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America: I. (1761–1837). 1906.

Eliphalet Nott

On the Death of Hamilton

BEFORE such an audience and on such an occasion I enter on the duty assigned me with trembling. Do not mistake my meaning. I tremble indeed—not, however, through fear of failing to merit your applause, for what have I to do with that when addressing the dying and treading on the ashes of the dead; not through fear of failing justly to portray the character of that great man who is at once the theme of my encomium and regret. He needs not eulogy. His work is finished, and death has removed him beyond my censure, and I would fondly hope, through grace, above my praise.

You will ask then why I tremble? I tremble to think that I am called to attack, from this place, a crime, the very idea of which almost freezes one with horror—a crime, too, which exists among the polite and polished orders of society, and which is accompanied with every aggravation; committed with cool deliberation, and openly in the face of day! But I have a duty to perform: and difficult and awful as that duty is, I will not shrink from it.

Would to God my talents were adequate to the occasion. But such as they are, I devoutly proffer them to unfold the nature and counteract the influence of that barbarous custom which, like a resistless torrent, is undermining the foundations of civil government, breaking down the barriers of social happiness, and sweeping away virtue, talents, and domestic felicity in its desolating course. Another and an illustrious character—a father—a general—a statesman—the very man who stood on an eminence and without a rival among sages and heroes, the future hope of his country in danger—this man, yielding to the influence of a custom which deserves our eternal reprobation, has been brought to an untimely end.

The Hero, called from his sequestered retreat, whose first appearance in the field, tho a stripling, conciliated the esteem of Washington, our good old father. Moving by whose side, during all the perils of the Revolution, our young chieftain was a contributor to the veteran’s glory, the guardian of his person, and the copartner of his toils.

The Conqueror, who, sparing of human blood when victory favored, stayed the uplifted arm and nobly said to the vanquished enemy, “Live!”

The Statesman, the correctness of whose principles and the strength of whose mind are inscribed on the records of Congress and on the annals of the council chamber; whose genius impressed itself upon the Constitution of his country; and whose memory the government—illustrious fabric, resting on this basis—will perpetuate while it lasts; and shaken by the violence of party should it fall, which may Heaven avert, his prophetic declarations will be found inscribed on its ruins.

The Counselor, who was at once the pride of the bar and the admiration of the court; whose apprehensions were quick as lightning, and whose development of truth was luminous as its path; whose argument no change of circumstances could embarrass; whose knowledge appeared intuitive; and who, by a single glance, and with as much facility as the eye of the eagle passes over the landscape, surveyed the whole field of controversy; saw in what way truth might be most successfully defended and how error must be approached; and who, without ever stopping, ever hesitating, by a rapid and manly march, led the listening judge and the fascinated juror, step by step, through a delightsome region, brightening as he advanced, till his argument rose to demonstration, and eloquence was rendered useless by conviction; whose talents were employed on the side of righteousness; whose voice, whether in the council chamber, or at the bar of justice, was virtue’s consolation; at whose approach oppressed humanity felt a secret rapture, and the heart of injured innocence leaped for joy.

Where Hamilton was, in whatever sphere he moved, the friendless had a friend, the fatherless a father, and the poor man, tho unable to reward his kindness, found an advocate. It was when the rich oppressed the poor; when the powerful menaced the defenseless; when truth was disregarded or the eternal principles of justice violated—it was on these occasions that he exerted all his strength; it was on these occasions that he sometimes soared so high and shone with a radiance so transcendent, I had almost said, so “heavenly, as filled those around him with awe and gave to him the force and authority of a prophet.”

The Patriot, whose integrity baffled the scrutiny of inquisition; whose manly virtue never shaped itself to circumstances; who, always great, always himself, stood amid the varying tides of party, firm, like the rock which, far from land, lifts its majestic top above the waves and remains unshaken by the storms which agitate the ocean.

The Friend, who knew no guile; whose bosom was transparent and deep; in the bottom of whose heart was rooted every tender and sympathetic virtue; whose various worth opposing parties acknowledged while alive, and on whose tomb they unite, with equal sympathy and grief, to heap their honors.

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!”

But I have said, and I repeat it, there are those whom I can not forgive. I can not forgive that minister at the altar who has hitherto forborne to remonstrate an this subject. I can not forgive that public prosecutor who, entrusted with the duty of avenging his country’s wrongs, has seen those wrongs, and taken no measures to avenge them. I can not forgive that judge upon the bench, or that governor in the chair of state, who has lightly passed over such offenses. I can not forgive the public, in whose opinion the duelist finds a sanctuary. I can not 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 upon 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.

A short time since, and he who is the occasion of our sorrows was the ornament of his country. He stood on an eminence, and glory covered him. From that eminence he has fallen—suddenly, for ever fallen. His intercourse with the living world is now ended; and those who would hereafter find him must seek him in the grave. There, cold and lifeless, is the heart which just now was the seat of friendship. There, dim and sightless, is the eye whose radiant and enlivening orb beamed with intelligence; and there, closed for ever, are those lips on whose persuasive accents we have so often and so lately hung with transport! From the darkness which rests upon his tomb there proceeds, methinks, a light in which it is clearly seen that those gaudy objects which men pursue are only phantoms. In this light, how dimly shines the splendor of victory; how humble appears the majesty of grandeur! The bubble which seemed to have so much solidity has burst; and we again see that all below the sun is vanity.

