destroyed his political power for a time—“never gonna be president now,” as Jefferson and Madison sing in “The Reynolds Pamphlet”—and publicly humiliated Eliza. "Art thou a wife?” the press asked. “See him, whom thou has chosen for the partner of this life, lolling in the lap of a harlot!!"
13. From the Song “The Room Where It Happens”
Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room.
Diametric’ly opposed, foes.
They emerge with a compromise, having
opened doors that were
The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power,
a system he can shape however he wants.
The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital.
And here’s the pièce de résistance:
No one else was in
the room where it
One of the most important parts of Hamilton’s funding bill was assumption. Under his plan, the federal government would assume state’s debts—which totaled about $25 million—giving the new nation a strong line of credit overseas. But on June 2, 1790, the House of Representatives passed Hamilton’s funding bill, minus assumption.
At the same time, there was squabbling over the site of the U.S. capital. Sixteen sites—the majority of them in the North—had been suggested, and Southerners like James Madison were worried about how that Northern influence would impact Southern states. But it appeared that Congress would likely choose a central location, like Pennsylvania.
Between the two issues, things in Congress were getting contentious. According to Jefferson, the Northern states had threatened “secession and dissolution.” So when Jefferson ran into Hamilton outside of Washington’s residence in June, he saw an opportunity. The normally dapper Hamilton looked “somber, haggard, and dejected … even his dress uncouth and neglected,” Jefferson recalled later, and, “in despair … walked me backwards and forwards before the President's door for half an hour” discussing the necessity of assumption and intimating that if it didn’t pass, he’d probably have to resign.
Jefferson told Hamilton that he “was really a stranger to the whole subject” (not true—according to Chernow, he’d been following the debate and had written to fellow Virginian George Mason about the need for a compromise). Still he “proposed to him ... to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two, bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the Union.”
Jefferson did, in fact, arrange an intimate dinner party, which took place between June 14 and 20, 1790 and included Hamilton, Madison, and maybe two other people. In the discussions, Jefferson said, “It was observed, I forget by which of them, that as the [debt assumption] pill would be a bitter one to the Southern states, something should be done to soothe them; and the removal of the seat of government to the [Potomac] was a just measure, and would probably be a popular one with them, and would be a proper one to follow the assumption.” So Hamilton agreed to support Virginia’s bid for the capital in return for James Madison whipping votes for his assumption plan.
On July 10, the Residence Act—which designated Philadelphia the temporary capital for a decade while a permanent site was chosen along the Potomac, a deal that had been prearranged—passed. A couple of weeks later, the assumption bill also passed (but only narrowly). Madison did not vote in favor of assumption, but had whipped enough votes for it to pass anyway.
Though it seems that the compromise was well in motion by the time Jefferson hosted his dinner party—and there’s some controversy about his account of how it went down—history nonetheless dubbed the deal brokered there the “dinner table bargain.”
14. From the Song “One Last Time”
I need you to draft an address.
Pick up a pen, start writing.
I wanna talk about what I have learned.
The hard-won wisdom I have earned…
One last time
the people will hear from me
one last time
and if we get this right
we’re gonna teach ‘em how to say goodbye.
You and I—
Washington began contemplating a farewell address toward the end of his first term as president, and asked James Madison for help. Madison delivered a draft in June 1792, but the document was put aside when Washington agreed to serve another term. When he decided not to seek a third term as president, Washington then turned to Hamilton to draft the rest of the address. Jefferson described the end result to William Johnson in 1823:
“When, at the end of his second term, his Valedictory came out, Mr. Madison recognized in it several passages of his draught, several others, we were both satisfied, were from the pen of Hamilton, and others from that of the President himself. These he probably put into the hands of Hamilton to form into a whole, and hence it may all appear in Hamilton's hand-writing, as if it were all of his composition.”
Madison himself wrote to Jefferson that same month, saying of his statements to Johnson that,
“If there be any circumstantial inaccuracy, it is in imputing to him [Washington] more agency in composing the document than he probably had. Taking for granted that it was drawn up by Hamilton, the best conjecture is that the General put into his hands his own letter to me suggesting his general ideas, with the paper prepared by me in conformity with them; and if he varied the draught of Hamilton at all, it was by a few verbal or qualifying amendments only."
Though written by several hands, the ideas were Washington’s. The farewell address laid out his political philosophy, which he hoped would serve to guide the young United States going forward. It's still discussed in history classes today.
15. From the Song “I Know Him”
I know him. That can’t be.
