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The Fateful Encounter
IN THE MOST FAMOUS DUEL IN AMERICAN HISTORY AARON BURR IS USUALLY SEEN AS THE VILLAIN, ALEXANDER HAMILTON AS THE NOBLE VICTIM, BUT WAS IT REALLY THAT SIMPLE?
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
Burr, lawyer that he was, saw that this was no time to press legalities. Lynch law was in the wind. He slipped into New Jersey—an odd choice, as he was promptly indicted there—then managed to head south, knowing that he would be safe in the District of Columbia, at least while he remained Vice President. He was a sorely puzzled, angry, but resilient man. He found he still had some friends in the District, and even some enemies were charitable. He was invited to dine by President Jefferson, probably for the first time, which might indicate that Jefferson was not sorry Hamilton had died. Judge Peters, a friend of Hamilton, declared that “as an old military man Colonel Burr could not have acted otherwise than he did. I never knew Colonel Burr speak ill of any man, and he had a right to expect a different treatment from what he experienced.”
People wondered if he would have the nerve to preside over the Senate. He did, and did it well. As his term ended he made a farewell speech so eloquent that it reportedly moved some of the senators to tears. Yet all this was frosting and no cake, and he knew it. He was a man without a job, and his reputation was sinister. He headed west, to the new country beyond the mountains. Affable, apparently unassuming, he struck the right note with the people there, people who cared little for what Easterners might think of a man. Very likely they would have sent him back to Washington as a senator, but the bad judgment and bad luck that had begun with his first letter to Hamilton would now accompany him for the rest of his long life. His activities in the South, involving the Spanish—the nature of which has never been clarified—led next to his having to defend himself against a charge of treason. No matter that he escaped conviction; the name Aaron Burr would be forever after besmirched.
After Burr’s long hand-to-mouth exile in Europe the murder indictments against him were dropped, and he resumed his law practice in New York but remained a social recluse—essentially a man without a country. The deaths of his precious Theodosia and almost equally precious grandson added to his afflictions. If he found any pleasure, other than with willing women, it was in secretly financing the education of bright children from his own scant income. But he held his head up and expressed few regrets, though once, while reading the passage from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy where Uncle Toby humanely puts a fly out the window, saying that the world is wide enough for them both, he remarked:
“If I had read Sterne more, and Voltaire less, I should have known that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”