The Heat of the Moment

On Saturday July 18, 1795, an angry crowd gathered before Federal Hall in New York City, eager to protest the Jay Treaty. They were convinced that the Treaty was too favorable to the British. Leading Republicans had organized the protest at which Alexander Hamilton and a few other Federalists were also in attendance.

The rally was to start at noon. At the stroke of twelve, Hamilton mounted the stand to address the crowd, only to be silenced by “hissings, coughing, and hooting.” Trying a different approach, he handed someone a resolution to read to the crowd. The crowd quieted to listen. But when the first words were read stating that it was “unnecessary to give an opinion on the treaty,” the crowd erupted in protest. Someone threw a rock that hit Hamilton on the head. Hamilton and the small group of Federalists stormed off, humiliated and defeated.

They soon encountered a loud public argument between Republican James Nicholson and Federalist Josiah Ogden Hoffman. Fearing the argument would incite a riot; Hamilton tried to quiet them. Nicholson said he had no reason to heed

Hamilton who had once dodged a duel. “No man could affirm that with truth,” Hamilton shot back, pledging “to convince Mr. Nicholson of his mistake” by challenging him to a duel. Stalking off, Hamilton and his friends ran into another group of Republicans and engaged in another heated exchange with them. Hamilton swore that if his opponents “were to contend in a personal way,” he would fight the whole lot of them, one by one. Republican Maturin Livingston accepted the challenge, and offered to meet Hamilton with pistols, “in half an hour where he pleased.” Explaining that he already had a duel to settle with Nicholson, he swore that when the first duel was settled, Livingston would get his due. Although Hamilton and Nicholson came within a day of dueling, both disputes were settled during negotiations. Hissings, coughing, hooting, strong words, clenched fists, and the threat of gunplay: this story displays America’s founders as real people caught up in the heat of the moment on a summer afternoon” (Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, xiii–xiv).

This is but one example of the raucous politics that existed during our nation’s founding. It’s a wonder our republic ever got off the ground! But these are lessons not only for politicians and their constituents; Christians dealing with one another need to heed them as well. Things can get out-of-hand in a hurry. People’s feelings are stepped on; their sense of honor questioned; faces become red; voices are raised—and, before you know it, challenges for duels are exchanged.

Oh, it doesn’t happen with real pistols anymore. No, it happens with “looks,” “cold shoulders,” and “words ill-spoken in haste.” Lines are drawn that will not be crossed. We will not speak nor be spoken to. Bullets—be they lead or not—still pierce hearts with just as deadly force.

So, how do we keep these incidents from happening? What do we do when this happens among brothers in the Lord?

First, Know Thyself

If we are prone to hot-headedness defensiveness, then acknowledge it. We won’t ever amount to anything useful unless we first examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) and judge truthfully our own weaknesses. Freeman points out that Hamilton, prone to both these faults, ultimately let them cost him his career and his life. Listen … they can kill us as easily, too!

Second, Consequences Can Be Irreversible

One has wisely said, “You can drive nails into a post and then remove them, but the scars of the holes are still left.” We can ask for forgiveness, and it be granted, but the process of reconciliation can be painfully arduous. Divine love “remembers no more” the foul deeds we have committed. But, human love is as imperfect as the error that asks forgiveness. We all know that we should love as God loves, but rarely, if ever, is it so. Before we storm out and utter words we will most certainly regret, we had better count the cost of hot-headed defensiveness. Rounds of “I’m sorry” and forgiveness can be exchanged, but lingering doubts regarding one’s lack of character remain entrenched within the heart.

Third, Read God’s Word on the Topic

A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again (Prov 19:19).

Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:31–32).