Hamilton in Washington—Part II

The musical Hamilton is at the Kennedy Center this summer and is playing to packed galleries. A song at the end, “Who Loves, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” challenges audiences to think about how history is told, particularly the life of Alexander Hamilton, a founding father and the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. While Hamilton primarily uses lyrics and songs to tell Hamilton’s story, the National Portrait Gallery has relied on special exhibitions to do just that. A fascinating former Portrait Gallery exhibition titled, “The Code Duello in America,”documented the tragic end of Hamilton’s life in graphic detail.

print of Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, c. 1793–1814; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton by James Sharples, c. 1796; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

While his famous duel with Aaron Burr, a political rival and the sitting vice president, was only a part of the larger exhibition, his demise was made especially poignant in letters and artifacts. Included was an issue of the Albany Register, which published letters, allegedly by Hamilton, criticizing Burr as “a dangerous man...not to be trusted.” Also on display was Burr’s written challenge, June 27, 1804, and two last letters from Hamilton to his wife Eliza, explaining that his honor was at stake and that he saw no honorable way of avoiding a duel with Burr. 

Of special interest were the dueling pistols, on loan from Chase Manhattan Bank. These were the same weapons that Hamilton’s son, Philip, had used in a duel two years earlier. In the hands of their adversaries, these guns took the lives of both father and son.