Volume 45 - Issue 3

American Prophets: Federalist Clergy’s Response to the Hamilton–Burr Duel of 1804

By Obbie Tyler Todd


More than any event in early American history, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804 revealed Federalist clergy to be the moral guardians of American society and exposed the moral fault lines within the Federalist party itself. In the aftermath of Hamilton’s scandalous death, godly Federalists spoke prophetically to the American people, to politicians, and even to their own party. While other Federalists chose to present Hamilton as something of a political martyr, Federalist clergy broke with the party line in order to issue a nationwide clarion call against the practice of dueling, a clear violation of the sixth commandment. Their prophetic voice helped to end the menace of dueling in America.

In America’s first two-party system, Federalists were the social and fiscal conservatives of the new republic. They contended for a strong national government, a loose interpretation of the Constitution, friendly diplomatic relations with Britain, and a centralized banking system. Some, like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, even campaigned for presidents to remain in office for life, an arrangement which smelled like monarchy to most Republicans. However, many Federalists also proved themselves to be morally and theologically conservative. For example, in New England, most Calvinists and disciples of Jonathan Edwards were Federalists.1 One scholar has labeled Edwards’s grandson, Timothy Dwight, the “architect of godly Federalism.”2 Even the Edwardsean Samuel Hopkins, one of the most outspoken abolitionists for his era, was in fact a Federalist. In South Carolina, Baptist Richard Furman cultivated friendships with Federalists such as Senator Charles Pinckney, a signer of the United States Constitution, and Chancellor Henry W. DeSaussure, whose Phocion letters defined South Carolina Federalism.3 In the North and the South, in both established and disestablished churches, the conservative politics of Federalism paired well with the conservative religion of Calvinism. Although a Jeffersonian “wall of separation” had been erected between church and state, those who sought to preserve the strengths of Puritan theology were also determined to maintain the best of their civil religion.4 Federalism offered a way for many Calvinists to defend the traditional social values of the past in the early years of the American experiment.

The Calvinistic pulse that ran through much of the Federalist party has led Jonathan J. Den Hartog to identify “the Federalization of American Christianity” in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. According to Den Hartog, Federalist ministers were “innovative contributors to the public culture of the early republic who were seeking their own ends, not dupes of Federalist politicians.”5 They were, if one will permit the anachronism, the nation’s first culture warriors. Federalism was by no means a theological movement, but its conservatism often overlapped with something Mark Noll has called the “Puritan canopy” in early America.6 Even the Unitarian John Adams, the son of a Congregationalist deacon, never lost many of his Puritanical sensibilities.7 Clinging to the Puritan idea that both church and state had a responsibility to supervise public morality, Federalist clergy became the nation’s first public theologians, actively engaged in the stewardship of their infant American culture. No event in early American history revealed Federalist clergy as the moral guardians of American society and exposed the moral fault lines within the Federalist party like the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. In the aftermath of Hamilton’s scandalous death, Federalist clergy spoke prophetically to the American people, to politicians, and even to their own party.

The Hamilton–Burr duel was the cause celebre which established Federalist clergy as the self-appointed guardians of American public morality. Hamilton’s life symbolized a host of Federalist ideals, but his death became the tragic stage upon which godly Federalists played the heralds of virtue, demonstrating their moral probity in a way that many lay Federalists would not and partisan Republicans could not. Faced with the fall of a Federalist hero at the hands of a political enemy, these pastors and theologians refused to overlook the “moral turpitude” of any duelist, regardless of his party affiliation.8 While other Federalists chose to present Hamilton as something of a political martyr, Federalist clergy broke with the party line in order to issue a nationwide clarion call against the practice of dueling, a clear violation of the sixth commandment.

Federalist clergy believed dueling to be “a great national sin” which demanded immediate personal and political action.9 Their primary indictment against dueling was its lack of honor. Therefore, Federalist divines labored earnestly to show that worldly honor was defined by its concern for private interest while godly honor, in the mold of Christ, always promoted the public good. Hamilton’s death was a time to mourn and a time to teach, and no Federalist preacher lamented his passing without a strict denunciation of his sin and a call to the saving gospel. As a result, virtually every eulogy of Hamilton turned into an elegiac jeremiad to the ethical decay of American society.10 The Hamilton–Burr duel was, in the words of Congregationalist Samuel Spring, an “alarming event which now impresses and agitates the public mind.”11 In the wake of this national controversy, the theological descendants of Puritanism attempted to recalibrate the moral compass of America and to distance themselves from worldly partisanship. Richard Furman urgently exhorted his listeners, “Perhaps there never was a period since we became a nation, which, from a general concurrence of public sentiment, was so favorable to such a benevolent attempt, as the present.”12 Federalist clergy believed that the Hamilton–Burr duel presented them with an opportunity to change the moral fiber of their young country, and they seized that opportunity with wave after rhetorical wave upon the American conscience.

