Hamilton – An American Musical: The Facts Behind the Music Part 18: “The Election of 1800,” “Your Obedient Servant,” “Best of Wives…,” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”

Part eighteen will cover songs forty-two to forty-five: “The Election of 1800,” “Your Obedient Servant,” “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”  These songs take us through the last years of the life of Alexander Hamilton.

Thomas Jefferson starts off the “Election of 1800” by singing, “John Adams shat the bed. I love the guy….” Even before Adams won the Presidency he was not particularly well liked by his peers.  Once in power, he did a number of things which upset his opponents and his own party.  A series of laws in particular, the Alien and Sedition Acts, were passed in 1798 in preparation for war with France.  These laws “tightened restrictions on foreign-born Americans and limited speech critical of the Government.”  It should be needless to say that many people, even those who may have leaned towards the Federalists, were not please with some of these new restrictions.  Also damaging himself within his own party, Adams decided not to ask for a war against France, instead engaging in what is known as the Quasi-War.  As for Jefferson saying he loves Adams, it’s widely known that the two men had a close friendship prior to serving in the Washington Administration.  However, by this point the relationship was frayed, and the damage done by the campaign for the Presidency made the severance complete.

Acknowledging that Adams was out of the race, Jefferson sings, “So now I’m facing Aaron Burr with his own faction.”  Burr didn’t really have his own faction.  He was a Democratic-Republican (like Jefferson), and it was expected (or hoped) by that party that he would receive the second-most votes, next to Jefferson.  As we shall soon see in this song, the two men received the same number of electoral votes.

Madison suggests to Jefferson, “It might be nice, it might be nice, to get Hamilton on your side.”  As early as May 1800 (and maybe earlier), Hamilton and other Federalists were working behind the scenes to have electors throw their weight behind Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for President over John Adams, relegating Adams back to the Vice Presidency, or removing him from office completely.  On May 7, 1800, Timothy Pickering wrote to William Loughton Smith:

“The only chance of a federal President will be by General C. C. Pinckney. It is proposed to run him with Mr. Adams; and as So. Carolina & part of North Carolina will vote for him, if the New England States also keep him on their votes, Mr. Pinckney will be elected. The Carolinians it is supposed will vote for Mr. Jefferson as well as Gen. Pinckney.”

The Federalists were willing to give Jefferson the Vice Presidency again if they could hold onto the Presidency, even if it meant throwing Adams under the bus.  At a meeting of the Federal Party in May, it was agreed that the South Carolinians would vote for Pinckney no matter which party’s electors gained the vote – “if federal of course for Adams & Pinckney, if antifederal for Pinckney & Jefferson.”  (It turned out later, however, that Pinckney refused to sanction the agreement.) [1]

Later in the song, there is an exchange between Burr and Hamilton:  “[B] I’m going door to door. [H] You’re openly campaigning? [B] Sure! [H] That’s new. [B] Honestly, it’s kind of draining.”  Interestingly enough, the April 28, 1800 issue of the Daily Advertiser, a New York City newspaper, ran a paragraph which read:

“Aaron, it is said–travels every night from one meeting of Republicans to another, harranguing and spiriting them up to the most zealous exertions.  Many people wonder that the Ex-Senator and the would be Vice-President can stoop so low as to visit every low tavern that may happen to be crowded with his dear fellow citizens.–But the prize of success to him is well worth all this dirty work.”[2]

As the cast sings to Hamilton, “If you had to choose, if you had to choose,” Madison tells Jefferson, “It’s a tie!”  Jefferson responds, “It’s up to the delegates,” and Madison says, “It’s up to Hamilton.”  Each elector was to cast two votes for different candidates.  The candidate with the highest number of votes became President, and the candidate with the second-highest became Vice President.  This left room for the intrigue mentioned above.  After the votes were tallied, there was a tie – Jefferson and Burr each received 73 electoral votes.  The Federalist plan failed at getting either of their candidates elected, and they didn’t get Pinckney more votes than Adams (65-64, with one going to John Jay, who wasn’t even in the running).