True, the funeral eulogy has been pronounced; the sad and solemn procession has moved; the badge of mourning has already been decreed, and presently the sculptured marble will lift up its front, proud to perpetuate the name of Hamilton and rehearse to the passing traveler his virtues. Just tributes of respect! And to the living, useful. But to him, moldering in the narrow and humble habitation, what are they? How vain! how unavailing!

Approach, and behold while I lift from his sepulcher its covering! Ye admirers of his greatness, ye emulous of his talents and his fame, approach, and behold him now. How pale! How silent! No martial bands admire the adroitness of his movements; no fascinating throng weep, and melt, and tremble at his eloquence! Amazing change! A shroud! a coffin! a narrow, subterraneous cabin! This is all that now remains of Hamilton! And is this all that remains of him? During a life so transitory, what lasting monument, then, can our fondest hopes erect!

My brethren! we stand on the borders of an awful gulf, which is swallowing up all things human. And is there, amid this universal wreck, nothing stable, nothing abiding, nothing immortal, on which poor, frail, dying man can fasten? Ask the hero, ask the statesman, whose wisdom you have been accustomed to revere, and he will tell you. He will tell you, did I say? He has already told you from his deathbed, and his illumined spirit still whispers from the heavens, with well-known eloquence, the solemn admonition: “Mortals! hastening to the tomb, and once the companions of my pilgrimage, take warning and avoid my errors; cultivate the virtues I have recommended; choose the Savior I have chosen; live disinterestedly; live for immortality; and, would you rescue anything from final dissolution, lay it up in God.”

Thus speaks, methinks, our deceased benefactor, and thus he acted during his last sad hours. To the exclusion of every other concern, religion now claims all his thoughts. Disburdened of his sorrows, and looking up to God, he exclaims: “Grace, rich grace!” “I have,” said he, clasping his dying hands, and with faltering tongue, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of God in Christ.” In token of this reliance, and as an expression of his faith, he receives the holy sacrament; and having done this, his mind becomes tranquil and serene. Thus he remains, thoughtful indeed, but unruffled to the last, and meets death with an air of dignified composure and with an eye directed to the heavens.

This last act, more than any other, sheds glory on his character. Everything else death effaces. Religion alone abides with him on his death-bed. He dies a Christian. This is all which can be enrolled of him among the archives of eternity. This is all that can make his name great in heaven. Let not the sneering infidel persuade you that this last act of homage to the Savior resulted from an enfeebled state of mental faculties or from perturbation occasioned by the near approach of death. No; his opinions concerning the divine mission of Jesus Christ and the validity of the holy Scriptures had long been settled, and settled after laborious investigation and extensive and deep research. These opinions were not concealed. I knew them myself. Some of you, who hear me, knew them; and had his life been spared it was his determination to have published them to the world, together with the facts and reasons on which they were founded.

Who was it that, overleaping the narrow bounds which had hitherto been set to the human mind, ranged abroad through the immensity of space, discovered and illustrated those laws by which the Deity unites, binds, and governs all things? Who was it, soaring into the sublime of astronomic science, numbered the stars of heaven, measured their spheres, and called them by their names? It was Newton. But Newton was a Christian. Newton, great as he was, received instruction from the lips and laid his honors at the feet of Jesus. Who was it that developed the hidden combination, the component parts of bodies? Who was it dissected the animal, examined the flower, penetrated the earth, and ranged the extent of organic nature? It was Boyle. But Boyle was a Christian. Who was it that lifted the veil which had for ages covered the intellectual world, analyzed the human mind, defined its powers, and reduced its operations to certain and fixed laws? It was Locke. But Locke, too, was a Christian.

What more shall I say? For time would fail me to speak of Hale, learned in the law; of Addison, admired in the schools; of Milton, celebrated among the poets; and of Washington, immortal in the field and the cabinet. To this catalog of professing Christians, from among, if I may speak so, a higher order of beings, may now be added the name of Alexander Hamilton—a name which raises in the mind the idea of whatever is great, whatever is splendid, whatever is illustrious in human nature; and which is now added to a catalog which might be lengthened—and lengthened—and lengthened, with the names of illustrious characters whose lives have blessed society and whose works form a column high as heaven; a column of learning, of wisdom, and of greatness, which will stand to future ages, an eternal monument of the transcendent talents of the advocates of Christianity, when every fugitive leaf from the pen of the canting infidel witlings of the day shall be swept by the tide of time from the annals of the world and buried with the names of their authors in oblivion.

Everything else is fugitive; everything else is mutable; everything else will fail you. But this, the citadel of the Christian’s hopes, will never fail you. Its base is adamant. It is cemented with the richest blood. The ransomed of the Lord crowd its portals. Embosomed in the dust which it encloses, the bodies of the redeemed “rest in hope.” On its top dwells the Church of the first-born, who in delightful response with the angels of light chant redeeming love. Against this citadel the tempest beats, and around it the storm rages and spends its force in vain. Immortal in its nature, and incapable of change, it stands, and stands firm, amid the ruins of a moldering world, and endures for ever.

Thither fly, ye prisoners of hope!—that when earth, air, elements, shall have passed away, secure of existence and felicity, you may join with saints in glory to perpetuate the song which lingered on the faltering tongue of Hamilton, “Grace—rich Grace.” God grant us this honor. Then shall the measure of our joy be full, and to His name shall be the glory in Christ.