1. A Culture of Dueling

1804 was not simply another election year. When Americans went to the polls in November, their votes would decide something of a tie between Federalists and Republicans for the presidency. After Washington’s two terms, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had each claimed one term for their respective parties. Therefore, Federalists had every reason to frame the July 11 duel between Major General Hamilton and Jefferson’s vice president in a politically fortuitous light.13 Harrison Gray Otis, a lawyer and politician from Boston and one of the most important leaders in the Federalist party, downplayed Hamilton’s disgrace. On multiple occasions in a eulogy delivered on July 26, Otis described Hamilton’s act as an innocuous “mistake.”14 He then seemed to exonerate Hamilton by depicting his decision to duel as the valorous sacrifice of a patriot:

While it is far from my intention to draw a veil over this last great error, or in the least measure justify a practice, which threatens in its progress to destroy the liberty of speech and of opinion; it is but justice to the deceased, to state the circumstances which should palliate the resentment that may be excited in some good minds towards his memory. From the last sad memorial which we possess from his hand, and in which, if our tears permit, we may trace the sad presage of the impending catastrophe, it appears that his religious principles were at variance with the practice of dueling, and that he could not reconcile his benevolent heart to shed the blood of an adversary in private combat, even in his own defense. It was then from public motives that he created this great mistake. It was for the benefit of his country that he erroneously conceived himself obliged to make the painful sacrifice of his principles, and to expose his life.15

Federalist clergy were not at all interested in Otis’s feckless evaluation of the duel. In their eyes, Hamilton’s death was not the result of patriotism but of pride. Despite Hamilton’s ambivalent thoughts about dueling penned just before his duel with Burr, Federalist divines refused to justify such a selfish and dangerous act. Although Hamilton objected to the “expected interview with Col. Burr” on “moral and religious principles,” he was a duelist nonetheless.16

Samuel Spring had a personal connection to the duel. Before serving in the Revolutionary War as chaplain, he had been classmates with Aaron Burr in Theological Studies at Princeton. Burr went on to study law and Spring became a Congregationalist minister in Newburyport, Massachusetts, eventually co-founding Andover Theological Seminary. The text and subtitle to Spring’s discourse on August 5 made very clear his stance on the matter: “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” As a Federalist, Spring thought very highly of Hamilton. However, he had a very different take on Hamilton’s so-called objection to dueling:

No man knows that he is not in heaven. But where do we collect satisfactory evidence of his godly sorrow for accepting the challenge on his darling principle of honor? That he disapproved dueling and its consequences on the malignant, general principle, there is ample evidence. But his saying, both before and after the bloody combat, that he had no wish to injure his adversary is more like the polite duelist who claims the right of death for the sake of private honor than like Col. Gardiner, who nobly said to his challenger: “I am not afraid to sin against God.”17

In the midst of a generation seeking to justify its evil practices, Federalist clergy were instead engaged in the justification of God. Even the losing end of a duel was attempted murder and prohibited by divine law. Such was the view of Yale’s ninth president, Timothy Dwight. No Federalist theologian had a more personal involvement with the Hamilton–Burr duel than Dwight. As the grandson of the fabled Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr was Dwight’s cousin. Nevertheless, for Dwight, “moral and religious principles” were altogether absent in the Hamilton–Burr duel. Neither Burr nor Hamilton nor any duelist could claim to be on the side of God by taking part in such a barbaric exercise. So urgent was the issue of dueling in Dwight’s mind that he wasted no time in addressing it to his students in New Haven. On the Sunday before the Fall commencement, Dwight preached a sermon in Yale’s chapel called “The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling.”18 Speaking of medieval knights, Dwight insisted, “God was then believed to give success invariably, to the party which had justice on its side. Modern duelists neither believe, nor wish, God to interfere in their concerns.”19 Despite their love for Hamilton, clergyman could not stomach the hypocrisy of those duelists who claimed civilized religion.