Later in the song Hamilton sings, “The people are asking to hear my voice, for the country is facing a difficult choice.  And if you were to ask me who I’d promote—Jefferson has my vote.”  In October, Hamilton published a letter “Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.”  (It runs over 14,000 words and 50 pages – if you expected it to be short, are you even a real Hamilton fan?)  As noted in an introductory piece to the letter, it’s nearly impossible to tell the effect of the letter on the election results, but “many contemporaries and historians have asserted that the Letter helped to prevent Adams’s re-election, to widen the division among Federalists, and to destroy the party as a national political organization.”  It is believed that Hamilton destroyed any future chances at gaining a political office after this letter was published, as his friends and enemies attacked him for it.[3]

There are two letters (at least) that claim Hamilton preferred Jefferson to Adams.  In one letter, which Hamilton wrote in May, he shares his belief that “Under Adams as under Jefferson the government will sink. The party in the hands of whose chief it shall sink will sink with it and the advantage will be on the side of his adversaries.”  By December, while the results of the election were still unknown a friend of Hamilton’s wrote to Rufus King, “General Hamilton makes no secret of his opinion that Jefferson should be preferred to Adams.”[4]

As for his reasoning, in the musical Hamilton sings, “But when all is said and all is done Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”  Hamilton wrote and received a number of letters after publishing his attack on Adams, some of which asked for his opinion on whether or not Jefferson was preferred to Burr.  I’ll focus on two in particular.  First, in a letter to Theodore Sedgwick dated December 22nd, Hamilton wrote:

“The appointment of Burr, as President would disgrace our Country abroad. No agreement with him could be relied upon. His private circumstances render disorder a necessary resource. His public principles offer no obstacle. His ambition aims at nothing short of permanent power and wealth in his own person. For heaven’s sake let not the Fœderal party be responsible for the elevation of this Man.”

On the following day, responding to Harrison Gray Otis, Hamilton wrote: “Burr loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing, short of permanent power in his own hands.”

Madison finally informs Jefferson, “You won in a landslide.”  Since there was an electoral tie, the House of Representatives decided the election.  The vote was scheduled to take place on February 11, 1801.  On the sixth day and thirty-sixth ballot, James A. Bayard, a Federalist from Delaware and the lone elector from his state, broke the tie by casting a blank ballot.  How was it a landslide then?  Federalists in Maryland and Vermont, where the representatives had been tied, also cast blank ballots, allowing those states to cast votes for Jefferson.  South Carolina, which had voted for Burr in each ballot before the last, also cast blank ballots.  Therefore, what had been thirty-five straight ballots where Jefferson received 8 votes and Burr 6 (with no results from two states), on the thirty-sixth ballot became 10 votes for Jefferson and 4 for Burr (two states still didn’t have votes).

After Burr congratulates Jefferson, and tells him he looks forwards to their partnership (and is mocked), Madison and Jefferson have an exchange: “[M] It’s crazy that the guy who comes in second gets to be Vice President. [J] Yeah, you know what? We can change that. You know why? [M] Why? [J] ‘cuz I’m the President.”  Although Jefferson couldn’t change that on his own, Congress could do so by using the Amendment process, and they did.  The 12th Amendment was passed by Congress on December 9, 1803 and ratified by the requisite number of States on June 15, 1804.  By this Amendment, electors were required to denote their votes for President and for Vice President separately.

Jefferson ends the song asking Burr for a favor that’s sure to get him upset: “Hey, Burr, when you see Hamilton, thank him for the endorsement.”


“Your Obedient Servant” begins with some familiar bars, and Burr singing parts of a letter to Hamilton: “Now you call me ‘amoral,’ a ‘dangerous disgrace.’”  He ends the letter singing, “I have the honor to be Your Obedient Servant A dot Burr.”  Hamilton didn’t write those things, but in the lead-up to the duel, Burr wrote Hamilton on June 18, 1804, and included a letter from Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler. Cooper asserted that Hamilton had declared “Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government,” and that he “could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”  This letter was printed in the Albany Register in April.  In his June letter, Burr asked Hamilton for a “prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr Cooper.”  Burr’s letter was indeed signed, “I have the honor to be Your Obt Svt A. Burr.”

It wasn’t the first time Hamilton had spoke ill of Burr.  Earlier in the year, for example, in a speech Hamilton had delivered in February at a meeting of the Federalist Party, Hamilton said of Burr, “If he be truly, as the fœderalists have believed, a man of irregular and insatiable ambition; if his plan has been to rise to power on the ladder of Jacobinic principles, it is natural to conclude that he will endeavor to fix himself in power by the same instrument.”  But unlike then, this time Burr did not ignore Hamilton.

