This past weekend was the 210th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr. Commemorations took place around New York City–at the Weehawken, New Jersey dueling site; at Hamilton’s home in upper Manhattan, recently restored and relocated in St. Nicholas Park; and at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Burr, who somehow survived the scandal, later married his wealthy second wife. Commemorations conclude this afternoon with a ceremony at Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Churchyard.
Hamilton was a complicated man–brilliant, handsome, charming, visionary; but also reckless, prideful, and a schemer. He had remarkable achievements. He attended the Constitutional Convention and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, including Number 78, on the judiciary; he established the finances of the United States as first Secretary of the Treasury; he founded a nationalist, commercial conservatism that survives to this day. Although this is somewhat less known, he also wrote one of the most important texts on the place of religion in American public life.
Most people know the story of his duel with Burr, the sitting Vice President, which took place on the morning of July 11, 1804. Burr challenged Hamilton after reading some disparaging remarks Hamilton allegedly had made about him during a gubernatorial election. Hamilton could have avoided the duel, had he wanted. But he chose not to, inflaming the situation with his lawerly, evasive answers to Burr’s questions. He told friends before the duel that he did not intend to shoot Burr, and indeed his bullet that morning drifted harmlessly into the trees. Perhaps he expected Burr to act the same way. Duels often ended with both parties wasting their shots.
Some historians believe, though, that Hamilton no longer cared much about living. He was approaching 50 and his political career was over, largely as a result of his own unsuccessful machinations. “Every day proves to me more and more,” he wrote Gouverneur Morris in 1802, “that this American world was not made for me.” He was heavily in debt. And he was shattered by the death of his son, Philip, in a duel two years before–defending his father’s honor, at that same Weehawken dueling ground, with the very pistols Hamilton selected for his own duel with Burr. Did Hamilton court death that July morning? Who knows? In any event, Burr shot to kill and hit his target. Hamilton lingered for a while in agony and died, back in New York, the next day.
But about Hamilton and American religion. Even after he left the Cabinet in 1795, Hamilton continued to advise President George Washington, who was a father figure to him. As Washington’s retirement neared in 1796, he asked Hamilton for help with his Farewell Address, and Hamilton prepared a draft. The ideas were Washington’s own. But the words were Hamilton’s.
One famous section of the Farewell Address relates to the proper place of religion in public life:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
How very American this is. Note the generic reference to “religion,” as opposed to Christianity. From the beginning, American public religion has had a non-sectarian cast. Most Americans in 1796 were Christians, as most are today. Most would have understood the reference to religion to mean the Christian religion. But our public expression of religion typically avoids expressly Christian imagery. In part this reflects the Deism of many of the Founders. But it also reflects an Evangelical faith that is comfortable with biblical non-sectarianism. In America, religious conservatives demand public display of the Ten Commandments. In Europe, they demand public display of the crucifix.
Note, too, the practicality of Hamilton’s appeal. Why is religion important? Because it’s true? Because people need salvation? No–it’s because of the pragmatic benefits religion provides, benefits even the “mere politician” can understand. To work properly, republicanism requires citizens to be moral; and to be moral, citizens require religion. To be sure, every now and then, one might find an exceptional person who is moral without religion. But that can never be true for most people. And it doesn’t matter what the religion is. This, too, is very American. As a twentieth-century American president famously remarked, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
Hamilton’s own faith ebbed and flowed. As a young man, he was a pious Christian. His college roommate remembers him praying every morning and evening. But he leaned toward Deism as he matured. Indeed, he appears to have been a bit of a scoffer. When someone asked him why the Constitution failed to mention God, he famously joked, “We forgot.” Later in life, though, he appears to have returned to his boyhood Christianity, dismayed, as many American conservatives were, by the anti-Christianity of the French Revolution. Two years before he died, he proposed a Christian Constitutional Society to counter Jacobinism in the United States. Perhaps he was thinking as a “mere politician.” But on his deathbed, he requested, and received, Communion.