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Biography of Alexander Hamilton

Aaron Burr: Political Rogue

Dueling in America



A Matter of Pride

This rock is said to have supported Hamilton's head after receiving his fatal wound
The year is 1804, and the politicians are at it again. Tensions are high between prominent New Yorkers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr after the recent race for New York governor. As anger and insults escalate between the two men, a challenge is issued: the only possible solution to this name-calling was a gunfight to the death, a duel where the winner goes home victorious and the loser doesn't go home at all. Equipped with heavy flintlock pistols, the two men meet each other on the grassy banks of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. When the duel is done, our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury would be slowly bleeding to death, and our third Vice President would be wanted for murder.

Hamilton and Burr, can't we all just get along?
How did this happen? What could possibly inflame these two educated, "civilized," prominent politicians so much, that they resorted to this unbelievable act of violence?

Well, the events unfolded as a matter of pride. (Something I thought only happened in the Karate Kid movies, where Daniel-san was expected to "win or die" as he battled his opponent over the intangible concept of "honor"). It turns out, though, that dueling was considered an appropriate solution for personal disputes in the 18th and 19th centuries, used as a way to establish your status as a gentleman who would not be insulted in public. Within this strictly ordered social climate, there were several things that were unacceptable for gentlemen to say to one another. To call another man a "rascal" was to be willing to load your gunpowder immediately to back up your hateful words. Taunts of coward, liar or scoundrel were also terrible slights and would leave the "injured party" no choice but to defend his honor against your insult on the dueling field.

The U.S. political system could be a pretty rowdy place in those days, because members of Congress lost their cool over government issues and got physically aggressive more often than they do today. There are some dramatic accounts of congressmen getting so passionate and upset over a disagreement, that fists, knives, canes, and even once, a fireplace poker, would fly between the debaters on the floor! (Sounds more like Monday Night Smackdown than politics to me). If the problems grew large enough, it was time for a fight to the death. By challenging someone to a duel, these men could intimidate or humiliate their rivals, while showing how strongly they believed in their own opinions.

This pistol packed a serious punch!
Luckily for these trigger-happy politicians, only 20% of duels ended in death. Guns of the day were so imprecise, and their wielders so inaccurate, that most often the official shots were exchanged and both parties would walk away unscathed, their honors and their bodies intact.

A memorial to the fallen politician overlooks the fateful sight
Unfortunately for the man now memorialized on the $10 bill, Aaron Burr was a straight shot.

Their dislike for one another had been brewing for a long time. After several tense political battles where Burr and Hamilton were on opposite sides of the ballot, their animosity towards one another deepened. In fact, whenever Hamilton felt that Aaron Burr threatened his power, he saw it as his "religious duty to oppose [Burr's] career." Hamilton had long trashed Burr's reputation in private, working a propaganda campaign to make sure that Burr would never be considered as a candidate for President. It was not until years later though, that an insult was issued in public. Hamilton had been quoted in a newspaper as saying that Aaron Burr was "a dangerous man and one that ought not to be trusted." This was followed by a statement that Hamilton could tell of even "more despicable" things about Aaron Burr. It is this word, "despicable," that Burr focused on, and he believed that Hamilton's refusal to explain himself or retract his statement brought about the necessity of guns.

Rebecca reenacts the dreadful duel, just a three-mile boat ride from New York City
The arrangements for the duel had been made by Hamilton and Burr's "seconds," men who determined when, where and how the guns would be fired. It was decided that they would meet one another in the early morning hours of July 11, 1804 to settle their score once and for all. Since dueling was illegal in New York, each man would be rowed three miles across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where dueling was not a crime. The events of that morning seem so casual that it is hard to believe a gunfight was about to take place. Burr and his second cleared the brush from the secluded area they were to use and greeted Hamilton respectfully when he arrived. The two politicians were then handed their guns, and ordered to walk 10 paces (or 30 feet) apart from one another. At that point, the men turned toward each other and were asked if they were ready. When they both replied, "yes," the command was given to "present." With that, both men fired.

According to historian Thomas Fleming, there was a deafening moment of silence in which the world seemed motionless. And then, "still clutching his pistol, Hamilton pitched forward on his face." The Vice President's bullet "had penetrated [Hamilton's] right side a little above the hip, torn through his liver and diaphragm, and lodged in his vertebrae." Burr was quickly ushered to his boat and whisked away across the river, while Hamilton's doctor was summoned. Hamilton would die at the house of a friend in New York City a day later.

Today, Aaron Burr's horse stable is a popular restaurant
It is still unclear whose weapon was discharged first, but it is understood that Hamilton intended to "throw away" his shot, meaning that he would not aim at Burr because he really did not want to hurt him. (Hamilton's own son had been killed in a duel in the very same place three years earlier, after Hamilton had ordered his son to throw away his shot as well. That duel had ensued after Phillip Hamilton had called another young man a "rascal" in a public theater). Burr's shot, on the other hand, was right on target. With one bullet, he ended the life of a controversial but remarkable politician and his own political career as well. 200 years later, we are left to wonder if Aaron Burr regretted the pride that drove him to murder, and if avenging the insult to his honor was really worth the death of another human being. Some people find their answer in the supposed "hauntings" of a fancy restaurant in Greenwich Village. It is said that uneasy spirits roam the restaurant that was once the horse stable of Aaron Burr's estate. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the rumored strange noises and visions there remind people of the disastrous end met by these unhappy men.

Do uneasy spirits roam when a death is unavenged?
Can you imagine politics today if dueling were still an acceptable way to solve an argument, or to soothe a bruised ego? Modern politicians still do their share of name-calling and mud-slinging, but rarely do their disagreements turn physical. These days, according to a CSPAN report, the closest we come to the brawls of old are "occasional shoving and tie-pulling matches" in the halls of the capitol when tempers between congressmen flare.

How would you like to see Gore and Bush really have it out with each other instead of all this polite debating? Can you imagine the exchange?

GORE: I cannot believe you are even trying to run for president. You rascal! Everything you say is tainted with stupidity. If ignorance were people, you'd be China!

BUSH: I might not know all your fancy numbers, but at least I am not a bore! You talk with all the passion and charisma of pocket lint!

GORE: Well, at least I am capable of multisyllabic phrases and complex thought. Say, I bet you couldn't tell me who wrote the Memoirs of Barbara Bush.

BUSH: What'd you say about my momma?!?

(Bush walks over to Gore and connects with a right hook to the jaw, Gore counters with a kick in the groin. Cheney and Liberman observe from the wings, quietly arranging for two rowboats and a pair of pistols, setting a time and place for the presidential candidates to avenge their battered pride... with a duel!)


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Rebels on a Roll!
Daphne - Just what were they fighting for?
Making A Difference - One nation under...corporate control?
Team - How constitutional is the Constitution?
Teddy - "President for Life" and other Constitutional Convention bloopers
Kevin - Democracy: use it or lose it!