In the musical, Hamilton responds to Burr.  Besides “I have the honor to be Sir Your obed. servt A Hamilton” there is not much of the same language used.  What does come close is in the musical are two lines Hamilton sings: “Even if I said what you think I said you would need to cite a more specific grievance,” and “I don’t wanna fight, but I won’t apologize for doing what’s right.”  In reality, Hamilton responded to Burr’s letter on June 20th.  In the real letter, Hamilton questions “the meaning of this declaration” (the one in the paragraph above, with the word despicable), and then enters the realm of semantics.

“’Tis evident, that the phrase ‘still more dispicable’ admits of infinite shades, from very light to very dark. How am I to judge of the degree intended? Or how shall I annex any precise idea to language so indefinite? Between Gentlemen, despicable and more despicable are not worth the pains of a distinction. When therefore you do not interrogate me, as to the opinion which is specifically ascribed to me, I must conclude, that you view it as within the limits, to which the animadversions of political opponents, upon each other, may justifiably extend.”

Hamilton also wrote,

“I cannot reconcile it with propriety to make the acknowlegement, or denial, you desire—I will add, that I deem it inadmissible, on principle, to consent to be interrogated as to the justness of the inferences, which may be drawn by others, from whatever I may have said of a political opponent in the course of a fifteen years competition.”

Towards the end of the letter, Hamilton wrote,

“I stand ready to avow or disavow promptly and explicitly any precise or definite opinion, which I may be charged with having declared of any Gentleman. More than this cannot fitly be expected from me; and especially it cannot reasonably be expected, that I shall enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted.”

Burr did not like Hamilton’s reply.  In the musical he sings, “Careful how you proceed, good man; intemperate indeed, good man. Answer for the accusations I lay at your feet or prepare to bleed, good man.”  Burr replied to it on the 21st, writing, “Having Considered it attentively I regret to find in it nothing of that sincerity and delicacy which you profess to Value.”  He called out Hamilton’s ambiguity, saying, “The Common sense of Mankind affixes to the epithet adopted by Dr Cooper the idea of dishonor.”  Burr ended his letter, “Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.”  (He still closed his letter, “I have the honor to be sir your obt st A. Burr.”)

In the musical Hamilton responds, “Burr, your grievance is legitimate. I stand by what I said, every bit of it. You stand only for yourself, it’s what you do. I can’t apologize because it’s true.” In reality, Hamilton’s representative during the dispute with Burr, Nathaniel Pendleton, a lawyer, wrote that Hamilton

“told Mr. V. N. [William P. Van Ness, a New York City lawyer, was a loyal supporter of Burr.  In the lead-up to the duel, Van Ness acted as Burr’s representative in negotiations with Hamilton] that he considered that letter as rude and offensive, and that it was not possible for him to give it any other answer than that Mr. Burr must take such steps as he might think proper.”

Hamilton initially refused to answer Burr’s letter with a written response.  But Hamilton responded on the 22nd, “If by a ‘definite reply’ you mean the direct avowal or disavowal required in your first letter, I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given. If you mean any thing different admitting of greater latitude, it is requisite you should explain.”

It appears Burr had had enough.  In the musical he challenges Hamilton – “Then stand, Alexander. Weehawken. Dawn. Guns. Drawn.”  Burr wrote Van Ness on the 22nd or 23rd the he was

“obliged to conclude that there is on the part of Mr H. a setled & implacable malevolence, that he will never cease in his Conduct toward Mr B. to violate those courtesies of life & that hence he has no alternative but to announce these things to the world which consistently with Mr Bs ideas of propriety can be done in no way but that which he has adopted. He is incapable of revenge, still less is he capable of imitating the Conduct of Mr H. by committing secret depredations on his fame & character—but these things must have an end.”

With the men attending to business, there was time enough for them to cool their heads.  A couple of days after writing Van Ness the above, before Hamilton could receive those words, Burr wrote Van Ness again, “If it should be asked whether there is no alternative, most certainly there is; but more will now be required than would have been asked at first.”

But through Pendleton and Van Ness, Hamilton again requested Burr to be more specific in his charges, arguing that “he cannot consent to be questioned generally as to any rumours which may be afloat derogatory to the character of Colo. Burr without specification of the particular rumours, many of them probably unknown to him.”  Closing this letter, Pendleton wrote,

“he disavows an unwillingness to come to a satisfactory, provided it be an honorable accommodation. His objection is to the very indefinite ground which Col. Burr has assumed, in which he is sorry to be able to discover nothing short of predetermined hos[t]ility.”

