Alexander Wasn't the Only Hamilton to Fall in a Duel

The fledgling United States fought Revolutionary France at sea in the early 19th century. Tensions nearly led to all out war – with Alexander Hamilton as Commander of the United States Army. A diplomatic solution averted war. National Archives

Washington, D.C. of the day being barely a village, the center of American political debate was in New York, where the Jeffersonian Republicans’ believed that a strong federal government would destroy individual liberties. Hamilton and the Federalists believed that a strong federal government was all that protected liberty from outside predators such as the French.

Young Philip Hamilton agreed with the arguments of his father, and said so frequently and forcefully, although not in a manner which interfered with his enjoyment of the social life of New York. On the 4th of July, 1801, just a few months after Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were inaugurated as President and Vice President respectively, the younger Hamilton attended an Independence Day celebration, the first in the nation with the Republicans in power.

Among the activities was a speech by a militia captain and New York lawyer named George Eacker, who roundly condemned the recent raising of an Army against France, comparing Alexander Hamilton to Julius Caesar in his desire to conquer the republic at the head of an army, and praising republican political sentiment for saving the country. Young Hamilton was displeased.

He mulled over his displeasure for several months until, in November, he happened upon Eacker during the performance of a play at Manhattan’s Park Theater (then known as the New Theater, it would become the Park decades later when no longer new). In the company of a friend Philip interrupted Eacker and his party, which included two young ladies of fashion, in his box and using insulting language of the day, (which would be considered mild by 21st century standards) goaded Eacker into an indignant response.

The parties retired to a nearby tavern – the early 19th century equivalent of stepping outside – and Eacker informed Hamilton that he expected to hear from him, a statement which meant that he expected Philip to send a second to arrange for Eacker to obtain satisfaction – in other words, to fight a duel. Eacker then returned to the theater where within the hour he received a letter from Hamilton proposing a duel.

Artist’s rendering of the interior of the New Theater – later the Park Theater, New York. Captain Eacker’s box would have been similar to those in the upper center. New York Public Library

Historians dispute whether this image is of Philip Hamilton or a younger brother. If Philip it was drawn after his death by another brother. It was customary in the manners of the day for representatives of the injured parties to attempt a means of restoring injured honor without resorting to violence, and just as customary for such efforts to be huffily rejected.

Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, although slightly less so in Jersey, whose constables presumably had better things to do than babysit dishonored New Yorkers. The duel was arranged for the afternoon of the 23rd, in what is now Jersey City, using pistols provided by Hamilton’s uncle. In this the duel deviated from convention; as the “injured” party the choice of weapons should have been Eacker’s, but he evidently did not object to either the breach of etiquette or the weapons selected.

Alexander Hamilton, experienced with the field of honor, did not attempt to dissuade his son from facing Eacker, but instead encouraged him to delope, a French term which meant to deliberately fire to miss his opponent, thereby restoring honor and ending the duel. In the event it is possible Philip tried to do so, both parties held their fire for nearly a full minute after the call of “present” before Eacker fired, wounding Philip just above the right hip.

Philip’s pistol discharged harmlessly as he fell. Philip died after 14 hours of agony, his father and mother at his bedside. Philip’s mother was three months pregnant at the time of her son’s death; the following year the newborn would be named Philip Hamilton II in honor of his deceased brother. Eacker, his injured honor restored by the standards of the day, fled to avoid prosecution.