That’s that little guy who spoke to me all those years ago.
What was it, eighty-five?
That poor man, they’re gonna eat him alive!
On June 1, 1785, John Adams—serving as United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain—was received by George III, former ruler of the American Colonies. Adams wrote, memorized, and rehearsed a speech for the occasion, then painstakingly recounted his remarks, and King George’s response, in a letter to Secretary of State John Jay.
According to his letter to Jay, Adams told George III in part that “the appointment of a Minister from the United States to your Majesty’s Court, will form an Epocha in the History of England & of America. I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow Citizens in having the distinguished Honor to be the first to stand in your Majesty’s royal Presence in a diplomatic Character.” To which George, according to Adams, responded:
“I wish you Sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late Contest, but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the Duty which I owed to my People. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the Separation, but the Separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent Power. . . let the Circumstances of Language; Religion and Blood have their natural and full Effect.”
When Washington left office, Adams, a Federalist—then Vice President—ran for commander in chief. Because of how elections worked back then (and we’ll get to that more in a minute) his Vice Presidential candidate, Thomas Pinckney, was also running for president. They were opposed by Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Hamilton was no fan of Adams and schemed to get Pinckney elected, but he ultimately failed. Adams received the most votes, with Jefferson as the runner up, and they became president and vice president. Adams, however, was not popular—not even within his own party—and would only serve a single term as president.
16. From the Song “The Adams Administration”
How does Hamilton, the short-tempered,
protean creator of the Coast Guard,
Founder of the New York Post…
It’s true: As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton convinced Congress to authorize what was alternately called a system of cutters, Revenue Service, and Revenue-Marine in 1790 to enforce customs laws. (It wouldn’t officially be called the Coast Guard until 1915.) One year later, he founded the New-York Evening Post using donations from investors; the paper would eventually become the New York Post.
17. From the Song “Blow Us All Away”
Alright. So this is what you’re gonna do:
Stand there like a man until Eacker is in front of you.
When the time comes, fire your weapon in the air.
This will put an end to the whole affair.
But what if he decides to shoot? Then I’m a goner.
No. He’ll follow suit if he’s truly a man of honor.
After a 27-year-old Republican lawyer named George Eacker insulted Alexander Hamilton in a Fourth of July speech, Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip, and a friend named Price confronted Eacker at the theater in November 1801. According to the New-York Evening Post (a paper Hamilton created, remember, so there’s probably a bias here), the pair “began in levity a conversation” about Eacker’s remarks. Eacker asked Hamilton to go to the lobby; Price followed, and Eacker called the youths “damned rascals.”
“A little scuffle ensued,” the Post noted, and the trio left the theater and went to a pub:
“An explanation was then demanded, which of them the offensive expression was meant for; after a little hesitation, it was declared to be intended for each. Eacker then said, as they parted, ‘I expect to hear from you;’ and they replied, ‘You shall;’ and challenges followed.”
Price and Eacker dueled first, the Sunday after the incident; after exchanging four shots, their seconds worked it out, and both walked away. On Monday, Eacker and Philip faced off, using pistols supplied by Philip’s uncle, (Angelica's husband) John Barker Church (these were the same pistols that Hamilton would use when facing off with Burr less than three years later). According to Chernow, Hamilton advised Philip to wait until Eacker had fired, then instructed him to shoot into the air. This maneuver, called a delope, would abort the duel.
Though Hamilton seems to imply that Philip raised his arm in the air to shoot—and that Eacker fired before the pair reached the customary 10 paces—that’s not supported by the historical record: According to an account published in the American Citizen just days after the duel, both men walked 10 paces, turned to face each other, and, on the command to fire … did nothing but stare at each other. Finally, Eacker raised his pistol, Philip did the same, and Eacker fired. He hit Philip, who then also fired, probably a reaction to being shot; his bullet hit the ground. Philip was rowed across the Hudson and suffered for a day before he died.
But the American Citizen’s recounting of the duel suggests that there might have been rumors that Eacker fired early—and the writer certainly believed that William Coleman, the author of the Post’s story on the event, implied that was what happened:
“‘Murdered in a duel!’ O Shame! Shame, Mr. Coleman. In a strict legal sense the act may be termed ‘murder:’ but your words convey another meaning. The idea of Mr. Hamilton’s being ‘murdered in a duel’ imports, as mentioned by you, that Mr. Eacker, available himself of an undue advantage, shot Mr. Hamilton while unprepared.”