Claiming Hamilton was being evasive and defiant, Van Ness wrote Pendleton,

“Col: Burr disavows all motives of predetermined hostility. A charge by which he thinks insult is added to injury, he feels as a gentleman should feel, when his honor is impeached or assailed, and without sensations of hostility or wishes of revenge, he is determined to vindicate that honor at such hazard as the nature of the case demands.”

Hamilton, in the musical, replies, “You’re on.”  In a statement written by Hamilton before the duel (to be used only in an unfortunate event), Hamilton stated, “The disavowal required of me by Col Burr, in a general and indefinite form, was out of my power, if it had really been proper for me to submit to be so questionned; but I was sincerely of opinion, that this could not be.”

The next song, “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” is based on a letter Hamilton wrote to Eliza on July 4, 1804.  The final line, “Best of wives and best of women,” comes directly from that letter.  Here it is in full:

“This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career; to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality.

If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.

The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.

Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.

Ever yours

A H”[5]

And so we arrive at the duel, on July 11, 1804.  In the song “The World Was Wide Enough” Burr sings, “We rowed across the Hudson at dawn. My friend, William P. Van Ness signed on as my— number two!  Hamilton arrived with his crew: Nathaniel Pendleton and a doctor that he knew.”  The former negotiators became the seconds in the duel, and each wrote “regulations” for the duel, Pendleton before Van Ness.  Chernow wrote[6] that the parties rowed across the Hudson River separately around 5 AM.  Burr arrived at the dueling ground in Weehawken around 6:30, and Hamilton arrived just before 7 AM.  They were each accompanied by their seconds while Dr. Hosack waited out of sight in order to have deniability.  (Burr sings later in the song, “The doctor turned around so he could have deniability.”)

Burr says, “Hamilton drew first position.”  Chernow wrote that after the seconds marked out ten paces, they “drew lots to choose positions for their principals.” Pendleton won, and he “oddly decided that Hamilton would taken the northern side…[which] meant that Hamilton would face…the morning sunlight.”[7]

Burr sings, “He examined his gun with such rigor. I watched as he methodically fiddled with the trigger.” In a joint statement by William P. Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton on the duel they wrote after positions were drawn, both “then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took their stations.”  A little later in the song, Burr sings, “They won’t teach you this in your classes But look it up, Hamilton was wearing his glasses Why? If not to take deadly aim?”  Chernow wrote that when the men were lined up, Pendleton asked if they were ready.  Hamilton called out to stop. “In certain states of the light one requires glasses,” he is quoted as saying, apparently referring to the sunlight reflecting off of the Hudson. Chernow continues, “He lifted his pistol and took several sightings, something that might have misled Burr about his intentions.  Then he fished in his pocket for spectacles, put them on with one hand, and aimed the pistol in several directions.”[8]

Before that line in the musical, Burr sings, “My fellow soldiers’ll tell you I’m a terrible shot.”  Chernow claims the opposite; he wrote that Burr was “a superb marksman who had killed several enemy soldiers during the Revolution.”  Chernow also quotes Charles Biddle, a friend of Burr’s, who said of Burr, “perhaps there was hardly ever a man [who] could fire so true and no man possessed more coolness or courage.”[9]

Then it was time.  Burr sings, “Look him in the eye, aim no higher. Summon all the courage you require. Then count—”  The joint statement by Van Ness and Pendleton stated, “asked if they were prepared, being answered in the affirmative he gave the word present as had been agreed on, and both of the parties took aim, & fired in succession.”  There was no count.

Following Hamilton’s soliloquy in the musical, Burr says, “He aims his pistol at the sky—Wait!”  Van Ness and Pendleton continued, “The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other.”  Van Ness and Pendleton did not agree on who fired the first shot.

Two days after writing the joint statement, Pendleton wrote an amendment on which he stated, “Mr. P. expressed a confident opinion that General Hamilton did not fire first—and that he did not fire at all at Col. Burr. Mr. V. N. seemed equally confident in the opinion that Gen. H. did fire first—and of course that it must have been at his antagonist.”  Pendleton stated the Hamilton had previously told him that he would not fire at Burr.  Pendleton wrote, “After he was wounded, and laid in the boat, the first words he uttered after recovering the power of speech, were, (addressing himself to a gentleman present, who perfectly well remembers it) ‘Pendleton knows I did not mean to fire at Col. Burr the first time.’”  Hamilton supposedly also told those in the boat while rowing back across the Hudson, “Take care of that pistol—it is cocked. It may go off and do mischief,” which Pendleton took to show that Hamilton” was not sensible of having fired at all.”

