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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 plopped from one foot on the summit into the deep well of the Vice Presidency, refused all place in the inner councils by an extremely hostile President and withering in the darkness. Hamilton, the spoiler, had gained nothing personally; his relationship with Jefferson was no closer, his sponsor Washington was dead, there was no war, and only the practice of law was left as an outlet for his energy.
But there was still to be one more round. As his term as a senator approached its end Burr knew that he had little future nationally and decided to run for the governorship of New York, an office nearly as prestigious as the Presidency. There were rumors that if elected he hoped to take New York and the New England states out of the Union and form a new nation with himself at the head. It is true that there were many dissidents in New England, and some in New York, who were beginning to fear the political dominance of the South, and Burr was undoubtedly approached by them; but it is difficult to prove that he committed himself in any way. Still, these people were mostly Federalists, and he ran as an independent Democratic-Republican, hoping to pick up their votes.
Hamilton, Federalist to the core, certainly thought him capable of such treasonable schemes, as well as of dishonesty in various financial transactions. Nor did Hamilton keep such suspicions to himself. Most of what he said has not been recorded, but there is no doubt that he vilified Burr in the strongest possible language, sharply personal in tone. However, as he had done in the past, he made these accusations at least semiprivately, dealing with men of political influence rather than the public itself. Direct quotes didn’t reach the newspapers.
Burr was disastrously defeated—a Vice President and almost President who couldn’t win a governorship. Those who remember Richard Nixon’s bitterness in like circumstances will understand Burr’s feelings. But unlike Nixon, who could fix the blame only upon a faceless press, Burr could concentrate upon one implacable individual who had plagued him through the years, costing him, or at least so he believed, one Senate term, one brigadier’s commission, one Presidency of the United States of America, and the governorship of New York—a princely bag of laurels to lose. Adding frustration to his anger had been his inability to deal blow for blow. Hamilton’s important offices had been appointive; he had never entered the elective lists to be struck down by fair means or foul. To Burr it must have seemed like an endless battle with a vindictive and ever-victorious phantom.
Nevertheless he well knew that this was no phantom but a mortal, and it is rather remarkable that he didn’t consider taking advantage of that mortality much earlier on. Perhaps he did. But whenever he and Hamilton had met face to face, both had maintained a civil pose. There had been no hot words exchanged. Nor had Hamilton slandered him in the public prints. So the usual grounds for a challenge between politicians had been missing. But then a little item turned up, a letter signed by an upcountry clergyman that had been published in the Albany Register . Burr’s friend and political protégé William P. Van Ness, a lawyer of good repute, carried this letter, dated June 18, 1804, to Hamilton:
I send for your perusal a letter signed Ch. D. Cooper which, though apparently published some time ago, has but very recently come to my knowledge. Mr Van Ness who does me the favor to deliver this, will point out to you that clause of the letter to which I particularly request your attention.
You must perceive, Sir, the Necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.
I have the honour to be Your Obdt st A. Burr
There were two key passages in the Cooper letter. The first read “General H AMILTON and Judge K ENT have declared in substance, that they looked upon Mr. B URR to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” The second, and the one to which Burr was specifically referring, was more tantalizing and mysterious: “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General H AMILTON has expressed of Mr. B URR .”
Burr’s note was not yet a challenge, merely a request for an explanation. It followed precisely the requirement of the Code Duello, one too frequently ignored, that the initial communication allow for a peaceful termination of the dispute. Hamilton, fine lawyer that he was, certainly spotted the phrase “still more despicable” as being the way out that was seemingly being offered him. “Despicable” is a vague word, perhaps overharsh for whatever he had said, and he could deny it with some semblance of good conscience. A point many biographers of both men have missed is that Burr did not ask for a public disavowal in a matter already made public, which it would have been quite natural for him to do.