Too often, I believe, the issue of standing on principle is used to validate sticking to preference. Yes, we all must be prepared to stand on our principles. But what makes one particular principle rise above others? What makes this the time to make a stand? What makes this the hill to die on?
The popularity of the Broadway musical Hamilton has introduced people in a fresh way to the remarkable life and tragic end of one of our most gifted and complicated Founding Fathers. Beneath all the fascination with Hamilton and his world is the dark question, “Why did it have to end like this—in a senseless duel with a former friend?” Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a writing project that put me into the world of Alexander Hamilton and his private correspondence. I came across something in my research that has caused me to step back and reflect on myself.
The duel itself resulted from a long series of affronts between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, Sr., who at the time was the sitting vice president of the United States. Over several days leading up to the appointment at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804, Hamilton ruminated with his pen over the duel. He tried to express why he had no choice but to go through with it. He begins this “apologia” with reasons why he shouldn’t engage in the duel. His religious convictions oppose dueling. He risks leaving his family without a husband/father. He risks default on his debts and having his family forced out of their home. He professes no ill will toward Burr as a person. And there is little to gain no matter the outcome.
So why go through with it? Hamilton spends the remainder of the apologia trying to explain that he must go through with it because honor demands it. If he is in the right, he must defend his honor. If he is wrong, he must allow Burr to defend his. Above all, the principle of honor must be upheld at all costs. That’s why he must be willing to die at the barrel of a gun.
Principles to Defend and Hills to Die On
This is what arrested my attention. We all need to have principles. Christians are people who should be governed by principles. We are people of the Word, and the Word holds out principles of faith, obedience, godliness, wisdom, and life for us. But what unnerved me is how Hamilton could take one principle—the principle of honor—and use it to trump all others with awful consequences. How does a man come to the point where one particular thing that matters rules out everything else that matters?