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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Lesson of a National Tragedy

By Eliphalet Nott (1773–1866)

[Born in Ashford, Conn., 1773. Died at Schenectady, N. Y., 1866. Discourse on the Death of Hamilton, delivered at Albany, 29 July, 1804.—Coleman’s “Collection.” 1804.]

I KNOW he had his failings. I see on the picture of his life, a picture rendered awful by greatness, and luminous by virtue, some dark shades. On these let the tear that pities human weakness fall: on these let the veil which covers human frailty rest. As a hero, as a statesman, as a patriot, he lived nobly: and would to God I could add, he nobly fell.

Unwilling to admit his error in this respect, I go back to the period of discussion. I see him resisting the threatened interview. I imagine myself present in his chamber. Various reasons, for a time, seem to hold his determination in arrest. Various and moving objects pass before him, and speak a dissuasive language. His country, which may need his counsels to guide, and his arm to defend, utters her veto. The partner of his youth, already covered with weeds, and whose tears flow down into her bosom, intercedes! His babes, stretching out their little hands and pointing to a weeping mother, with lisping eloquence, but eloquence which reaches a parent’s heart, cry out “Stay—stay—dear papa, and live for us!” In the mean time the spectre of a fallen son, pale and ghastly, approaches, opens his bleeding bosom, and, as the harbinger of death, points to the yawning tomb, and warns a hesitating father of the issue!

He pauses. Reviews these sad objects; and reasons on the subject. I admire his magnanimity. I approve his reasoning, and I wait to hear him reject with indignation the murderous proposition, and to see him spurn from his presence the presumptuous bearer of it.

But I wait in vain. It was a moment in which his great wisdom forsook him. A moment in which Hamilton was not himself.

He yielded to the force of an imperious custom: and yielding, he sacrificed a life in which all had an interest, and he is lost—lost to his country—lost to his family—lost to us. For this act, because he disclaimed it, and was penitent, I forgive him. But there are those whom I cannot forgive. I mean not his antagonist; over whose erring steps, if there be tears in heaven, a pious mother looks down and weeps. If he be capable of feeling, he suffers already all that humanity can suffer: suffers, and wherever he may fly, will suffer, with the poignant recollection of having taken the life of one who was too magnanimous in return to attempt his own. Had he have known this, it must have paralyzed his arm, while it pointed at so incorruptible a bosom the instrument of death. Does he know this now? his heart, if it be not adamant, must soften—if it be not ice, it must melt. But on this article I forbear. Stained with blood as he is, if he be penitent, I forgive him—and if he be not, before these altars, where all of us appear as suppliants, I wish not to excite your vengeance, but rather, in behalf of an object rendered wretched and pitiable by crime, to wake your prayers.

But I have said, and I repeat it, there are those whom I cannot forgive.

I cannot forgive that minister at the altar, who has hitherto forborne to remonstrate on this subject. I cannot forgive that public prosecutor, who, intrusted with the duty of avenging his country’s wrongs, has seen those wrongs, and taken no measures to avenge them. I cannot forgive that judge upon the bench, or that governor in the chair of state, who has lightly passed over such offences. I cannot forgive the public, in whose opinion the duellist finds a sanctuary. I cannot forgive you, my brethren, who till this late hour, have been silent, while successive murders were committed. No; I cannot forgive you, that you have not, in common with the freemen of this state, raised your voice to the powers that be, and loudly and explicitly demanded an execution of your laws. Demanded this in a manner, which, if it did not reach the ear of government, would at least have reached the heavens, and pleaded your excuse before the God that filleth them—in whose presence as I stand, I should not feel myself innocent of the blood that crieth against us, had I been silent. But I have not been silent. Many of you who hear me are my witnesses—the walls of yonder temple, where I have heretofore addressed you, are my witnesses, how freely I have animadverted on this subject, in the presence both of those who have violated the laws, and of those whose indispensable duty it is to see the laws executed on those who violate them.

I enjoy another opportunity; and would to God, I might be permitted to approach for once the late scene of death. Would to God, I could there assemble, on the one side, the disconsolate mother with her seven fatherless children—and on the other, those who administer the justice of my country. Could I do this, I would point them to these sad objects. I would entreat them, by the agonies of bereaved fondness, to listen to the widow’s heartfelt groans; to mark the orphans’ sighs and tears. And having done this, I would uncover the breathless corpse of Hamilton—I would lift from his gaping wound his bloody mantle—I would hold it up to heaven before them, and I would ask, in the name of God, I would ask, whether at the sight of it they felt no compunction?