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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Fallen Men: Comparing the Eulogies of Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln

In 1804, after one of the nation’s founding fathers was killed in a duel by a political rival, clergymen across the country found themselves in a somewhat difficult position. How were Christians to remember a patriot whose last public act was a violation of the sixth commandment? How could Americans honor an architect of the Constitution who had died as an enemy of government? With the daunting task of combining eulogy and jeremiad in the very same sermon, American divines naturally drew from the Bible, and no text of Scripture supplied more fitting imagery than the book of 2 Samuel. After the self-inflicted death of Israel’s first king, Saul, in a battle with the Philistines, David offers a lament for the loss of his predecessor and concludes with the words, “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” (1:27) America’s pastors seized on this verse to make sense of national tragedy. In Charleston, South Carolina, Baptist Richard Furman offered his own lament, exclaiming, “‘How is the mighty fallen!’ How! Was it by the act of God that this great man fell?” He then answered, “No: It was through the influence of party-rage; and by a practice handed down from barbarous ages and nations; by which even they were disgraced. When, America! When, O my country! Shall these evils cease to afflict thee!”[1] Similarly, in Albany, New York, Presbyterian Eliphalet Nott preached an entire sermon from 2 Samuel 1:27. Three times Nott cried out, “How are the mighty fallen!” Taking note of Hamilton’s “fallen son” who had died just three years earlier, Nott described Hamilton as an Adam-like figure: “He stood on an eminence; and glory covered him. From that eminence he has fallen, suddenly, for ever, he has fallen.” For Nott, Hamilton’s demise impacted every single American: “How are the mighty fallen! And regardless as we are of vulgar deaths, shall not the fall of the mighty affect us!”[2]

Indeed, the idea of fallenness captured well the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton for a number of reasons. Although Hamilton was not the first or the last political figure in America to be eulogized in these terms, the manner of his fall was unlike any before him or since. For example, after George Washington passed away at Mount Vernon in 1799, clergymen likewise described his death as a “fall.” But pastors like Baptist Henry Holcombe and Methodist William Guirey preached instead from 2 Samuel 3:38: “Know ye not that there is a great man fallen?[3] In 1804, clergymen called Hamilton a patriot, a statesman, a genius, a scholar, and even a gentleman. But relatively few called him a “great man.” Even Rev. John M’Donald, who went to great lengths to exonerate Hamilton from wrongdoing, did not choose 2 Samuel 3:38 as his text. Instead he preached from verses 33 and 34: “And the king lamented over Abner, and said, died Abner as a fool dieth? Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet in fetters: as a man falleth before wicked men, so fallest thou. And all the people wept again over him.[4] Hamilton had died a fool’s death. His fall was a fall from grace. Like the prophet Elijah, the deceased Washington had risen in “upward flight.”[5] But Hamilton was no Elijah. In 1865, 2 Samuel 1:27 was one of the most common texts that Northern Protestant ministers used to eulogize Abraham Lincoln after his assassination.[6] But like Washington, Lincoln was venerated as an American Moses and “our country’s Savior.”[7] Lincoln’s death was compared to that of Jesus Christ, “an un-exampled sacrifice of treasure and blood.”[8] Hamilton garnered neither of these comparisons. Rather, the concept of fallenness was most appropriate for Hamilton because of its roots in Genesis, a book of which Hamilton once wrote an entire commentary. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, and unlike Washington or Lincoln, Hamilton’s fall was something he had brought upon himself. Although “he fell a victim” to Aaron Burr, to most Americans, Hamilton was both victim and perpetrator, casualty and culprit. A duel was, in the words of one Episcopal priest, “suicide and murder.”[9] Eliphalet Nott voiced the agony of the infant nation when he concluded, “The fall of Hamilton owes its existence to mad deliberation, and is marked by violence.”[10]

All three men — Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln — were described as fallen. But whereas Washington fell gloriously and Lincoln fell sacrificially, Hamilton fell in the most traditional and biblical sense: sinfully. In each case, the language of 2 Samuel helped the American nation to heal.

[1] Richard Furman, Death’s Dominion Over Man Considered: A Sermon, Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Major General Alexander Hamilton (Charleston: W. P. Young, 1804), in Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster, Jr. (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 2004), 244.

[2] Eliphalet Nott, A Discourse, Delivered in the North Dutch Church, in the City of Albany, Occasioned by the Ever to be Lamented Death of Gen. Alexander Hamilton, July 29, 1804 (Albany: Websters and Skinner, 1806), 15, 18. [3] Henry Holcombe, A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of Lieutenant-General George Washington (Savannah: Seymour & Woolhopter, 1800); William Guirey, A Funeral Sermon, on the Death of General George Washington (Salem: Joshua Cushing, 1800). [4] John M’Donald, A Sermon on the Premature and Lamented Death of General Alexander Hamilton (Albany: John Barber, 1804). [5] Richard Furman, Humble Submission to Divine Sovereignty: The Duty of a Bereaved Nation (Charleston: W. P. Young, 1800), in Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster, Jr. (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 2004), 378. [6] David B. Chesebrough, “No Sorrow like Our Sorrow”: Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1994), xvii. [7] Samuel Barnes, Discourse on the Death of President Abraham Lincoln (Baltimore: John D. Toy, 1865), 3. [8] Gurley, “Sermon,” 18–19. [9] John Mitchell Mason, An Oration, Commemorative of the Late Major-General Alexander Hamilton (London: R. Edwards, Crane Court, Fleet Street, 1804), 23; James Abercrombie, A Sermon, Occasioned by the Death Major Gen. Alexander Hamilton (Philadelphia: H. Maxwell, 1804), 49. [10] Nott, A Discourse, 5.

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