Hamilton knew he could not escape Burr's vengeance; that he must fight the fatal duel, in obedience to that "code of honor" which had tyrannically bound gentlemen since the feudal ages, though unknown to Pagan Greece and Rome. There was no law or custom which would have warranted a challenge from Aeschines to Demosthenes, when the former was defeated in the forensic and oratorical contest and sent into banishment. But the necessity for Hamilton to fight his antagonist was such as he had not the moral power to resist, and that few other men in his circumstances would have resisted. In the eyes of public men there was no honorable way of escape. Life or death turned on his skill with the pistol; and he knew that Burr, here, was his superior. So he made his will, settled his affairs, and offered up his precious life; not to his country, not to a great cause, not for great ideas and interests, but to avoid the stigma of society,--a martyr to a feudal conventionality. Such a man ought not to have fought; he should have been above a wicked social law. But why expect perfection? Who has not infirmities, defects, and weaknesses? How few are beyond their age in its ideas; how few can resist the pressure of social despotism! Hamilton erred by our highest standard, but not when judged by the circumstances that surrounded him. The greatest living American died really by an assassin's hand, since the murderer was animated with revenge and hatred. The greatest of our statesmen passed away in a miserable duel; yet ever to be venerated for his services and respected for his general character, for his integrity, patriotism, every gentlemanly quality,--brave, generous, frank, dignified, sincere, and affectionate in his domestic relations.
His death, on the 11th of July, 1804, at the early age of forty-seven,--the age when Bacon was made Lord Chancellor, the age when most public men are just beginning to achieve fame,--was justly and universally regarded as a murder; not by the hand of a fanatic or lunatic, but by the deliberately malicious hand of the Vice-President of the United States, and a most accomplished man. It was a cold, intended, and atrocious murder, which the pulpit and the press equally denounced in most unmeasured terms of reprobation, and with mingled grief and wrath. It created so profound an impression on the public mind that duelling as a custom could no longer stand so severe a rebuke, and it practically passed away,--at least at the North.
And public indignation pursued the murderer, though occupying the second highest political office in the country. He paid no insignificant penalty for his crime. He never anticipated such a retribution. He was obliged to flee; he became an exile and a wanderer in foreign lands,--poor, isolated, shunned. He was doomed to eternal ignominy; he never recovered even political power and influence; he did not receive even adequate patronage as a lawyer. He never again reigned in society, though he never lost his fascination as a talker. He was a ruined man, in spite of services and talents and social advantages; and no whitewashing can ever change the verdict of good men in this country. Aaron Burr fell,--like Lucifer, like a star from heaven,--and never can rise again in the esteem of his countrymen; no time can wipe away his disgrace. His is a blasted name, like that of Benedict Arnold. And here let me say, that great men, although they do not commit crimes, cannot escape the penalty of even defects and vices that some consider venial. No position however lofty, no services however great, no talents however brilliant, will enable a man to secure lasting popularity and influence when respect for his moral character is undermined; ultimately he will fall. He may have defects, he may have offensive peculiarities, and retain position and respect, for everybody has faults; but if his moral character is bad, nothing can keep him long on the elevation to which he has climbed,--no political friendships, no remembrance of services and deeds. If such a man as Bacon fell from his high estate for taking bribes,--although bribery was a common vice among the public characters of his day,--how could Burr escape ignominy for the murder of the greatest statesman of his age?
Yet Hamilton lives, although the victim of his rival. He lives in the nation's heart, which cannot forget his matchless services. He is still the admiration of our greatest statesmen; he is revered, as Webster is, by jurists and enlightened patriots. _No_ statesman superior to him has lived in this great country. He was a man who lived in the pursuit of truth, and in the realm of great ideas; who hated sophistries and lies, and sought to base government on experience and wisdom.
"Great were the boons which this pure patriot gave, Doomed by his rival to an early grave; A nation's tears upon that grave were shed. Oh, could the nation by his truths be led! Then of a land, enriched from sea to sea, Would other realms its earnest following be, And the lost ages of the world restore Those golden ages which the bards adore."
Hamilton's Works; Life of Alexander Hamilton, by J. T. Morse, Jr.; Life and Times of Hamilton, by S. M. Smucker; W. Coleman's Collection of Facts on the Death of Hamilton; J. G. Baldwin's Party Leaders; Dawson's Correspondence with Jay; Bancroft's History of the United States; Parton's Life and Times of Aaron Burr; Eulogies, by H. G. Otis and Dr. Nott; The Federalist; Lives of Contemporaneous Statesmen; Sparks's Life of Washington.