The hip-hop-inspired musical “Hamilton” is Broadway’s hottest ticket, attracting sellout audiences and celebrity supporters from Madonna and Tom Hanks to President Obama.
The dazzling show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father, the first secretary of the Treasury, author of the Federalist Papers and chief aide to General George Washington.
Following a smashing five-month run off-Broadway, the musical recently shifted to Broadway. In its review, the New York Times opened with “Yes, it really is that good.”
More than 200 years before “Hamilton” lit up Broadway, a young, brilliant Presbyterian pastor, Eliphalet Nott, delivered a star turn that would catapult him to national prominence and ultimately, help secure the presidency of Union, a position he would hold for a record 62 years.
When Hamilton, 49, was mortally wounded in a famous pistol duel with U.S. vice president Aaron Burr in July 1804, the Albany Common Council invited Nott, a gifted orator with a growing reputation, to give the local eulogy. Hamilton was a parishioner of Nott’s and the two men were friends.
Dressed in a simple black robe, high-collared white shirt and a red scarf, Nott stood before the packed pews of the North Dutch Church. Believing God had moved him to go beyond a typical eulogy, Nott transformed the church into a courtroom. Sounding more like a prosecutor than a preacher, Nott chastised the fairly new nation for its complicity in Hamilton’s death. He denounced the popular sport of dueling, which had also felled Hamilton’s son, as “almost beyond the point of madness.”
He began, “Before such an audience, and on such an occasion, I enter on the duty assigned me with trembling. You will ask, then, why I tremble? I tremble to think that I am called to attack from this place a crime, the very idea of which almost freezes one with horror – a crime, too, which exists among the polite and polished orders of society, and which is accompanied with every aggravation; committed with cool deliberation – and openly in the face of the day!
“I cannot forgive you my brethren, who till this late hour have been silent, whilst successive murders were committed.”
Both passionate and eloquent, Nott’s lengthy discourse challenged his captive audience to learn from the barbaric manner of Hamilton’s death.
“Approach, and behold while I lift from his sepulcher its covering!,” he thundered. “Ye admirers of his greatness, ye emulous of his talents and his fame, approach, and behold him now. How pale! How silent! No martial bands admire the adroitness of his movements; no fascinating throng weep, and melt, and tremble at his eloquence! Amazing change! A shroud! A coffin! A narrow, subterraneous cabin! This is all that now remains of Hamilton! And is this all that remains of him? During a life so transitory, what lasting monument, then, can our fondest hopes erect!”
Wrote the editor of the New York Evening Post, the chief federalist journal of the time: “Perhaps a passage of equal length is not to be anywhere found in our language superior to this.”
Word of Nott’s sermon spread in a manner equivalent of going viral today. It became a staple of the anti-dueling movement and was reprinted in textbooks and recited and memorized by generations of young men.
In his 1971 biography, Eliphalet Nott, Codman Hislop wrote, “The “Amen” which closed Eliphalet Nott’s charge against a heedless nation ended also one phase of the speaker’s life. He left the North Dutch Church that day in 1804 a famous man.”
One commentator in the biography said Nott had “so improved the occasion of a conspicuous violation of the law of God and man, that his discourse and elegy…placed him in the front rank of orators, in the very place where Hamilton himself had stood.”
The sermon, Hislop stated, “elevated Nott to national prominence and contributed to a reputation which resulted in the offer to him of the presidency of Union College within days after his dramatic indictment of the nation for its part in the tragedy.”
Indeed, Nott, a trustee of the College since 1800, became the president of Union on August 24, 1804. He was 31.
“Perhaps the most important thing about the sermon is that it shows Nott had thought deeply about violent conflict, how it is encouraged, and how it might be discouraged,” said Wayne Somers ’61, editor of the Encyclopedia of Union College History.
“This thinking carried over in his presidency into at least three areas: his creative approach to student discipline, which was more humane than the methods common elsewhere; his unwillingness to endorse Abolitionism in the run-up to the Civil War; and his (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to suppress fraternities by means other than banning them. In general, Nott's method was always to sidestep direct conflict, even when that opened him to the charge of deviousness.”
America’s longest-serving college president already has a building and two streets in Schenectady named after him. Is the Great White Way the next stop?
To read Nott's sermon, click here