The Life and Legacy of Alexander Hamilton

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Part 8: Last Success and Abrupt End

President Jefferson, who stood up and shouted so loudly against the Sedition Act when he was not President, made good use of it when he was in the White House, moving to prosecute publishers of Federalist newspapers that he thought crossed the line of decency and integrity.

One of these publishers was Harry Croswell, who owned and ran the New York Wasp. The charge against Croswell was a serious one: libel. The Wasp had run a story alleging that Jefferson had paid another newspaper publisher, James Callender, to run stories that put then-President George Washington in a bad light. Jefferson was furious and wanted Callender arrested and thrown in jail.

Croswell, following the precedent set down by the not-guilty verdict delivered for John Peter Zenger back in 1733, moved to claim that the story was true and that he couldn't be prosecuted under libel laws because of it. The New York Court of General Sessions disagreed and found Croswell guilty. Croswell appealed his case to the New York Supreme Court, which accepted the case. Croswell's attorney at trial in this next level of the case was Alexander Hamilton, whose brother Andrew had won the Zenger verdict 70 years before.

These were different times, however, and the New York Supreme Court was unmoved by Hamilton's powerful arguments. It ruled that Croswell had committed libel and must be punished for it. (Hamilton's speech and its reasoning attracted much notice, however, and was the foundation of an 1805 law guaranteeing truth as a defense in libel cases, as long as publication took place "with good motives and for justifiable ends.")

The last chapter in the Hamilton-Burr saga began in 1804, when Hamilton got wind of a plot by Burr to take the state of New York out of the United States altogether. (Many people in the Northeast didn't like the Louisiana Purchase, thinking it was a plot to spread slavery throughout the newly acquired West. Burr was part of this movement, and he wanted a few of the New England states to join him in a campaign to seize control of the Louisiana Territory. He even enlisted help from Great Britain.)

Burr, who had been dropped from Jefferson's re-election campaign, was running for governor of New York in 1804, and Hamilton worked very hard to make sure Burr didn't win. (It wasn't just Hamilton, either. The powerful Clinton family of New York helped ensure that Burr lost.)

Stung by his defeat, Burr fumed publicly at the Clintons and at Hamilton. Hamilton, for his part, was delighted. He said so at a political dinner and made a comment that has not been recorded word-for-word but was reported as deeply slanderous and damaging. Incensed, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Both had been successful duelists in the past.
Despite the loss of his son, Hamilton accepted.

The two met at Weehawken, N.J., on July 11, 1804. They used the very same pisolts that Philip Hamilton and George Eacker used. No one knows exactly which gun Hamilton used, but the result was the same. Hamilton's shot went high and right, striking a tree branch. Burr's aim was true and struck Hamilton in the chest. He died the next day.

Hamilton left behind him his beloved wife, Elizabeth, and seven children. He also left behind a mountain of debt. He had long refused his army pension and consistently undercharged his legal clients. He declined nearly all personal gifts from foreign dignitaries. And the family had managed to spend away the inheritance that Elizabeth had brought to the marriage from the rich and powerful Schuyler family. As a result, his family never really had much more money than they needed. They had a nice home, which he called the Grange; but that was the sum total of their assets.

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