Eliphalet Nott’s “On the Death of Hamilton” and the Condemnation of Dueling

Eliphalet Nott, a notable clergyman in Albany, used the occasion of Hamilton’s death in 1804 to deliver a widely-publicized condemnation of the practice of dueling.  Nott’s sermon was “one of several sermons delivered by prominent preachers at that time, and having for their immediate purpose the breaking up of the custom of dueling.”  William Jennings Bryan also included the sermon in his collection of The World’s Famous Orations, published in 1906, over 100 years after the duel., and it was considered an example of the principles of elocution.

Nott began his sermon with a passionate description of the many facets of Hamilton’s career and personal life that made him worthy of national acclaim.

Would to God my talents were adequate to the occasion. But such as they are, I devoutly proffer them to unfold the nature and counteract the influence of that barbarous custom which, like a resistless torrent, is undermining the foundations of civil government, breaking down the barriers of social happiness, and sweeping away virtue, talents, and domestic felicity in its desolating course. Another and an illustrious character—a father—a general—a statesman—the very man who stood on an eminence and without a rival among sages and heroes, the future hope of his country in danger—this man, yielding to the influence of a custom which deserves our eternal reprobation, has been brought to an untimely end.

The Hero, called from his sequestered retreat, whose first appearance in the field, tho a stripling, conciliated the esteem of Washington, our good old father. Moving by whose side, during all the perils of the Revolution, our young chieftain was a contributor to the veteran’s glory, the guardian of his person, and the copartner of his toils.

The Conqueror, who, sparing of human blood when victory favored, stayed the uplifted arm and nobly said to the vanquished enemy, “Live!”

The Statesman, the correctness of whose principles and the strength of whose mind are inscribed on the records of Congress and on the annals of the council chamber; whose genius impressed itself upon the Constitution of his country; and whose memory the government—illustrious fabric, resting on this basis—will perpetuate while it lasts; and shaken by the violence of party should it fall, which may Heaven avert, his prophetic declarations will be found inscribed on its ruins.

The Counselor, who was at once the pride of the bar and the admiration of the court; whose apprehensions were quick as lightning, and whose development of truth was luminous as its path; whose argument no change of circumstances could embarrass; whose knowledge appeared intuitive; and who, by a single glance, and with as much facility as the eye of the eagle passes over the landscape, surveyed the whole field of controversy; saw in what way truth might be most successfully defended and how error must be approached; and who, without ever stopping, ever hesitating, by a rapid and manly march, led the listening judge and the fascinated juror, step by step, through a delightsome region, brightening as he advanced, till his argument rose to demonstration, and eloquence was rendered useless by conviction; whose talents were employed on the side of righteousness; whose voice, whether in the council chamber, or at the bar of justice, was virtue’s consolation; at whose approach oppressed humanity felt a secret rapture, and the heart of injured innocence leaped for joy.

Where Hamilton was, in whatever sphere he moved, the friendless had a friend, the fatherless a father, and the poor man, tho unable to reward his kindness, found an advocate. It was when the rich oppressed the poor; when the powerful menaced the defenseless; when truth was disregarded or the eternal principles of justice violated—it was on these occasions that he exerted all his strength; it was on these occasions that he sometimes soared so high and shone with a radiance so transcendent, I had almost said, so “heavenly, as filled those around him with awe and gave to him the force and authority of a prophet.”

The Patriot, whose integrity baffled the scrutiny of inquisition; whose manly virtue never shaped itself to circumstances; who, always great, always himself, stood amid the varying tides of party, firm, like the rock which, far from land, lifts its majestic top above the waves and remains unshaken by the storms which agitate the ocean.

The Friend, who knew no guile; whose bosom was transparent and deep; in the bottom of whose heart was rooted every tender and sympathetic virtue; whose various worth opposing parties acknowledged while alive, and on whose tomb they unite, with equal sympathy and grief, to heap their honors.

He then went on to criticize societal institutions for permitting the custom of dueling to continue and used the tragedy of Hamilton’s death to spur his audience to take action to condemn dueling.