Following the shameful death of the party’s chief intellectual, Federalist pastors had the delicate task of honoring the life of a beloved patriot whose demise appeared to tarnish his legacy. Wishing not to speak ill of the dead, most clergymen spent considerable time in their eulogies recounting Hamilton’s accomplishments, even while condemning his final moments. In one of his first orations as president of Union College (where Burr’s uncle Jonathan Edwards Jr. had once been president), Eliphalett Nott even compared Hamilton’s death to that of the sainted George Washington.20 However, despite Hamilton’s lifetime of service, Nott and others believed that Hamilton’s death signaled a flashpoint in the life of the young nation. Now was the time to do something about the public menace of dueling. Unlike the Jeffersonian clergyman Nathaniel Howe, who believed that Federalists were modern “Pharaohs” returning the new republic to Old World bondage, Federalist clergy believed themselves to be modern Elijahs, speaking difficult truths to a freed, idolatrous people.21 Nott declared, “But though justice should still slumber and retribution be delayed, we, who are the ministers of that God who will judge the judges of the world, and whose malediction rests on him who does his work unfaithfully, we will not keep silence.”22 In his sermon in Albany, New York, Presbyterian pastor John M’Donald took one step further. For him, the Hamilton–Burr duel was actually ordained by God to rattle the American conscience and to awaken the soul of the country: “The recent stroke, considered in all its circumstances, I view as the awful voice of heaven incensed at our nation. We have tamely left the destructive monster to stalk among us, we have dared to give him titles of honor. God in his wrath has permitted him to cut down the fairest ornament of our nation, and the ablest champion of our rights.”23 M’Donald urged, “let his blood, unjustly shed, rouse America from her slumbers, and excite her determined opposition.”24 To many, Hamilton’s passing was the last straw. It was God’s judgment upon America. If laws and human decency could not break the spell of dueling, perhaps the death of an American patriot could.

In American Honor, Craig Bruce Smith insists that dueling never defined American honor culture.25 Federalist clergymen believed similarly. Timothy Dwight affirmed, “In this country, certainly, the public voice is wholly against the practice.”26 But the urgency with which Federalist clergymen attacked the practice of dueling stemmed from their belief that dueling was beginning to infect and perhaps even embody the American ethic. Federalist divines unanimously agreed that dueling had taken hold of American culture itself. As Smith demonstrates,

The biggest impact the Hamilton–Burr engagement had on dueling culture in America was more philosophical than practical. Most of society was in clear and vocal opposition to the practice. But despite all of this negative attention, dueling remained. Before 1800, there were only seventy-five duels in American history; through the nineteenth-century, the number surged to over seven hundred. As the next generation came of age, it began to embrace the romanticism of the duel.27

While most Americans denounced dueling in theory, its abiding presence in American life was beginning to erode the moral foundations of society and influence the younger generation. Future president Andrew Jackson, who just three years later became associated with Aaron Burr in a conspiracy to seize Spanish territory and create a separate nation, was the subject of criticism during his campaigns for the several duels in which he engaged. Most historians believe that Jackson unknowingly involved himself in the imbroglio because he was attempting to restore his own reputation from a previous duel!28 In the eyes of Federalist clergy, what Americans opposed with their lips, they supported with their own actions. When Federalist statesman Gouverneur Morris could not bring himself to address the manner of Hamilton’s death at his funeral, it represented the refusal of many founding fathers to address the evil of dueling. Morris simply said, “You all know how he perished. On this last scene, I cannot, I will not dwell.”29 However, many Federalist clergymen were willing to speak clearly and adamantly on the issue. In their minds, dueling was a national epidemic, no longer relegated to the periphery of American society. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had finally brought the issue to center stage.

In a kind of early American virtue signaling, Federalist clergymen were expressing their strong disapproval of dueling and their conviction that it was quickly impugning the values for which they had fought in the Revolution. By 1804, they were convinced that America had submitted to a toxic culture of dueling. Eliphalet Nott believed it to be a “barbarous custom” which “is undermining the foundations of civil government.”30 According to Episcopalian minister James Abercrombie, dueling “is rapidly gaining ground, and its advocates daily increasing among us.”31 These ministers were even willing to speak on behalf of Hamilton for the sake of admonishing the nation. “The voice of Hamilton’s blood,” New York City Reformed pastor John Mitchell Mason charged, “calls for a remedy.”32 Two years after the event, in front of an anti-dueling organization, famed Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher preached an oration entitled “The Remedy for Duelling.”33 Lyman’s warning was stern: “The practice of dueling is rapidly progressing—disseminating its infection, and deadening the public sensibility. The effect is already great and alarming.”34 The culture of dueling was growing, and with the authority of the church, Federalist clergy were attempting to change that culture. Their primary invective against dueling centered around its erroneous definition of honor. They believed that America needed to be re-educated.

