Revolutionary Real Estate

Statesmen, soldiers and spies who made America and the way they lived

(Cheryl Carlin)
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(Continued from page 2)

If you drive the bear from his lair, don't expect him to be happy.

No longer young, George Mason found himself in Richmond, engaged in a pitched parliamentary battle of the sort he despised. Before the Revolution, he had withdrawn from elective politics, nervous about his health and impatient with other men's inflated oratory. Yet like so many of his generation, George Mason (1725–1792) had come back into public life to fight for his ideals and interests.

In the autumn of 1788, he was taking part in one final debate about the shape of the new American government. The Virginia Assembly had convened to ratify the Constitution, which Mason had helped draft the previous year in Philadelphia. But the irascible old militia colonel was there to oppose it, and his harsh arguments disappointed his colleagues. Unwilling to compromise, Mason found himself witnessing the ratification of the Constitution, which lacked what he thought were essential changes regarding individual rights and the balance of powers.

The embittered Mason retreated to his plantation on Dogue's Neck. Eventually, his personal promontory would be renamed Mason's Neck in honor of the old Patriot. But in his lifetime, his determined opposition to the Constitution cost Mason dearly.

From his formal garden, Mason's vista reached to the Potomac, a quarter mile away. He could watch ships departing from his own wharf, carrying his cash crop, tobacco, off to market. He himself had often embarked there on the short journey upstream to dine with George Washington at Mount Vernon. The men had a friendship of long standing. Though Mason had not been trained as a lawyer, Washington had called upon his renowned legal expertise in untangling property disputes, as well as for the revolutionary thinking that would prove to be Mason's most important legacy. The two men served as members of the Truro Parish Vestry, overseeing construction of the Pohick church, where their families worshipped together. In a 1776 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington summed up their relationship, calling Mason "a particular friend of mine."

Yet what Washington had termed their "unreserved friendship" came to an abrupt end after the events of 1788. The two had had other differences over the years, but the thin-skinned Washington broke off the friendship when Mason opposed ratification. After becoming president a few months later, Washington delegated one of his secretaries to respond to Mason's letters. More pointedly, he referred to Mason in a note to Alexander Hamilton in imperfect Latin as his "quandam [former] friend."

Alexander Hamilton's The Grange
New York, New York

As he sat at his desk writing, Alexander Hamilton could hardly help but think of his eldest son, Philip, namesake of his wife's father, General Philip Schuyler. Two years earlier, the nineteen-year-old boy had died in a duel—and now here his father was, putting pen to paper under the heading "Statement of the Impending Duel." Hamilton was readying for his own confrontation at dawn the following morning.

He expected an outcome quite different from what had befallen his son. Throughout his life, Hamilton had overcome great odds to succeed where other men might have failed. Not that he anticipated the fall of his challenger, the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr; in fact, as he wrote, "I have resolved . . . to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire." Hamilton was forty-nine years old, and after years immersed in political controversies, he was out of government service.  His old mentor George Washington was five years buried.  His chief political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, was ensconced in the President's House.  And the Federalist party that Hamilton  had helped establish seemed to be marching inexorably into irrelevance.

Hamilton reviled Burr and what he stood for. Or rather what he did not stand for, as Hamilton had been heard to observe that Burr was "unprincipled, both as a public and private man." It was a matter of honor for him to stand up to Burr, although viewed from a more modern perspective, it was a fool's errand, since Hamilton had nothing whatever to prove. His life had been filled with accomplishments. After success as General Washington's adjutant, he had won admiration for his bravery at the Battle of Yorktown. In civilian life he had served in the congress under the Articles of Confederation, then cowritten with James Madison and John Jay the essays in The Federalist, which were instrumental in winning ratification of the Constitution. As the first secretary of the treasury (1789–1795), he created a plan for a national economy, established a national bank, devised a means of funding the national debt, and secured credit for the government. Many people disliked Hamilton—his politics favored the rich, and he himself was vain and imperious, never suffered fools gladly, and had a dangerously sharp tongue—but no one questioned his intelligence or his commitment to the American cause.

But Hamilton wasn't writing about what he had done. His mind was on the impending duel and what he had to lose. "My wife and Children are extremely dear to me," he wrote, "and my life is of the utmost importance to them, in various views."

Hamilton's recent fade from public life had had two happy consequences. Now that he had time to devote to his law practice, his financial fortunes rose as his client list expanded, welcoming many of the most powerful people and institutions in New York. His private life had also taken a happy turn. Over the twenty-four years of his marriage, his wife, Betsy, had presented him with eight children, for whom she had assumed primary responsibility. But he had begun to appreciate anew the joys of family. Of late he had engaged in fewer extramarital distractions—some years before, one of his affairs had exploded in America's first great sex scandal.

And he sought a new contentment at the Grange, the country estate he had completed two years before in Harlem Heights. The events of the morning of July 11, 1804, changed all that. Contrary to his plan, Hamilton discharged his weapon; Burr also fired his. Hamilton's shot crashed into the branch of a cedar tree some six feet over Burr's head, but his opponent's aim was true. The Vice President's bullet penetrated Hamilton's abdomen on his right side, smashing a rib and passing through the liver before being halted by the spine. His lower body paralyzed, the dying man was taken to the mansion of a friend in lower Manhattan.


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