Beyond the Duel: Meet the Real Alexander Hamilton
The Hamilton Grange National Memorial is a National Park Service site in upper New York City.
To talk about the home, Hamilton, and the impact he made on American history Grateful American ™ TV Show hosts David Bruce Smith and Hope Katz Gibbs travelled to The Grange to talk to Liam Strain—who currently serves as District Ranger for a collection of individually legislated units of the National Park System that also includes Grant’s Tomb (the General Grant National Memorial) and Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.
In this interview you’ll learn:
- About the life of Hamilton — chief of staff to George Washington, and an influential promoter of the Constitution. He was also the Secretary of the Treasury.
- How he came to own the Grange — and why it was moved twice before landing in its current location.
- What else makes this place so interesting — especially for kids?
- Hamilton is also infamous for the duel he had with Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804. Why is that everybody remembers that incident, and virtually none of Hamilton’s other accomplishments?
- And don’t miss the three fascinating facts about Alexander Hamilton that you can talk about with your kids tonight at dinner.
Don’t miss it!
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: Liam, tell our listeners a little bit more about The Grange’s owner, Alexander Hamilton.
Liam Strain: Hamilton was born and raised in the West Indies, and came to New York in 1772 at age 17 to study at King’s College, which is now Columbia University. During his esteemed career, Hamilton was a military officer, lawyer, and a member of the United States Constitutional Convention.
He was also an American political philosopher, the author of the majority of the essays that comprise the Federalist Papers, (a series of 85 essays urging the citizens of New York to ratify the new US Constitution), and he was the first secretary of the US Treasury.
Hamilton also commissioned architect John McComb, Jr.. to design his country home, which was originally a 32-acre estate in upper Manhattan. The two-story framed federal styled house was completed in 1802—just two years before Hamilton’s death, which resulted from his infamous duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. The day after the duel, Hamilton died from his wounds.
Hope Katz Gibbs, Grateful American™ Series: Yes, that story is so dramatic, and it’s often the only thing people remember about Hamilton. But there was so much more to his life and legacy.
Liam Strain: That’s right. In fact, Hamilton was a genius by most standards. His talents were recognized very early on in his youth. He came from very humble circumstances. He was born out of wedlock and raised on a small Caribbean island in the West Indies. He was effectively orphaned at about the age of 11 when his mother passed away, and his father had abandoned the family. Normally, someone struggling with those circumstances never would have risen to the heights that he did. But he was determined and able to succeed, because of his skills and tenacity.
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: Why is it that most of Hamilton’s accomplishments have been forgotten?
Liam Strain: I think his accomplishments are not necessary forgotten, just unattributed. We all live in Alexander Hamilton’s America, because the strongest arguments for federalism—The Federalist Papers—were written during the ratification of the US Constitution by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, under the pen name Publius.
The essays in the Federalist Papers were meant to explain the advantages of the Constitution and to persuade New York citizens to ratify it. The essays pointed out that the Constitution would allow the principle of popular sovereignty to continue and would help prevent internal dissolution and uneven distribution of power—problems that contributed to the failure of the Articles of Confederation.
Without that concept, and without it being accepted by the judiciary and the Congress, our federal government would have the power to do only explicitly what is spelled out in the Constitution.
Hope Katz Gibbs, Grateful American™ Series: Hamilton was also responsible for initiating ideas for generating the FBI, Social Security, NASA, and the National Park System, is that correct?
Liam Strain: Oh, yes. He was a brilliant man, and he was also known for being a bit of a dandy in his day. In fact, looking at his life as a whole, it seems like an adventure novel starting with the fact that he was born into poverty in the Caribbean before coming to America as a young man and then fighting in the American Revolution. He then became a captain of his own artillery company. If we just stopped there, his life would still have been quite a story.
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: During the Revolutionary War, he was an aide to George Washington?
Liam Strain: Yes. When Hamilton was barely in his 20s, he gained the trust of the most influential man in the Revolutionary Army—George Washington. Hamilton was assigned to espionage operations, and in managing those he dealt with many state governors. It’s amazing that though he was so young, he was able to carry that type of responsibility and not only do his job admirably, but do it beyond anybody’s expectation.
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: It has been said that without Washington, there would not have been an Alexander Hamilton.
Liam Strain: I think that’s the opinion of a number of historians. Some have argued the other way around—that Washington wouldn’t have been as successful as he was without Hamilton. He realized early on that his humble circumstances required that he would have to attach himself and learn from mentors who were older more established. He knew he would not be able to do it alone. He was very smart, but was denied formal schooling because he was an illegitimate child and wasn’t allowed into the Anglican Church, which ran the schools.
Hope Katz Gibbs, Grateful American™ Series: So he got good at looking for a workaround?