2. Redefining Honor

The Hamilton–Burr duel was more than a national tragedy. For Federalist divines, it was a moral litmus test. If Alexander Hamilton’s death could not shake the American public from serial dueling, certainly nothing could. Samuel Spring even wondered, “Will it not make more duelists than it will suppress?”35 The aftermath of the most infamous duel in American history was a proving ground for the American people, and Federalist clergy were reminding them of that fact. At the heart of the matter was honor. According to John M’Donald, “Dueling has become the disgrace and scourge of that portion of the Christian world that profess sacred regard to honor.”36 Ultimately, every duel in early America was fought over the issue of honor. However, as Craig Bruce Smith has shown, honor was an elastic term in the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years.37 In the republican sense, honor was no longer something that “descended” according to family or class, but instead became something that “ascended” with the moral fiber of the individual.

Perhaps more than any single group of Americans, Federalist clergy relentlessly emphasized the moral element in the idea of honor. Consequently, their first task was to distinguish godly honor from its sinful counterfeit, and they used a range of names in order to classify the latter. According to godly Federalists, the honor of the duelist was “imaginary honor,” “false honor,” “worldly honor,” “honor of a murderer,” “modern honor,” “specious honor,” and “honor prostituted.”38 In reality, worldly honor was no honor at all. By their estimation, duelists’ honor was defined by inherent selfishness. It was found in those who “will … abandon the public good and pursue his private interest.”39 In other words, false honor has no regard for the honor of others. It drove men like Alexander Hamilton to abandon their principles and love of country in order to settle petty feuds. In his July 31 sermon, John Mitchell Mason lamented, “Ah! What avails it to a distracted nation that Hamilton was murdered for a punctilio of honor? My flesh shivers! Is this, indeed, our state of society?”40 A false notion of honor had engulfed American culture and claimed one of its brightest stars.

In the South, where the concept of honor was given significant cultural weight, the dishonor of dueling was incompatible with Christian chivalry.41 In his eulogy of Hamilton, Richard Furman asked, “What a spirit of resentment, and false honor, has it promoted in the community at large?”42 Federalists were especially prone to equate the anarchy of dueling with the same “infidelity” of the French Revolution, both of which were antithetical to their sense of honor.43 For Eliphalet Nott, a duelist who claimed honor for himself was claiming an empty term: “Who is it then? A man of honor! And who is this man of honor? A man, perhaps, whose honor is a name; who prates with polluted lips about the sacredness of character, when his own is stained with crimes and needs but the single shade of murder to complete the dismal and sickly picture.”44

Federalist clergy applied another set of names to what they perceived as biblical honor. In contrast with false honor, biblical honor was “true honor,” “divine honor,” “real honor,” and “virtuous honor.”45 This kind of honor was defined by an abiding concern for the public good. In this sense, it was the honor of the gospel. In the case of Hamilton, John M’Donald believed that his fellow New Yorker should have simply followed the model of Christ, renounced the world’s honor, and turned the other cheek:

I see no way that remained for him but to yield to this abominable custom, and try to preserve unsullied honor in the world’s eye, or to renounce her censure and her praise when different from the approbation of God, and to have publically embraced the cross and the Savior, accounting with a very great man, all things else, when compared to the excellence of Christ, as loss! loss!46

The most honorable thing a duelist could do in the heat of a duel was to simply walk away. Ironically, the figure “whose duty it is to preserve the honor of our country” had now become an example of dishonor to the rest of the nation, his death a public offering in order to avert America’s sin and rally its people around the true definition of honor.47