But I have said, and I repeat it, there are those whom I can not forgive. I can not forgive that minister at the altar who has hitherto forborne to remonstrate an this subject. I can not forgive that public prosecutor who, entrusted with the duty of avenging his country’s wrongs, has seen those wrongs, and taken no measures to avenge them. I can not forgive that judge upon the bench, or that governor in the chair of state, who has lightly passed over such offenses. I can not forgive the public, in whose opinion the duelist finds a sanctuary. I can not forgive you, my brethren, who till this late hour have been silent while successive murders were committed.

No; I cannot forgive you that you have not in common with the freemen of this State, raised your voice to the powers that be and loudly and explicitly demanded an execution of your laws; demanded this in a manner which, if it did not reach the ear of government, would at least have reached the heavens and pleaded your excuse before the God that filleth them—in whose presence as I stand I should not feel myself innocent of the blood that crieth against us had I been silent. But I have not been silent. Many of you who hear me are my witnesses—the walls of yonder temple, where I have heretofore addressed you, are my witnesses, how freely I have animadverted upon this subject in the presence both of those who have violated the laws and of those whose indispensable duty it is to see the laws executed on those who violate them.

A short time since, and he who is the occasion of our sorrows was the ornament of his country. He stood on an eminence, and glory covered him. From that eminence he has fallen—suddenly, for ever fallen. His intercourse with the living world is now ended; and those who would hereafter find him must seek him in the grave. There, cold and lifeless, is the heart which just now was the seat of friendship. There, dim and sightless, is the eye whose radiant and enlivening orb beamed with intelligence; and there, closed for ever, are those lips on whose persuasive accents we have so often and so lately hung with transport! From the darkness which rests upon his tomb there proceeds, methinks, a light in which it is clearly seen that those gaudy objects which men pursue are only phantoms. In this light, how dimly shines the splendor of victory; how humble appears the majesty of grandeur! The bubble which seemed to have so much solidity has burst; and we again see that all below the sun is vanity.

Nott’s sermon was not alone.  At a Philadelphia meeting, one of the resolutions was that “the clergymen of several denominations, be requested to expatiate, on Sunday next, upon the irreligious and pernicious tendency of a custom, which has deprived our country of one of her best and most valuable citizens.”


Today, July 11, marks the 209th anniversary of the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  I think a lot of popular knowledge of Hamilton is shaped by the duel, which is unfortunate considering the far-reaching scope of his legacy, but understandable given the drama surrounding the duel.  The duel between prominent politicians captivated the popular imagination and stirred up popular hatred of Burr.  Two careers were ruined in the course of the duel- Hamilton’s by an untimely death, and Burr’s by a descent into humiliation and treason.

Burr - Hamilton Duel

Here’s the initial firsthand account by the two seconds to the duel, Nathaniel Pendleton and William Van Ness:

Col Burr arrived first on the ground as had been previously agreed. When Genl Hamilton arrived the parties exchanged salutations and the Seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position as also to determine whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the Second of Genl Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took their stations. The Gentleman who was to give the word, then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing which were as follows:

The parties being placed at their stations – The Second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready – being answered in the affirmative, he shall say “present” after which the parties shall present & fire when they please. If one fires before the opposite shall say one, two, three, fire, and he shall fire or loose his fire.

And asked if they were prepared, being answered in the affirmative, he gave the word present as had been agreed on. And both of the parties took aim & fired in succession. The intervening time is not expressed as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. 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….

The August 11, 1804 Coroner’s Report stated:

Aaron Burr…not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the devil, on the eleventh day of July in the year last aforesaid, which force and Arms…feloniously wilfully and of his Malice aforethought, did make an Assault, and…Mortal[ly] Wound…the said Alexander Hamilton.

For further reading, check out this article on Dueling as Politics by Joanne B. Freeman in the New York Journal of American History.

Reminder- if you’re in or near New York City, come out to the AHA Society’s series of events in NYC and Northern New Jersey starting today and going through Sunday!   Tonight is a  debate between Jefferson and Hamilton at the Museum of American Finance.  Register here.  Hope to see you all there!