History lessons from Hamilton's glasses

February 1, 2018

The result of the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr may have come down to one thing-Hamilton's glasses. Michael Brown, OD, MHS-CL, FAAO, examines the role of Hamilton's glasses and what this infamous duel teaches optometry.

The views expressed here belong to the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of Optometry Times or UBM Medica.

Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States, once declared, “In certain states of the light one requires glasses.”

Hamilton was not trying to practice optometry without a New Jersey license. He was merely making an observation that would turn out to be one of his last.

He spoke those words as he called a time-out during his infamous 1804 duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. According to witnesses, Hamilton then fished his glasses from his pocket, put them on, and took some sightings with his dueling pistol, including several aimed Burr’s way.

It is impossible to know for sure what was going through Hamilton’s head when he did that, but Burr would later say that he took Hamilton’s use of his glasses as a sign of his intent to take deadly aim rather than “throw away his shot” as Hamilton’s defenders insisted was the case.

Previously from Dr. Brown: 5 things about glaucoma care that frustrate me

If that were true, Hamilton would have hoped that Burr would reciprocate out of a sense of honor and the duel would end with apologies all around and no one getting hurt.

Instead, Burr shot Hamilton between the ribs and killed him.

During a recent trip to New York, I put on my “forensic optometrist” hat and sought answers to some questions I had about Hamilton’s glasses:

Were his glasses tinted?

Concave or convex lenses?

Why did Hamilton put on his glasses in the first place?

Did Hamilton buy them online or from a reputable brick and mortar optician like John McAllister in Philadelphia? (Ha, just kidding with the last one, but I made you look!)

Were they tinted?

Hamilton faced Burr from the northern side of a bluff in Weehawken, NJ, that overlooked the Hudson River. From the way the bluff was angled toward the east, it is possible that Hamilton would have been bothered by glare from the early morning sun bouncing off the water.

Related: Real-life office policies for ODs

But while all witnesses agreed on the fact that Hamilton put on his glasses, not a single one mentioned a tint.

It seems to me that an unusual detail like that would have stuck in somebody’s memory.

So, I’m thinking no on the shades.

 

Concave or convex lenses?

Concave lenses for myopia were in existence in 1804 but were not common; however, convex lenses for reading were. Hamilton was 47 years old and probably used a pair for reading and writing his voluminous treatises.

Plus, judging from Burr’s negative reaction, it seems he was not used to seeing Hamilton walking around the streets of lower Manhattan wearing his glasses as he might have if he were myopic.

My best clue came as I pondered a sculpture of the Hamilton-Burr duel on display at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library.

Although the artist was unlikely to have been thinking about the correct prescription for task demands and working distance, as I gazed at Hamilton peering through his oval half-eyes, he appeared to train his dominant eye more on the front sight of his dueling pistol than at Burr.

Shooters will tell you that it is more important to see a clear front sight than a perfectly focused target.

I concluded that Hamilton’s lenses were convex, and he was simply doing what any knowledgeable and experienced presbyopic shooter would do while taking deadly aim.

Who shot first?

Whoa, wait a minute. I thought Hamilton was going to “throw away his shot?” One could easily aim high and away from an opponent without putting on glasses.

Hamilton did fire and hit a tree limb high above Burr’s head, but there is controversy as to who fired first.

Did Hamilton shoot first and hit the limb intentionally, or did Burr fire first, hitting Hamilton and causing him to pull his trigger reflexively while falling backwards?

Hmm, maybe I should just stick to comprehensive eye exams and leave the detective work to the professionals.

What history teaches us today

How tragic that two men who were on the same team and had the same goal-a strong United States-would engage in an act as stupid as dueling.

Unfortunately, that is often the result of the combustible mix of oversized egos and too much testosterone.

Burr never expressed much remorse, but years later while pondering an act of mercy in a story he had read, he commented, “…I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

I think optometry could learn a lesson or two from history.

I have observed over the years that we ODs have a troublesome tic of forming circular firing squads, taking potshots at each other, and even shooting ourselves in the foot.

Maybe the world is wide enough for you and me to practice the way that each of us sees fit and still form a strong, united profession.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all: It is never too late to say you are sorry-until, you know, it is.

Read more from Dr. Brown here