Federalist clergy were calling their fellow Americans to look beyond their own private affairs and to consider the well-being of others. The evil of dueling was found in its blatant disregard not only of fellow man, but of society at large. Duelists were anarchists, essentially harming their entire community by taking up arms against a single person. Timothy Dwight believed that dueling was “wasting with its violence the public good.”48 He then defined the true sense of honor: “duelists claim the character of delicate and peculiar honor. On what is this claim founded? Are they most sincere, just, kind, peaceable, generous, and reasonable than other men? These are the ingredients of an honorable character.”49 Had not Hamilton’s life embodied these things? Had not America been founded on these principles? After all, the essence of honor was its disinterestedness, a republican ideal that had colored the thinking of almost every founding father, including Hamilton. According to Gordon Wood, “The virtue that classical republicanism encouraged was public virtue…. Public virtue was the sacrifice of private desires and interests for the public interest. It was devotion to the commonweal.” Wood adds, “Republicanism thus put an enormous burden on individuals. They were expected to suppress their private wants and interests and develop disinterestedness—the term that eighteenth century most often used as a synonym for civic virtue.”50

Therefore, in one sense, Federalist clergy were simply calling the nation back to its supposed moral foundation and away from the “idolatrous altar of false honor and imaginary rectitude.”51 For this reason, more than one divine harkened back to the Federalist Papers, where, along with John Jay and James Madison, under the pseudonym Publius, Hamilton’s “genius has left a manual for the future statesmen.”52 By taking part in the duel, Hamilton had engaged in self-contradictory behavior and led other Americans away from their American ideals. Eliphalet Nott echoed most Federalist clergy when he insisted,

Each lives for the benefit of all. As in the system of nature the sun shines, not to display its own brightness and answer its own convenience, but to warm, enlighten and bless the world; so in the system of animated beings, there is a dependence, a correspondence, and a relation through an infinitely extended, dying and reviving universe, in which no man liveth unto himself and no man dieth to himself. Friend is related to friend; the father to his family; the individual to community. To every member of which, having fixed his station and assigned his duty, the God of nature says, “Keep this trust–defend this post.” For whom? For thy friends–thy family–thy country. And having received such a charge, and for such a purpose, to desert it is rashness and temerity.53

The man of honor was a man of the people, concerned with public welfare and not his own. This was the honor of the American Revolution, not that of the French Revolution. The death of Alexander Hamilton was a reminder of the precariousness of that distinction. In typical Federalist, anti-Jacobin style, John Mitchell Mason asked, “Is fidelity honorable? That man forswears his faith, who turns against the bowels of his countrymen, weapons put into his hand for their defense. Are generosity, humanity, sympathy honorable?”54 In order to redefine honor, Federalist divines were invoking the precepts of the Bible along with the very best ideals of the Revolutionary age.

3. A New Jeremiad

Federalist clergy were willing to sacrifice the stainless legacy of Andrew Hamilton upon the altar of civilized religion. In their mind, without the latter, Hamilton’s lifetime of virtuous deeds meant nothing. After all, patriots had shed their blood for “fidelity.” To John Mitchell Mason, Hamilton’s act was much more than a “mistake”; it was a depraved “error” that issued a loud warning to the American people:

Fathers, friends, countrymen! The grave of Hamilton speaks. It charges me to remind you that he fell a victim, not to disease nor accident; not to the fortune of glorious warfare; but, how shall I utter it? To a custom which has no origin but superstition, no ailment but depravity, no reason but in madness. Alas! That he should expose his precious life. This was his error. A thousand bursting hearts reiterate, this was his error. Shall I apologize? I am forbidden by his living protestations, by his dying regrets, by his wasted blood.55

Hamilton had succumbed to superstition, depravity, and madness. Where some Federalists recoiled from such harsh language, godly Federalists were unafraid to indict the malefactors of society, even if it meant sullying the pristine legacy of one of Federalism’s heroes. James Abercrombie even compared Hamilton’s duel to suicide.56 Alexander Hamilton’s service to the young nation did not give him a pass nor did it protect his memory from moral scrutiny. Never before in the history of the United States had such a titanic figure received such sustained, scathing, public rebukes from members in his own party.

By highlighting the egregious crime of one of their own, and by mentioning so little of Aaron Burr, Federalist clergy were establishing themselves as the self-appointed moral guardians of American society, prophets to a new American people. Their homiletical approach can best be described as an elegiac jeremiad, a mix of paean and prophecy. With one breath, they praised Hamilton’s greatest works; and with another, they scrupulously dissected his greatest sin. In doing so, they simultaneously lionized and villainized Hamilton. On one hand, John M’Donald called Hamilton a “Hero” whose services to the country “were of the most important nature.”57 On the other hand, M’Donald unequivocally confirmed Hamilton’s depravity as a fellow sinner: “Let none imagine that when we feebly attempt to do some justice to the merit of the illustrious dead, that we mean to represent him without imperfection; or that we feel not high detestation at his acceptance of the bloody call. No one inherits human nature exempted from the depravity and frailties to which it has been subjected. Hamilton had not doubt a share in both.”58 In the annals of history, Hamilton was a giant. But the manner of his death ensured that he would never be canonized in the mold of Washington.

