Philip Hamilton (1782-1801)
Alexander Hamilton's eldest son and proudest hope for the future, Philip, died young in an ill-considered duel. After Philip's death, his father plunged into a grief from which he never fully recovered.
Named for his mother's father, the Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler, the Hamiltons' first child was born on January 22, 1782, in Albany, New York. Philip's birth "was attended with all the omens of future greatness," Hamilton wrote playfully, and at age seven months, the child had "a method of waving his hand that announces the future orator." Such statements were all in fun, except that Hamilton dearly wanted a worthy heir, a son who would himself rise to renown.
A Father's Expectations
At boarding school, Philip received letters of encouragement from his father. "Your teacher also informs me that you recited a lesson the first day you began, very much to his satisfaction," the elder Hamilton wrote. "I expect every letter from him will give me a fresh proof of your progress, for I know you can do a great deal if you please." As the boy grew up intelligent and charming, Hamilton's hopes for Philip's success increased. When Philip contracted a near-fatal illness in 1797, Hamilton administered every dose of medicine. Three years later Philip graduated with honors from Columbia and went on to study law. His father, as other mentors of the day did with their protégés, was determined to control every aspect of Philip's schedule during his studies. "From the first of April to the first of October," Hamilton wrote, "he is to rise not later than six o'clock; the rest of the year not later than seven. ... From the time he is dressed in the morning til nine-o'clock (the time for breakfast excepted) he is to read law." Certain evenings and weekend afternoons were apparently the only time the young man had to himself. And it was on the Friday evening of November 20, 1801, that Philip Hamilton's tragedy began.
It is impossible to know how much 19-year-old Philip's career would have compared with his father's, but the two men had certain temperamental similarities, including a strong sense of honor and a touch of recklessness. On the evening of November 20, Philip and his friend Richard Price attended a performance of a comedy called The West-Indian at Manhattan's Park Theater. There they spotted a 27-year-old Republican lawyer named George Eacker. Four months earlier, Eacker had given a speech suggesting that Alexander Hamilton wanted to use the U.S. Army, of which he had been inspector general, to intimidate political opponents. Now Philip and Richard, who may have been drunk, stormed Eacker's box at the theater and began to insult him, leading to an angry confrontation in the lobby and Eacker's charge that the two were "rascals." Though he and young Hamilton had initiated the argument, Price demanded a duel by letter delivered that very night, and Philip soon followed. His father made no effort to dissuade him, but advised Philip to engage in what the French called a delope, where the young man would either not fire first or fire harmlessly into the air.
Overwhelmed With Grief
Equipped with a set of ornate pistols borrowed from Hamilton's brother-in-law John Barker Church, Philip faced Eacker on November 23 at Weehawken, New Jersey, and received a mortal wound. Philip's death drove his sister Angelica mad, and at the burial, Hamilton could barely stand; one friend wrote that he had never seen "a man so completely overwhelmed with grief." The depression into which Hamilton plunged did not prevent him from engaging in another deadly duel three years later near the same spot his son had fallen, using the same set of pistols.