- Historic Sites
A knowledgeable and passionate guide takes us for a walk down Wall Street, and we find the buildings there eloquent of the whole history of American finance
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
In 1976 Queen Elizabeth II visited New York for the Bicentennial celebration and, of course, took in Wall Street and Trinity Church. A stone marker in the pavement just before the east doors recalls her “gracious” visit on July 9, 1976, two hundred years to the day after George Washington ordered that the Declaration of Independence be read to his troops assembled in “the fields”—what we now call City Hall Park—a few blocks north of us. A crowd of artisans, small merchants, and sailors, among whom were some of the Sons of Liberty, were part of the audience; raised to heights of enthusiasm by Washington’s manifesto, they raced down Broadway past Trinity to Bowling Green, the park that still sits at the origin of the city’s longest street. There, where the fountain is now, stood a huge equestrian statue of George III, in gilded lead set upon a fifteen-foot-high marble pedestal. The rioters threw ropes around the figure, pulled it down, and jubilantly hacked the king to pieces, the chunks eventually to be cast into bullets and fired at his troops. So filled with meaning was this act of defiance that prints of it became best sellers in France and Prussia. Monarchs trembled at the thought they might fall, if only in effigy.
Trinity’s south yard is the burial site of Capt. James Lawrence, the commander of the Chesapeake, whose dying words were “Don’t give up the ship!” and almost everyone reacts to the plaque next to the impressive tomb with the same look of childlike wonder when they recall that ancient cry of patriotic duty. At the southernmost fence is Alexander Hamilton’s tomb. That Hamilton is buried here was a touch-and-go affair because, of course, he died in the famous duel with Aaron Burr on the heights at Weehawken across the river on July 11, 1804. Dueling had become such a scourge among the class of gentlemen, a touchy and vindictive bunch, that the rector of Trinity had threatened not to bury any of the victims or, when their time came, the victors in one of these “interviews.” Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel with a Burrite, as the colonel’s followers were called; the loss had cracked the spirit of one of his daughters and brought the father to despair. Before his own appointment with Burr, Hamilton produced a powerful editorial against dueling that, it is said, won over the rector when the great man died.
Hamilton was not sanguine about the outcome; at a banquet the night before, he sang a setting of Gray’s “Elegy,” including the well-known line about the paths of glory leading but to the grave. The “aura of being a brilliant gambler” that Hamilton gave off, as his biographer James T. Flexner described it, seemed abruptly to have passed, like a lucky streak. The best he could do politically was to foil the ambitions of Aaron Burr; he had thrown the remains of his influence to Jefferson in the disputed presidential election of 1800 and later told everyone within hearing that Burr was a “dangerous man … who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.”
Hamilton settled his affairs, readied the same pistols his son had used in his fatal duel, and told his friends that he would reserve his first fire the next morning “and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Col. Burr to pause and reflect.”
After the duel Hamilton was brought back across the river to die at his friend William Bayard’s country home in Greenwich Village. The city mourned the hero and founder of American public finance. Hamilton, dead in his forties, underwent the process of beatification that made him the patron saint of the business classes of the old Northeast and the model of statesmanship for the likes of the Lodges and the Republican Roosevelt.
Years later Burr was to say, “Had I read Voltaire less and Sterne more, I might have seen the world as wide enough for Hamilton and myself.”
At Trinity, Broadway meets Wall Street. Walt Whitman loved Broadway, “that noted avenue” with its “human currents,” and I usually gaze at the crowds and listen to “the blab of the pave” as I prepare to blab about Wall, a street only a third of a mile long and twenty-five feet wide.
I feel that barging in is the best tactic to begin a walk, and we make a beeline for the white skyscraper to the south of Trinity that looks as new-minted as Trinity looks old. The church, with its sandstone begrimed by the years, seems to have absorbed all the sins of a street H. L. Mencken once called the “Devil’s chasm,” the thoroughfare that Main Street has always distrusted.