In one sense, Federalist divines were simply perpetuating a Federalist tradition since the beginning of the party. Federalists had long decried societal woes in the fledgling nation. In The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch notes how the “Federalist jeremiads” were deployed in response to events such as the Whiskey Rebellion and the Antirent War.59 According to Bercovitch, “The Federalist Jeremiahs saw their duty at once: they had to keep the Revolution on course by exorcising the demons of rebellion.” He later adds, “The Federalists’ lament expressed the dangers inherent in social, technological, and economic growth. Like the Jeremiahs of old, they were supporting the system by calling attention to its current dysfunctions. The republican dream, they pointed out, presupposed mutuality (not conflict) between free enterprise and the common good.”60 Bercovitch soundly locates the Federalist “Jeremiahs” who repeatedly identified the dangerous extremes in American culture.

However, there were a group of Federalists who weren’t chiefly concerned with social, technological, and economic issues. Bercovitch does not account for the Federalist clergymen who served as the moral and spiritual barometers of the incipient nation. While these godly jeremiads were of the same Federalist genus, they were not of the same species. Federalist divines weren’t simply admonishing extremist Republicans; they were also speaking sternly to their fellow Federalists. Samuel Spring believed that no duelist, regardless of party, should be allowed to hold public office after a duel:

For custom is the offspring of the public mind. It is evil communication which corrupts good manners: and it is public neglect or indulgence which supports public criminality. Without public influence to punish a duelist or disqualify him from holding any office in the union except that of a retired penitent we are a ruined nation. Duelists whether they go to the combat to assert and maintain the claims of personal honor; or to gratify their malevolent hearts in removing their rivals or adversaries, are hostile to the best interest of men and must and will be suppressed by a virtuous administration and a virtuous nation.61

Years later, Lyman Beecher stormed, “It is in vain to cry out ‘priest-craft’ or ‘political preaching.’ These watch-words will not answer here. The crime we oppose is peculiar to no party; it is common to all. It is a crime too horrid to be palliated; too threatening, to be longer endured in officers of government.”62 Beecher even indicted the American people for voting for such men. In his mind, hypocrisy was not reserved simply for the duelists; it also revealed the hypocrisy of the nation:

In your prayers, also, you entreat that God would bestow upon you good rulers; and you always pray, in reference to their moral character, that they may be just men, ruling in the fear of God. But by voting for duelists you demonstrate the hypocrisy of these prayers – for when, by the providence of God, it is left to your choice whom you will have, you vote for murderers. Unless, therefore, you would continue to mock God, you must cease praying for good men, or you must cease to patronize men of blood. Do you not pray also for the preservation of liberty and the continuance of national prosperity? And do you not know that good rulers are the instruments of the divine blessing; and that when God would chastise a people, unprincipled rulers are the rod of his anger? When, therefore, the selection of rulers is left to yourselves, will you disregard his chosen instruments of mercy, and expect his blessing? Will you put into his hand the rod of his anger, and expect to escape chastisement?63

In The American Jeremiad, Bercovitch sees Federalist Jeremiahs as a “long way from the Puritans.”64 However, not all Federalist Jeremiahs were so far away from their Puritan roots. In fact, many Federalist clergymen were theological descendants of the Puritans who took seriously the moral and spiritual implications of the Hamilton–Burr duel. The fact that almost every eulogy to Hamilton by a Federalist divine was preached from an Old Testament text is further evidence that American Christianity still saw itself much as the Puritans did: as a covenant people. Dueling attacked the heart of covenant theology by severing the bonds that Christians made with one another and defiling the covenant they made with their God.

Hezekiah North Woodruff’s stance on the Hamilton–Burr duel was obvious from the title of his August 12 sermon: “The Danger of Ambition Considered.” Like so many other Federalist pastors, Woodruff believed that Hamilton’s death was an opportunity to call Americans back to God: “O that his example might wake the feelings, and rouse the attention of every immoral and unbelieving heart!”65 This message crossed party lines, to all sinners, and Hamilton’s death ensured that everyone was listening.