Liam Strain: That’s right. He was clever, certainly. He studied for the New York Bar for only six months before passing it, and he also was the creator of the New York Evening Post, (now the New York Post_) which is one of the longest living daily newspapers in history. Initially, it helped promote his ideas of the Federalist Party. His opponents had their own papers, too.
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: And another reason that Hamilton was a success can be attributed to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, who was part of a very prominent New York family.
Liam Strain: Indeed, Hamilton loved her deeply, and from all accounts they had a very affectionate relationship. Hamilton was also known to be a strong family man; he loved his seven children very much. This was a bit of a contrast to his reputation on the floor of Congress. In his role as a statesman, he was considered a steamroller—but at home he was a very different man.
The building of his house, The Grange, is a testimony to his life and to his contribution to the founding of the United States.
Hope Katz Gibbs, Grateful American™ Series: Tell us about the duel with former US Vice President Aaron Burr, which ended Hamilton’s life in July 1804.
Liam Strain: Soon after the 1804 gubernatorial election in New York—in which Morgan Lewis, greatly assisted by Hamilton, defeated Aaron Burr—the Albany Register published Charles D. Cooper’s letters, citing Hamilton’s opposition to Burr and alleging that Hamilton had expressed “a still more despicable opinion” of the vice president at an Upstate New York dinner party.
Burr, sensing an attack on his honor, and surely still stung by his political defeat, demanded an apology. Hamilton refused because he could not recall the instance. Following an exchange of three testy letters, and despite attempts of friends to avert a confrontation, a duel was scheduled for July 11, 1804, along the west bank of the Hudson River on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey. This was the same dueling site at which Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, had been killed three years earlier.
At dawn, Burr shot Hamilton. Hamilton’s shot broke a tree branch directly above Burr’s head.
The paralyzed Hamilton was ferried back to New York and taken to the Greenwich Village home of his friend William Bayard, Jr., who had been waiting on the dock. After final visits from his family and friends and considerable suffering, Hamilton died on the following afternoon, July 12, 1804, at Bayard’s home at what is now 80–82 Jane Street. Gouverneur Morris, a political ally of Hamilton’s, gave the eulogy at his funeral and secretly established a fund to support his widow and children. Hamilton was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan.
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: And this house, The Grange, stands as a testimony to his life. It has been moved twice from its original location, and today provides us with a fascinating look into his life.
Liam Strain: Indeed, Hamilton had a vision for this home. He called it his sweet project, and was intimately involved with every detail—including the circular rose garden in the front of the house, even though he was a poor farmer, and definitely not a gardener.
He wanted a home in the summertime where his family could get away from the risk of yellow fever, which was taking the lives of many in the lower sections of New York. So this home was designed to be very light and airy with double windows. It was also designed for entertaining. He held many garden parties where musicians would hide behind trees so that the guests would just kind of ethereally walk through the woods and hear music playing.
Hope Katz Gibbs, Grateful American™ Series: These stories are so fascinating, and really help bring Hamilton to life. How do you pass on this enthusiasm for history to kids—and adults?
Liam Strain: One of the things we try to do here is to make the story relevant to their lives by making it human. There is a bust of Hamilton out in the foyer. History is not that cold; everyone can relate to its stories of universal values and experiences, family, war, love, and hate.
Hamilton’s life is filled with stories that relate to kids—he came from a broken home, he was raised by a single mother who died when he was a young boy, and he had to rely on himself. He aspired to greater things, and wanted to take risks and have adventures. These are all kinds of things kids can grab onto. From there we can talk about how Hamilton took those desires and feelings and became one of the country’s founding fathers. He sought to do good, and from that came great things.
David Bruce Smith, Grateful American™ Series: So if there were three things I could do tonight to pass on an interest in Alexander Hamilton to my children, what would they be?
Liam Strain: Great question! I like the idea of sitting around the dinner table thinking about Alexander Hamilton. So here’s some food for thought.
- Know the importance of teamwork. Hamilton is brilliant, and he knows he is—but he also knew he couldn’t do great things alone.
- Be friends with people from all kinds of backgrounds. Hamilton was not an elitist. He had friends at every level in society. When he first came to New York and went to King’s College, he had an Irish friend and lived with him for a while. Hercules Mulligan was a member of the Sons of Liberty and was a tailor who ended up being a spy for Washington. Hamilton could move throughout different circles easily and valued different people.
- Understand that school rules. Hamilton also knew the value of education. Although he was mostly self-taught, he had the mental firepower to do that. Many people today question the value of education and if being in debt is worth a college education. Hamilton definitely felt it was critical to be book-smart—and street smart, too. It’s the combination that makes someone into the kind of man that Hamilton was.
For more information about Alexander Hamilton’s The Grange, visit www.nps.gov/hagr.