Chances are you know a little something about the family of one Alexander Hamilton. Regarded as one of America’s “founding fathers”, Hamilton’s life and legacy were brought into the spotlight in 2015 with the opening of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical Hamilton: An American Musical. Based on historian Ron Chernow’s novel Alexander Hamilton, the much-lauded production sparked an intense interest in all things colonial.
Towards the end of Act I, the audience is introduced to Alexander’s firstborn child: Philip. Throughout Act II, we see Philip grow and begin following in his father’s footsteps. Intelligent, attractive, and born to a well-known family, Philip Hamilton’s future seemed promising. Unfortunately, due to bravery or foolishness—maybe both— Philip Hamilton’s life was cut short.
Philip’s Early Life
Philip’s father married Eliza Schuyler (pronounced sky-ler) on December 14, 1780, at her father’s mansion in upstate New York. Two years later, Philip was born on January 22, 1782. Named after his mansion-owning grandfather, Philip would be the eldest of eight children.
At an extraordinarily early age, his father determined his son was destined for brilliance. Letters to friends include a declaration by Alexander at the time of his son’s birth that he was “attended with all the omens of future greatness.” No pressure, kid.
Subsequent correspondences—Alexander was known for his prolific writing—included testimony that the boy was “most agreeable in his conversation and manners” and that “he has a method of waving his hand that announces the future orator.” At the time, Philip was barely 7 months old.
In 1797, Philip fell ill with an unnamed but potentially fatal illness. Witnesses claim that his father was by his side and “administered every dose” of medication to make him well. Hamilton recovered and continued his education.
Upon completion of boarding school, Philip enrolled at his father’s alma mater: Columbia University (formerly King’s College). After graduating with honors in the year 1800, young Hamilton continued in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a law degree. Determined to steer Philip in the right direction, Alexander scheduled his son’s days precisely. Records show a regimen that dictated, “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.” This didn’t leave much time for fun.
On July 4, 1801, lawyer George Eacker gave a rousing speech at a celebration hosted by the New York State militia and a group known as Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was a Democratic-Republican organization that controlled much of the New York City and State politics for over a century. One of the group’s key supporters was Aaron Burr, third Vice President of the United States and a key figure in Alexander Hamilton’s life—and death—but that’s another story.
Eacker’s speech on the 25th anniversary of the nation’s independence was delivered to party loyalists, labor organizations, and the Tammany squad. Some accounts of the address insist that Eacker accused the elder Hamilton of using his position then as Inspector General to intimidate his political enemies. He also allegedly stated that Alexander Hamilton was supportive of those that wished to overthrow then-president Thomas Jefferson. Other documents attest that the speech was filled with patriotic themes and did not mention Alexander Hamilton at all.
Philip’s closeness to his father and his ideals regarding honor prompted him to seek an apology from Eacker. Young Hamilton considered Eacker’s speech—though he did not hear it first-hand—to be slanderous towards his father and confronted him four months later.
Attending a play at the Park Theatre with his fiancee, Eacker was approached by Hamilton and his friend (and theatre manager) Stephen Price. The three exchanged pleasantries and then insults. Witnesses claim that Eacker called both men “damned rascals”—fightin’ words in those days.
Both Price and Hamilton demanded “satisfaction” from Eacker for his insults. In those times, “satisfaction” was understood to be reparation or compensation for an injury or wrong. Often, this was gained—and lost—via a duel.
The Dueling Ground
At noon on November 22, 1801, Price met Eacker in Weehawken, New Jersey. Duels were illegal in New York, but as Miranda quips in the musical, “Everything is legal in New Jersey.” (In reality, they weren’t allowed in NJ either.) Despite firing four shots between them, neither Eacker nor Price was injured. The two men shook hands and considered the matter settled.
Philip Hamilton was to meet Eacker the very next day. Alexander Hamilton, in an effort to prepare his son to face Eacker honorably, provided him with both weapon and words of advice. He told his son to “delope” or, more familiarly, “throw away his shot.” This was accepted as a common tactic to end the conflict.
After counting ten paces and turning, both Hamilton and Eacker chose to aim their pistols at the ground. As tension mounted, the two men continued to stare at one another. After at least a full minute, finally, Eacker raised his gun. This prompted Hamilton to follow suit, but Eacker fired first. The bullet entered Hamilton above his right hip and ricocheted until it became lodged in his left arm. Philip did manage to get a shot off before collapsing, but it hit nothing.
After the Fall
Accounts state that Hamilton was “calm and composed beyond expression.” He was taken back to New York and to the home of his aunt Angelica Schuyler Church. Upon hearing of his son’s injuries, Alexander rushed to the home of Dr. David Hosack. Hosack was already on his way to assess Philip’s condition and according to the good doctor, when Hamilton arrived at the Church residence, he immediately fainted.
When he regained consciousness, he was brought to Philip’s bedside. The doctor’s notes say, “he instantly turned from the bed and, taking me by the hand, which he grasped with all the agony of grief, he exclaimed in a tone and manner that can never be effaced from my memory, ‘Doctor, I despair.’” Eliza Hamilton arrived shortly thereafter. Philip’s parents stayed with him throughout the night and at 5:00am the next morning, he succumbed to his injuries.
Philip’s death was said to be the cause of his sister Angelica’s mental demise. She suffered a mental breakdown where she was only occasionally lucid and trapped in a state described as “eternal childhood.”
Famously, only a few years later, using the same pistol, and in almost the same location, Philip’s father Alexander would be shot and killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr.
Philip’s grave is in the cemetery at Trinity Church in New York City. It is unmarked, but somewhere near the graves of his parents and family. Eliza Schuyler was pregnant at the time of her eldest son’s death and in June of 1802, she gave birth to another boy and named him Philip.
Eacker died only a few years after Philip. After fighting a fire in January of 1802, he developed a cold that would “settle upon his lungs.” Records conflict as some say that he died of consumption while others say tuberculosis. Eacker joined Hamilton in January of 1804.
What might Hamilton have accomplished if he had lived? How might he have followed in the footsteps of his father? What legacy would he have created for himself? Thanks to the hubris of both men, we’ll never know.