4. American Prophets

The death of Alexander Hamilton was a turning point in American history, and Federalist divines knew it. John M’Donald describes the scene of widespread mourning:

In every place the wounding intelligence of his death has been received with consternation, with indignation, with horror. Whole cities have assembled to consult on the most becoming method of expressing their grief, and offering some tribute of respect to his memory. Societies of various kinds, military, social, literary and religious, have also met and agreed to join, on some peculiar ground, the universal mourning.66

Seizing the national moment, Federalist clergy used the Hamilton–Burr duel to speak prophetically to the American people and to try to end the practice of dueling once and for all. While Federalists were not the only pastors and theologians who preached earnestly against dueling, the death of Alexander Hamilton gave Federalist clergy the platform and the moral high ground to establish themselves as the guardians of American public morality. Federalist divines were not simply preaching to their congregations; they were stewarding American culture. Like the Puritans of old, they were shepherding a modern American people. With time, the practice of dueling waned in public life, largely due to the efforts of those clergymen who sought to convict the American conscience by laying bare the sin of one of its favorite sons.

Political rivals no longer draw pistols against one another in the public square, but the division, enmity, and toxicity of American politics has sharply increased in recent years. Too often our nation’s leaders seek the honor of their party above the praise of God. Sadly, the Hamilton–Burr duel was a bitter, albeit shocking, foretaste of things to come in the land of the free. Today, the venom of partisanship is no longer exchanged from the barrel of a gun, but rather from Twitter accounts, radio shows, news outlets, and sometimes even the pulpit. In an age no less polarized and politicized than the days of the early republic, the church can ill afford to lose its prophetic voice. When pastors simply echo the platform of a particular party rather than heralding the holy love of the cross, the church hides its light under the bowl of political pragmatism, the authority of Scripture is replaced with the fear of man, and the witness of the gospel is lost to the wisdom of the world. May the Federalist clergy in the early republic serve as a reminder to contemporary American pastors that the church draws its most lasting strength not from its ability to parrot the voices of the world or to rally against a common earthly enemy, but in its beautiful distinction from the world and in its worship of a common Lord. At critical moments in American history, Christian leaders are called to speak simply and truthfully into the cacophony of American politics, not as pundits or political rivals, but as those who have been set apart from the earthly duels that continue to plague the kingdoms of the world. By decrying and lamenting rather than justifying the callousness of those even in their own political tribe, Christians not only strengthen the moral compass of their own party; they also testify to the character and compassion of their King and declare to the world which kingdom they ultimately serve. In a nation of dueling parties, the church remains a holy nation, and a people for His own possession.

[1] Joseph Conforti notes, “Although Hopkins, like so many New England clerics, became a supporter of the Federalist Party, his doctrine of disinterested benevolence, and the social and political thought that flowed from it, allowed at best only a lukewarm, skeptical endorsement of the new government” (Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement: Calvinism and Reform in New England between the Great Awakenings [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008], 139).

[2] John R. Fitzmier, New England’s Moral Legislator: Timothy Dwight, 1752–1817 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 182.

[3] For the details of this account, see James A. Rogers, Richard Furman: Life and Legacy (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), 39; “Letter by Charles C. Pinckney to Richard Furman, 14 Feb. 1793,” Richard Furman Papers, Special Collections and Archives, 1960–016 (box 1, folder 5), Furman University; Henry William DeSaussure worked with Furman in the South Carolina legislature, particularly regarding the right of ministers to hold seats on the legislature.

[4] In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson used this phrase to describe the First Amendment and the freedom of religion. See Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002).

[5] Jonathan J. Den Hartog, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 17, 46.

[6] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 31.

[7] Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (London: Penguin, 2017), 25–26.

[8] Richard Furman, “A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Alexander Hamilton,” in Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster Jr. (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 2004), 245.

[9] Lyman Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling: A Sermon, Delivered before the Presbytery of Long Island at the Opening of Their Session at Aquebogue, April 16, 1806 (New York: J. Seymour, 1899), 31.

[10] A jeremiad, which derives its name from the prophet Jeremiah in the Bible, is a mournful lamentation.

[11] Samuel Spring, A Discourse, in Consequence of the Late Duel (Newburyport, MA: E. W. Allen, 1804), 4.