Van Ness wrote his own amendment, two days after Pendleton’s, in which he stated,

“The pistol of General Hamilton was first discharged, and Col Burr fired immediately after, only five or six seconds of time intervening. On this point the second of Col Burr has full & perfect reccollection. He noticed particularly the discharge of G H’s pistol, & looked to his principal to ascertain whether he was hurt, he then clearly saw Col Bs pistol discharged.”

So perhaps we will never know who fired first, although Chernow wrote that Burr later inadvertently admitted that he know Hamilton wasted his shot.[10]

Burr sings, “I strike him right between his ribs.”  Chernow wrote, “The bullet had fractured a rib on the right side, ripped through Hamilton’s liver and diaphragm, and splintered the second lumbar vertebra, coming to rest in his spine.”[11]

Burr then sings, “I walk towards him, but I am ushered away.”  In the joint statement the seconds wrote,

“Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl H——n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew. Being urged from the field by his friend as has been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognised by the Surgeon and Bargemen who were then approaching.”

Next Burr sings, “They row him back across the Hudson. I get a drink.”  As the oarsmen rowed Hamilton back across the Hudson, Hosack attended to him.  Hosack stayed with Hamilton after he was brought to the home of William Bayard, a wealthy merchant in New York.  For his part, Burr rode back to his home after returning from New Jersey.  There he had breakfast with his cousin without even mentioning the duel.  Besides one letter to Hosack inquiring about Hamilton’s condition, it doesn’t appear Burr was too concerned with what he had done.[12]

Burr sings, “Angelica and Eliza were both at his side when he died.”  Chernow wrote that “in Hamilton’s last hours, more than twenty friends and family members pressed into his chamber.” The morning of his death, Eliza “lined up all seven children at the foot of the bed so that Hamilton could see them.”[13]

At the end of the song, Burr sings, “When Alexander aimed at the sky, he may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it; I survived, but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history.”  Burr was indicted in New York for fighting a duel.  The coroner’s jury did find Burr “guilty of the murder of Alexander Hamilton” and Burr headed to Georgia to avoid arrest.  Later in the year, a Bergen County, New Jersey, jury indicted Burr for the murder of Hamilton.[14]

After Burr was out as Vice President, he was arrested and charged with treason for trying to incite a war with Spain.  His critics swore Burr’s motives were more malicious – to split the western territories from the U.S. and take part of Spanish-held territory in the area and make himself the leader of this new nation.  Either way, he beat those charges, but headed to Europe to escape his troubles.  He returned to the U.S. in 1812, but never returned to the same prominence.

To end the song, Burr sings, “I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”  Chernow wrote that while Burr was reading a scene in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in which the life of a fly is spared, Burr was said to have remarked, “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”[15]




[1] The quote and other information in this paragraph come from this link, which is the same link as is in the text.
[2] Page 3.
[3] Since I can’t describe this letter any better than the introductory note does it, here’s what it says: “Hamilton divided his Letter into three parts. The first section, which consists of forty-nine printed pages in the original pamphlet, is a critical review of Adams’s political career with the major emphasis on what Hamilton considered Adams’s mistakes as President. This section is followed by three printed pages in which Hamilton attempted to defend his own acts and motives. The pamphlet concludes with four paragraphs which can at best be described as incongruous, for in this final section Hamilton states that he did not wish the Letter to be interpreted as an attempt to deprive Adams of any electoral votes.”
[4] Both of the quotes are taken from the same introductory note as is linked in the text above.
[5] Hamilton wrote Eliza a last letter on the 10th.
[6] Chernow, 700-1.
[7] Chernow, 701.
[8] Chernow, 702.
[9] Chernow, 691.
[10] See Chernow, 704 for the explanation.
[11] Chernow, 704.
[12] Chernow, 705 and 714-5.
[13] Chernow, 708.
[14] Chernow, 717-8.  The NJ indictment was later tossed because Hamilton died in NY.
[15] Chernow, 722.
Image credit: Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull. National Portrait Gallery

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