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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 was an urbane man, sardonically humorous, seldom precipitate in his actions, at least until the time of the duel and its aftermath. His personal ambition was greater than Hamilton’s in that he aimed higher. Hamilton wore his politics on his sleeve; Burr did not, possibly because he had no passionate convictions. He practically invented Tammany Hall as a political power base and posed as a champion of the common people, though like most politicians of the time he didn’t pretend to associate with them; he merely provided them with the beer and rum with which to drink his health, much as a feudal lord might do. Supremely selfish, he could still be generous, particularly to young people of promise. In fact, he seems to have had a strong compulsion to share in other people’s lives. This was first manifest in his extreme devotion to his daughter Theodosia and everything that concerned her; after her death he became mother hen to other people’s children. He was vain about his appearance and self-conscious about his receding hair, yet refused to wear a powdered wig when they were still acceptable. In fact, Burr’s life reveals so many paradoxes that it would be supercilious to brand him a scoundrel in all his ways. The fundamental difference, perhaps, between him and Hamilton was that while both were devious, Hamilton usually acted from moral conviction and Burr did not. This was the difference that led to the death of one and the ruin of the other.
The lives of these two proud men had been closely intertwined since the earliest days of the Revolutionary War. Both of them sought glory on the battlefield, and some historians have tried to trace their mutual antagonism to a rivalry during those years. This requires much supposition supported by little evidence. As lawyers after the war they occasionally assisted each other in the preparation of cases and frequently dined in each other’s homes. New York was small in those days, smaller than Philadelphia or Boston, and there could be few secrets among the elite. Had there been any serious enmity, it would have been known.
Politics caused the split, and it was long in coming. During the war, while still a highly valued aide to General Washington, Hamilton had married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler, head of one of the four socially, economically, and politically leading families of New York. Eliza was not exactly a belle and had no intellectual pretensions, but she adored him, bore him eight children, forgave his frequent infidelities, and by being a Schuyler made it almost automatic that he would eventually become involved in politics, though this was probably inevitable in any case. Before the war was over, Hamilton had already written a precise, well-conceived plan for the reorganization of the Confederation.
Both men started out in the New York state legislature, but at first Burr was something of a political dilettante. He sat out the struggle over the new Federal Constitution, then joined the winners, which put him temporarily on the side of Hamilton, who had labored mightily and become President Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury. General Schuyler was elected to the United States Senate, though his initial term of office ran only two years. The Federalist Party was strong in New York—Hamilton’s friend Rufus King was the other senator—and Hamilton and his father-in-law seemed in firm control of it. However, Governor George Clinton was no friend, and he had appointed Burr to be his attorney general, considerably increasing his political prominence.
In 1791, when Senator Schuyler came up for re-election, his victory seemed assured. Hamilton was off in Philadelphia, the national capital, busy at his fiscal duties, sensing no peril. But Burr, seeing his moment and seizing it, had quietly formed a coalition of Clinton supporters and Federalists who had soured on Schuyler’s autocratic ways; and when the maneuver culminated in the state legislature, which then did the choosing, he was the new senator-elect. Characteristically, he had won the office without even seeming to run for it. Schuyler was enraged; Hamilton was shocked. Outwardly he and Burr remained friendly, but privately Hamilton wrote that “his eyes were opened at last to the true nature of Burr.”
As a senator Burr made many speeches but said little. No one knew then or later what he really stood for, possibly including himself. But he made few enemies on ideological grounds. Secretary Hamilton, however, was making many. He and the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, had a basic and enduring difference. Hamilton wanted a strong central government, an industrialized economy, and close relations with monarchical England. Jefferson put individual rights ahead of central government, had almost a mystical regard for an agrarian economy and the liberty that theoretically went with it, and greatly preferred the new French republic to England. Whenever Jefferson took a strong stand against the mother country, Hamilton undermined it by leaking information to the British minister—diplomatic meddling that added personal animosity to the ideological feud. Had anyone wanted to prophesy a duel between national figures, he very likely would have picked these two as the antagonists. Jefferson had many loyal adherents, and Hamilton was creating an opposition that eventually was to eliminate him from the national scene.