One week after the Fourth of July in 1804, two renowned American statesmen squared off in a pistol duel for the ages. The combatants were Federalist stalwart Alexander Hamilton and his longtime Democratic-Republican rival Aaron Burr, whom Hamilton (as a congressman) had been instrumental in saddling with the vice presidency in the controversial Election of 1800.
Hamilton’s antipathy for Burr ran deep—in a list of indictments he penned on January 4, 1801, the father of the national bank fulminated, “[Burr] is in every sense a profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme, with uncommon habits of expence; in his profession extortionate to a proverb.” Yet on that fateful New Jersey morning in 1804, when Hamilton fired first, he missed—some argue deliberately (a tactic dueling buffs call deloping).
Whether Hamilton’s bullet into a nearby tree was an olive branch to Burr or simply a misfire is largely inconsequential—Burr was resolved to see the venture through. Taking his time to draw a bead on his helpless foe, the erstwhile vice president proceeded to plant a slug in the gut of Hamilton, dooming one of America’s most vigorous Founding Fathers to a painful death the next day.
This moment came at a time when Federalist influence in government was at a nadir; Hamilton’s demise was little-mourned by the Democratic-Republican nabobs in Philadelphia. Not till after the Civil War would Hamiltonian ideals of a strong central government again take hold of the nation.
The tragic saga of Hamilton—brought to vivid life by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster hip-hop musical—is the subject of a brand-new exhibition opening at Washington, D.C.’s National Postal Museum on May 25 in coincidence with the Kennedy Center’s staging of Miranda’s Hamilton. At the crux of the new exhibition will be the very firearms Hamilton and Burr aimed at one another in July 1804, never before displayed in the nation’s capital. Yet the pistols are just the tip of the iceberg, says philately curator Daniel Piazza, overseer of the show.
The ambitious display will be tripartite in structure, its sections focusing on Hamilton as soldier, Hamilton as Treasury Secretary, and Hamilton as enduring icon, respectively.
Among the Revolutionary War artifacts, Piazza is especially excited by a letter from Hamilton written in the crucible of Valley Forge, as well as a two-volume encyclopedia on fiscal policy that the teenaged immigrant improbably lugged around with him throughout his soldiering years. Even at this early juncture in life, Piazza says, “he was preparing to be Secretary of the Treasury.” Piazza adds that this degree of precocious scholarship was “very rare, even in the 18th century”—especially given the fact that Hamilton the Revolutionary warrior clearly had other responsibilities on his plate.
The middle section of the exhibition focuses on Hamilton’s tenure as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, using correspondence with the Customs Service to illustrate the extreme extent to which he kept tabs on the nation’s imports and exports so as to better craft monetary policy for the nation. Piazza says he was easily “the best-informed member of Washington’s Cabinet”—and it was an illustrious group.
Hamilton and Burr’s pistols bring an emotional close to this segment and transition the exhibition to Hamilton’s legacy, which Piazza says has been as controversial and ever-changing as his reputation in life. This final section is dedicated to a number of commemorative postage stamps, an honorary bust, and specially minted coins, shedding light on periods of Hamiltonian appreciation from the Reconstruction Era up to the present day.
The large exhibition will be up through next March, but Hamilton and Burr’s pistols, on loan from JPMorgan Chase & Co., will only be on view through June 24. So in order to get the full Hamilton experience, you’d best be quick on the draw.