[12] Furman, “A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Alexander Hamilton,” 248.

[13] By 1804, the relationship between Jefferson and Burr was not as cozy as it had once been. Jefferson perceived Burr to be overly ambitious and something of a political rival.

[14] Harrison Gray Otis, Eulogy on General Alexander Hamilton, Pronounced at the Request of the Citizens of Boston, July 26, 1804 (New York: Isaac Collins and Son, 1804), 18.

[15] Otis, Eulogy on General Alexander Hamilton, 18.

[16] Eliphalet Nott, A Discourse Occasioned by the Death of General Alexander Hamilton (Schenectady, NY: G. Y. Van Debogart, 1853), 33.

[17] Spring, A Discourse, in Consequence of the Late Duel, 17.

[18] Timothy Dwight, The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling (Hartford, CT: Hudson and Goodwin, 1805).

[19] Dwight, The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling, 9.

[20] Nott, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 7.

[21] Nathaniel Howe, An Oration (Portland, Maine, 1805), 6.

[22] Nott, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 9.

[23] John M’Donald, A Sermon on the Premature and Lamented Death of General Alexander Hamilton (Albany, NY: John Barber, 1804), 28.

[24] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 29.

[25] Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 212–15.

[26] Dwight, The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling, 13.

[27] Smith, American Honor, 223.

[28] According to Mark R. Cheathem, “No doubt part of Jackson’s motivation was his desire to use Burr’s name in restoring his own reputation following the Dickinson duel a few months earlier” (Andrew Jackson: Southerner [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013], 47).

[29] Gouverneur Morris, “Alexander Hamilton,” in The World’s Greatest Speeches, ed. Lewis Copeland, Lawrence W. Lamm, and Stephen J. McKenna (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999), 265.

[30] Nott, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 6.

[31] James Abercrombie, A Sermon, Occasioned by the Death of Major General Alexander Hamilton, who was killed by Aaron Burr, Esq. Vice President of the United States, in a duel, July 11, 1804 (Philadelphia: H. Maxwell, 1804), 27.

[32] John Mitchell Mason, An Oration, Commemorative of the late Major General Alexander Hamilton (New York: Hopkins and Seymour, 1804), 25.

[33] Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling.

[34] Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling, 25.

[35] Spring, A Discourse, in Consequence of the Late Duel, 20.

[36] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 27.

[37] Smith, American Honor, 27.

[38] Abercrombie, Death of Major General Alexander Hamilton, 32, 38–39, 48–49; Spring, A Discourse, in Consequence of the Late Duel, 15, 17; Nott, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 16.

[39] Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling, 8.

[40] Mason, An Oration, 25.

[41] See Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[42] Furman, “Death of the Honorable Alexander Hamilton,” 245.

[43] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 30–31; Furman, “Death of the Honorable Alexander Hamilton,” 242.

[44] Nott, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 13–14.

[45] Abercrombie, Death of Major General Alexander Hamilton, 32; Spring, A Discourse, in Consequence of the Late Duel, 15, 17; Furman, “Death of the Honorable Alexander Hamilton,” 246.

[46] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 29.

[47] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 30.

[48] Dwight, The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling, 12.

[49] Dwight, The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling, 13.

[50] Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 104.

[51] Abercrombie, Death of Major General Alexander Hamilton, 51.

[52] Mason, An Oration, 12; M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 11.

[53] Nott, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 17–18, italics in original.

[54] Mason, An Oration, 24.

[55] Mason, An Oration, 23.

[56] Abercrombie, Death of Major General Alexander Hamilton, 26.

[57] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 10.

[58] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 26–27.

[59] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 134.

[60] Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 135, 137.

[61] Spring, A Discourse, in Consequence of the Late Duel, 22.

[62] Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling, 28.

[63] Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling, 17.

[64] Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 137.

[65] Quoted in Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor, 215; Hezekiah North Woodruff, The Danger of Ambition Considered in a Sermon Preached at Scipio, New York, Lord’s Day, August 12, 1804, Occasioned by the Death of General Alexander Hamilton, Who Fell in a Duel with Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States of America, on the 11th of July, 1804 (Albany, NY: G. Webster, 1804).

[66] M’Donald, Death of General Alexander Hamilton, 14.

Obbie Tyler Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, and is an adjunct professor of theology at Luther Rice College and Seminary.

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