Whatever happened in the actual duel, Philip’s death devastated his family. “Never did I see a man so completely overwhelmed with grief,” lawyer Robert Troup wrote of Hamilton. Philip’s sister, Angelica, had been extremely close to her older brother; after his death, she suffered from a breakdown and never recovered. According to Chernow, she lived until 73 but was “consigned to an eternal childhood [and] often did not recognize her family members … she sang songs that she had on the piano in duets with her father, and she always talked of her dead brother as if he were still alive.”
18. From the Song “The Election of 1800”
It’s a tie! ….
It’s up to the delegates!….
It’s up to Hamilton!
The people are asking to hear my voice ...
For the country is facing a difficult choice.
… And if you were to ask me who I’d promote ...
Jefferson has my vote.
Before there were hanging chads, or the stolen election of 1824, there was the election of 1800. These days, you elect a presidential ticket—a president and a vice president together. But in the early days of our nation, presidential elections worked a little differently: While the candidates might have chosen to say they were running for president or vice president, the Constitution made no such distinction. The person to receive the most electoral votes would be president; the runner-up would be vice president. Which is why, in 1796, the president, Adams, and the vice president, Jefferson, belonged to different political parties. And in 1800, when Jefferson and Burr received the same amount of electoral votes—73 apiece—they tied for president. The decision was up to the House of Representatives, which was largely Federalist.
Jefferson wrote to Burr, and intimated that if he accepted the vice presidency, he would be given greater responsibilities. Burr seemed to agree to this. But when the Federalists—who were in favor of a large, centralized government—appeared to come to the conclusion that they would back Burr, Burr decided he would fight for the top office, and allegedly told several Republican congressmen so.
Hamilton, meanwhile, urged his fellow Federalists to pick Jefferson. “In a choice of Evils let them take the least,” he wrote to Harrison Grey Otis, a Massachusetts congressman, when it became clear that the two candidates were tied. “Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”
The politicians voted 35 times over the course of five days in February 1801 trying to make a decision. On the 36th vote, Jefferson was elected. The fact that Burr didn’t withdraw his name from the presidential race would have long-lasting effects on their relationship; Jefferson even blocked Burr's re-nomination for vice president in 1804. That same year, the 12th Amendment was passed to provide separate electoral votes for president and VP.
19. From the Song “Your Obedient Servant”
Now you call me “amoral,”
A “dangerous disgrace,”
If you’ve got something to say
Name a time and place
Face to face
I have the honor to be Your Obedient Servant
A dot Burr
Though some might believe it was events of the election of 1800 that led Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel, it was actually the New York Gubernatorial election of 1804 that pushed Burr over the edge. Though Burr was still the Vice President of the United States, he knew he wouldn’t be on the ticket the next go-around. So the one-time Federalist turned Democratic-Republican decided to run for Governor of New York as an independent. When his fellow Federalists discussed voting for Burr to fracture the Republican party, Hamilton forcefully spoke out against the candidate—and although his campaign against Burr probably didn’t have much effect, Burr still lost the general election to Morgan Lewis in April 1804.
That same month, at a dinner party, Hamilton made some disparaging remarks against Burr. Charles Cooper, a Republican who had been in attendance at the party, recounted the “despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr” to Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler (a former Senator whose seat had been taken by Burr in 1791) in an April 23 letter. “I assert that Gen. Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government,” he wrote. “Oliver Phelps, when in this city, on his way to Canandaigua, stated, that Gen. Hamilton, and about one hundred federalists in New-York, would not vote for Mr. Burr.”
Burr didn’t find out about the letter, which was published in the Albany Register, until June 1804. He promptly wrote to Hamilton: “You must perceive, sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.”
Two days later, Hamilton wrote back, saying that Burr’s charges weren’t specific enough to warrant a confirmation or a denial:
“I stand ready to avow or disavow promptly and explicitly any precise or definite opinion which I may be charged with having declared of any gentleman. More than this cannot fitly be expected from me; and especially it cannot be reasonably expected that I shall enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted.”
This back and forth went on for a bit, and then Hamilton’s friend Nathaniel Pendleton and Burr’s friend William Van Ness stepped in to try to sort things out. But neither Burr nor Hamilton would bend, and they agreed to meet on the dueling field at dawn on July 11, 1804.
20. From the Song “Best of Wives and Best of Women”
Alexander, come back to sleep.
I have an early meeting out of town. …
I just need to write something down.
