The Fateful Encounter

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Of all the thousands of duels fought in this country, only one is known to every high-school student. Never before or since has there been an encounter between two such nationally prominent men, the Vice President of the United States and the former Secretary of the Treasury. Moreover, the outcome was considered by most persons a triumph of Evil over Good—in flagrant violation of the American dream.

Time has blurred the bitterness, but in general the popular notion of what happened is not much different now than when this bit of doggerel was nailed to Aaron Burr’s front door:

Oh Burr, oh Burr, what hast thou done, Thou hast shooted dead great Hamilton! You hid behind a bunch of thistle, And shooted him dead with a great hoss pistol!

Of course Aaron Burr did not hide behind a thistle or anything else on that balmy July morning of 1804 when he had his fatal “interview” on the bluffs at Weehawken, New Jersey. The duel was conducted with all the sanguinary punctilio of a bullfight. Despite the public vilification of Burr, hypocritical in many quarters, it is difficult to censure him at any point in his quarrel with Alexander Hamilton. It was all in strict conformity with the accepted duelling code, which encompassed far more than the actual exchange of pistol shots; and when that code was followed, there were no heroes or villains, simply winners and losers. The people of the northeastern states, where the outcry was loudest, knew this, or at least the opinion makers knew it, but chose to ignore it because the wrong man fell.

There was, of course, an underlying intuition, particularly in areas where the Puritan heritage was strongest, that such a lethal custom was wrong in itself; but only a front-page tragedy could bring it to the surface, and it was quick to sink again. Duelling continued in full career for over a half century longer, and it took a general change in the social structure and outlook to end it, not moral outrage alone. Nor did any subsequent encounter cause a tenth part of the furor sparked by the Hamilton-Burr affair.

Why? Was Hamilton a saint and Burr a devil? Not until that July morning. In fact, there were many intriguing similarities between the two men. They were academic prodigies: Burr had graduated from the College of New Jersey at the age of sixteen, and Hamilton, after having managed a sizable business in the West Indies when only fourteen, had been an honor student at King’s College until the Revolution beckoned him. Both were recognized heroes of that long conflict, though hardly more than boys at the start. Both were unabashedly ambitious and egotistical. Both found it easy to earn money and hard to keep it. Both were politicians in the sense of Machiavelli’s The Prince; neither was at home on the hustings. Both were extremely attractive to women and equally attracted by them. Even physically they were much alike—handsome, of smallish stature, wearing their expensive silk clothing with a distinctive flair. Each, at one time or another, had been called an “arrogant little man.”

Yet there were dissimilarities as well, some obvious, some less so. Hamilton was American by adoption, the bastard son of a Scottish father and a mother at least partly French, born on the tiny island of Nevis in the West Indies. Though his father’s desertion and his mother’s early death left him with no immediate family, his early brilliance had so impressed relatives and older friends, including his school-master, that they sent him to New York to complete his education. His parents, if obviously careless, had been well-born, and his illegitimacy seems never to have been a serious social burden, though it may well have spurred him to make a name for himself. Burr, on the other hand, came from a line of distinguished and eminently respectable native Americans. His place in society was ready-made; he could well have been content with a successful law career, except that it bored him—and that was his undoing.

Both were complex men, and brief characterizations are dangerous. But it is fairly safe to say that Hamilton was emotional, firm in his convictions, witty on occasion but lacking a personal sense of humor, and at times indecisive because of his capacity to see all sides of a question. Even though he did much, he was perhaps more of a thinker than a doer. He was aristocratic in his outlook and was often accused of being a monarchist or “monacrat.” Certainly he wanted a unified nation and a diminishment of sectional loyalties.