- Historic Sites
American Politics at Ten Paces
Strict codes of conduct marked the relationships of early American Politicians, often leading to duels, brawls, and other—sometimes fatal—violence
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
He swiftly asserted his authority by telling European states to direct any communications to the president, not Congress. He waited until the legislative branch recessed to proclaim neutrality in the war between Britain and revolutionary France. Simultaneously, his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a formidable agenda, which included establishing a Bank of the United States, federal taxes, and the assumption of the Revolutionary War debts.
Opposed to what they deemed excessive federal and executive power, Thomas Jefferson and others denounced what they saw as a monarchy in the making. Soon two political parties—the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans—were filling the political atmosphere with incendiary vitriol. The increasingly heated rhetoric touched off numerous duels.
This last phenomenon had a geographic dimension to it. The New England states were virtually duel-free because they had banned the practice in the 1720s. Harsh enforcement had created public peace. The South was at the opposite extreme, Charleston and Savannah being especially notable for bloody and often trivially personal pursuits of dignity. Some blamed the violence on the climate, others on a regional preoccupation with a type of chivalry that had run amok.
In the Middle Atlantic states, dueling was almost exclusively political, as the two parties wrestled for a supremacy that was as much individual as electoral. The hot-headed Hamilton waded deeply into New York’s war of words. In 1795, as he addressed a group of Manhattanites protesting President Washington’s refusal to support revolutionary France, a rock struck him in the head. Someone shouted that he was “an abettor of Tories” and a coward who had once refused a duel. Hamilton promptly challenged the man, and both vowed to fight as soon as possible. A few minutes later, another group of Francophiles began taunting Hamilton, who offered to shoot it out with each of them, one by one. Fortunately, his friends took care of these by now ridiculous acrimonies.
The election of Jefferson as president only further embittered many New York politicians. When lawyer George Eacker gave a Fourth of July speech hailing the new president as the savior of the Constitution from Federalist intrigue, Hamilton’s 19-year-year old son, Philip, and a friend called Eacker a liar and a fake. The lawyer called the youngsters “damned rascals,” whereupon both promptly challenged him.
Eacker fought Philip’s friend first; neither was hit. Hamilton advised his son to let Eacker take the first shot, then fire in the air. This tactic, known as the delope, not only aborted the duel but also implied that the delope was morally superior. Alas, Eacker killed Philip before he could make his gesture, leaving Hamilton and his wife distraught—and laying the groundwork for the most famous duel in American history.
Both Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr saw themselves competing for a higher level of fame than either had yet achieved. When Jefferson dropped Burr as his vice president in his second campaign, Burr ran for governor of New York with some Federalist support. Many thought that his election would help launch a third party of moderate Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Hamilton denounced Burr in one speech. But his influence had waned, and the Federalists ignored his comments altogether.
Burr lost in a landslide, which plunged him into a depression. Because he was already deeply in debt, the collapse of his political career meant financial as well as social ruin. In desperation, he challenged Hamilton over a remark in that single speech.
Both men understood the challenge’s symbolic importance. Many feared that a civil war was brewing: the New England states were threatening to secede over Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory. A man who refused a challenge would never command the army that could restore the Union. Both Burr and Hamilton were keenly aware as well that the young nation would need strong military leadership, with Napoleon Bonaparte rattling his saber in Europe. Should Napoleon succeed in his planned invasion of England, chances remained high that he might then send a large army to America and try to regain Louisiana by force.
So the two formidable but somewhat tarnished political warriors met in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. The evening before, Hamilton declared his intension to let Burr have the first shot and resort to the delope, perhaps to expiate the advice he had given his son—or to humiliate Burr into political extinction. Whatever his motive, the tactic proved fatal. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton with his first shot.
In the fallen Gwinnett’s Georgia, dueling had gained impetus from one of the nation’s first and greatest political scandals, the Yazoo lands imbroglio. Georgia legislators had sold millions of acres along the Yazoo River at low prices to real estate speculators, who then sold the land to investors all over the country, making huge profits. It turned out that Georgia did not even own this land in the first place. Senator James Jackson spearheaded a movement challenging the fraudsters, which eventually led the state legislature to try to revoke the sale. As a result, many speculators harbored violent thoughts about the slight Jackson, whom they called “the pygmy general.”