The old Commons in Lower Manhattan is today’s City Hall Park. It was near King’s College where Alexander Hamilton took classes before his participation in the American Revolution.
John Adams’ 1774 description of this area of the city to takes us back in time: We…walked up the broad Way, a fine Street, very wide, and in a right Line from one End to the other of the City. In this route we saw the old [Trinity] Church, and the new Church [St. Paul’s Chapel]. The new is a very magnificent Building—cost 20,000 Pounds New York Currency. The prison [in today’s City Hall Park] is a large and handsome stone Building. There are two setts of Barracks. We saw the New York [King’s] College, which is also a Stone building.
The Commons is where people assembled in celebration or in protest of government laws and actions. It was the eighteenth-century equivalent of today’s Times Square. Many important events took place here, including the first New York City public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. It was also here–in a celebration of Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act–that the first of five Liberty Poles was erected. There is a replica Liberty Pole in City Hall Park today. We see this area on the Hamilton & Washington walking tour.
On July 4, 1804, one week before the infamous duel, the rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, were together at Fraunces Tavern at an event sponsored by the Society of the Cincinnati, whose members were American and French veterans of the Revolutionary War. Fraunces Tavern is one of the stops on the “Hamilton & Washington In New York” Walking Tour.
While the challenge had been established, the date for their encounter at dueling ground in Weehawken was still days away. The artist John Trumball was at Fraunces Tavern and noticed their unusual moods. He reflected on his observations years later in his published autobiography:
“On the 4th of July, I dined with the society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, among others, Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr. The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song. A few days only passed, when the wonder was solved by that unhappy event which deprived the United States of two of their most distinguished citizens. Hamilton was killed–and Burr was first expatriated, and then sunk into obscurity for life, in consequence of their compliance with a senseless custom, which ought not to have outlived the dark ages in which it had its origin.”
While many people know about the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and Hamilton’s unfavorable opinion of Burr as a public and private man, it is less known that they were on the same legal team in the scandalous trial of Levi Weeks in 1800. Weeks was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Elma Sands, by throwing her down a well, in what is today SoHo, in December 1799. Weeks retained Burr, Hamilton and Henry Brockholst Livingston, all well-known lawyers to defend him. Weeks was acquitted after only a few minutes of jury deliberation. With strong public sentiment against the verdict, Weeks left New York for Mississippi where he became a builder and architect. His Auburn Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi is National Historic Landmark. Burr and Hamilton would engage in a duel in Weehawken a little over four years later in July 1804. The portrait is of Aaron Burr.
On the Hamilton & Washington in New York City walking tour, we see the famous Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street, a location that is very important to the history of the United States. The tavern, which you can visit today both as a tavern and museum, was originally built on a water lot (that was landfilled) as a brick house for Stephen De Lancey. Samuel Fraunces would acquire it in 1762 and opened the Queen’s Head Tavern and subsequently Fraunces Tavern. Washington bid his officers an emotional farewell at the tavern on December 4, 1783. The image shows the building on the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets around 1905.