‘Doctor, I Despair’ – The Duel and Death of Philip Hamilton

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Considered the jewel of his family, the “eldest and brightest hope,” Philip Hamilton rushed to his father’s defense on November 23, 1801 to duel Republican lawyer George I. Eacker in Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Instructed to reserve his fire, young Hamilton fell on the field, a bullet shot through his body. He died the next morning, two months short of his twentieth birthday, and not three years before his father would die in a similar manner.

The Renowned Philip

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton had groomed his son to be a Federalist lawyer like himself and had great hopes for his future accomplishments. One friend of Philip’s mother, Eliza, boasted to her, “Tell the Renowned Philip I have been told that he has outstripped all his competitors in the race of knowledge and that he daily gains new victories.” He had recently graduated Columbia University with high honours before he had been swept into the battles between his father and the Jeffersonians.

Like many challenges following the foundation of the new government, Philip’s duel had been initiated over an insult involving political principles. Eacker had delivered a speech the previous Fourth of July, calling Hamilton’s army during the Quasi-War a weapon against Republicans. According to biographer Broadus Mitchell, Eacker protested, “To suppress all opposition by fear, a military establishment was created, under pretended apprehension of a foreign invasion.” Eacker’s accusations caught Philip’s attention.

Confrontation at the Park Theater

Federalist and Republican newspapers contest what exactly happened three months later when Philip and a friend named Price recognized Eacker at the Park Theater in Manhattan, NY. Eacker had been seated with a male friend and two ladies when he, as noted by The American Citizens and General Advertiser, “heard some gentlemen talk unusually loud, and from certain words, perceiving their observations were pointed at him.” Hamilton and Price ridiculed Eacker, “replete with the most sarcastic remarks” in manners considered “indecent.” Eacker directed the young men to the lobby.

Once outside, Eacker grabbed Philip by his collar and declared, “It is abominable to be publicly insulted by a set of rascals!” Hamilton and Price exclaimed, “Who do you call damn’d rascals?” They demanded to know whom he had called a “rascal.” “We insist upon a direct answer,” they said. “Well then you are both rascals,” Eacker declared, and made it clear he expected to hear from both of them; he was initiating a duel. The youths agreed.

A Ritualized Conflict

Philip Hamilton had been caught in the code of honour, the rituals which governed how men of character conducted themselves. “This ritualized conflict,” writes historian Thomas Fleming, “was based on the assumption that a gentleman had to be prepared to defend his honour at all times.” Eacker and Price followed through their duel quickly, with neither harming the other, and honor was considered restored. Philip consulted a friend, David S. Jones, and his uncle John Barker Church, who had recently dueled Aaron Burr, on the next appropriate response.

Jones and Church met with Eacker’s second to negotiate; because Philip had been the aggressor, he was prepared to apologize if Eacker would retract the insult. The Hamiltonian New York Evening Post records Eacker refusing the terms: “Mr. E[acker] appeared more irritated against Mr. H[amilton] than against Mr. P[rice] as he considered Mr. H[amilton] the principal in the affair.” Negotiations fumbled and the parties prepared to duel.

Alexander Hamilton sat in the background as the events progressed. He was at a challenge: though dueling was against the law in New York, if Philip backed down he ran the risk of being labeled a coward, putting an end to his political career; Philip had to be prepared to stand by his words with action, or no one would take him seriously as an honourable gentleman.

Few men went into a duel prepared to kill their opponent. Shooting to kill ran the same risk of destroying reputations as choosing not to duel. Aware of this, Hamilton, as Thomas W. Rathbone wrote, “commanded his son, while on the ground, to reserve his fire ’till after Mr. E[acker] had shot and then to discharge his pistol in the air.” This would preserve his reservations against mortally wounding an opponent and keep Philip’s reputation undamaged.

The Price of Honour

The American Citizen concludes that on the field, Eacker waited for Philip to fire, seemingly unaware of his decision to delope. After minutes of waiting, both men raised their pistols, and Eacker fired the fatal shot. Philip’s seconds rushed him to his uncle’s house, where he died hours later. Doctor Hosack recalled upon seeing Philip’s wounds, Alexander Hamilton “instantly turned from the bed and, taking me by the hand, which he grasped with all the agony of grief, he exclaimed in a tone and manner that can never be effaced from my memory, ‘Doctor, I despair.’”

Philip Hamilton was one among a generation of gentlemen who adhered to the code of honour, which his father had followed since arriving in the American colonies. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of personal honor to an eighteenth century gentleman,” writes historian Joanne Freeman. “Honour was the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood.” Alexander Hamilton, like other hypersensitive men attached to their reputations, was compulsively driven to defend his name. Philip had inherited this pressure to not only defend his father’s reputation but also uphold his own dignity as a man.

The Aftermath

Depression gripped Hamilton following Philip’s death. “My loss is indeed great,” he mourned. “The highest as well as the eldest hope of my family has been taken from me.” His oldest daughter, Angelica, who had been close to her brother, soon suffered a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. But the loss of two children did nothing to discourage Hamilton from guarding his reputation. In 1804, he would meet Vice President Aaron Burr’s challenge, using the pistols from his son’s duel.

Bibliography:

  1. Dawson, Henry B. “The duels Between Price and Philip Hamilton, and George I. Eacker.” The Historical Magazine, 2nd series, 2, October 1867. Articles referenced: The American Citizens and General Advertiser, Vol. II, No. 529, New York, November 26, 1801; The New York Evening Post, No. 12, New York, November 28, 1801; Letter by Thomas W. Rathbone, November 21-December 9, 1801.
  2. Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. Basic Books, 1999.
  3. Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  4. Hamilton, Allan McLane. The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.
  5. Hamilton, Alexander. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. Eds., Harold C. Cyrett and Jacob E. Cooke. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-1987. Letters referenced: Letter to John Dickinson, March 29, 1802, vol. 25, p. 583; Ibid., p. 436n; Ibid. p. 437; Letter to Benjamin Rush, March 29, 1802, Ibid., p. 584.
  6. Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788-1804. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
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