Here, Miranda might have Hamilton writing his “Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr,” in which Hamilton expressed his reluctance to duel on religious and moral grounds (Hamilton had rediscovered religion after Philip died; before this one, he had participated in a number of duels). “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity,” Hamilton wrote, “to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and to reflect.”
He enclosed the statement with his will and some other papers, which were delivered by Pendleton after his death. The statement was printed in the New-York Evening Post on July 16, 1804.
Hamilton also penned a letter to his wife that night; he wrote two before the duel, one on July 4 (“This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career,” he began, ending with “Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me. Ever yours”) and one at 10 p.m. on July 10 (which dealt with his first cousin, Ann Mitchell).
21. From the Song “The World Was Wide Enough”
I strike him right between his ribs
I walk towards him, but I am ushered away
They row him back across the Hudson
I get a drink
I hear wailing in the streets
Somebody tells me, “You’d better hide.”
When Alexander aimed
At the sky
He may have been the first one to die
But I’m the one who paid for it
I survived, but I paid for it.
In Hamilton, Burr sings that during the duel, the former Secretary of the Treasury "was wearing his glasses ... Why? If not to take deadly aim?" According to Chernow, in the moments before the duel began, Hamilton halted the proceedings, saying “Stop. In certain states of the light one requires glasses.” He took sightings in different directions with the pistol, then put his glasses on and repeated his actions, and finally announced he was ready. (Burr didn’t know that Hamilton intended to throw away his shot, and, as Miranda suggests, was probably pretty unnerved by all that aiming.) Nathaniel Pendleton, Hamilton's second, asked if they were ready, and when they replied in the affirmative, he said “present,” and the men lifted their pistols.
What happened next is up for some debate. Pendleton said that Burr shot first, and that Hamilton’s returned fire was merely a consequence of being shot, but both Burr and his second, William Van Ness, maintained that Hamilton had fired first. When Pendleton returned to the Weehawken not long after, he found the bullet fired by Hamilton’s gun in a tree branch 12 feet off the ground, 4 feet to the side of where Burr had been standing.
Shortly after the duel, Van Ness and Pendleton released a joint statement on the proceedings:
“The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col: Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell. Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl H——n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew. Being urged from the field by his friend as has been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognised by the Surgeon and Bargemen who were then approaching.”
Hamilton knew exactly what had happened to him. According to David Hosack, the Hamilton family doctor, “I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton ... He had at that instant just strength to say, ‘This is a mortal wound, Doctor.’” He died the next day.
Burr did, indeed, pay for his part in the duel. Rather than reviving his political career, the duel destroyed it. Wanted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, he fled south to the capital, where he served the rest of his term as Vice President. In 1807, he was charged with treason for attempting to seize land in Louisiana and Mexico with the goal of creating an independent republic. He was acquitted later that year and headed to Europe, ending up penniless in Paris. In 1812, he made his way back to the States—and to Manhattan, where he took up law again. The next year, he lost his only surviving child, a daughter named Theodosia (after her mother, who had died of stomach cancer in 1794) when the ship she was traveling on disappeared at sea. Burr was understandably devastated. In 1833, he remarried, then quickly divorced.
When Burr was in his seventies, he returned to the dueling ground where he had felled Hamilton. Chernow writes that Burr recalled that “‘he heard the ball whistle among the branches and saw the severed twig above his head’":
"Burr thus corroborated that Hamilton had honored his pledge and fired way off the mark. In other words, Burr knew that Hamilton had squandered his shot before he returned fire. He shot to kill … The most likely scenario is that Hamilton had fired first, but only to show Burr that he was throwing away his shot. How else could he have shown Burr his intentions?”
Burr died in 1836. He was 80 years old. The title for this song comes from something Burr that Burr himself reportedly said: “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
22. From the Song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”
I stop wasting time on tears.
I live another fifty years.
I establish the first private orphanage in
New York City.
I help to raise hundreds of children.
I get to see them growing up.
In their eyes I see you, Alexander.
The man who created our national bank apparently wasn’t great with money: When he died in 1804, he left his family without much to live on. Eliza survived thanks to a small inheritance from her father, who died later that year, and with the help of Hamilton supporters. But her lack of funds didn’t stop her from doing incredible things: She collected and preserved her husband’s papers, took in homeless children, and helped to create orphanages in Washington, D.C. and New York City (an organization that still exists today).
Eliza never forgave James Monroe for his role in exposing Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds—not even when he called on her late in both their lives and asked to bury the hatchet. When she died in 1854 at the age of 97, she was laid to rest near her husband and her sister Angelica at Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City.