- Historic Sites
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
Hamilton was not morally opposed to bloodletting; he had always been quick to advocate military force. Nor had he always been opposed to duelling. He had wanted to fight General Charles Lee during the Revolution, but another man beat him to it and he settled for the post of second. However, his son Philip had been mortally wounded in a duel at Weehawken just three years before, a duel that young Philip had admittedly provoked in a trivial political quarrel and greatly regretted when it was too late. A Columbia classmate described his death: “on one side of him on the same bed lay his agonized father, on the other his distracted mother. …”
That dreadful scene must have been strong in Hamilton’s mind as he pondered his own situation. There is much dispute as to whether he actually hated Burr or had defamed him out of purely patriotic conviction. Probably in the heat of political campaigns he had hated him, but never enough to wish to kill him, and certainly not now. Burr seemed to be on the political downgrade, past the point of no return; Hamilton may even have suspected that the same was true of himself. The old battles were unlikely to be fought again; mortal conflict now would be anticlimax.
Compounding his dilemma was his ability to see two sides of a question. He had excoriated Burr at every opportunity, and the custom of duelling was not based on the objective rights and wrongs of a matter—law courts were supposed to take care of them—but a gentleman’s purely subjective feelings as to whether he had been wronged or his honor sullied. In gentlemen’s language “honor” had been confused with “reputation” for so long that the words had become synonymous. By this standard—and, after all, Hamilton was a man of his time—he must concede that Burr was acting entirely within his rights, even that he was in the right.
Still, some attempt must be made to avoid the issue. Hamilton had a loving wife and a great brood of children, some very young. Despite his high earnings from the law he was heavily in debt, being a better manager of public finances than of his own. Burr was known to be an excellent shot, practicing constantly for the sheer sport of it, though he had missed in the one duel he had fought, possibly due to faulty loading of his weapon. (That duel had been fought in 1799 with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Barker Church, as a result of a rumor, which Church helped to spread, that as an assemblyman Burr had profited by aiding a land company.) Hamilton had scarcely held a pistol in his hand since the war. The odds were all against him.
He wrote his reply badly, apparently torn by too many conflicting thoughts and emotions. It was rambling, overlong, evasive to the point of sophistry. Instead of disavowing the phrase “still more despicable,” which in effect he did in later correspondence, he pulled and twisted at it like a baker kneading dough, implying that Dr. Cooper didn’t know what it meant. Worse, he requested that Burr specify just what he had said, as if Burr could be expected to know. Still worse, he ended the letter with a fatal statement: “I trust, on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequences.”
Hamilton had not only muffed his chance of avoiding a fight, but by that last sentence he had opened wide the door for a challenge. Burr has been accused by many, including some of his own biographers, of hounding Hamilton into tragedy; but considering that he had started the proceedings, he seems to me to have been remarkably forbearing, enough so as to suggest that he might have been content simply to see his enemy crawl.
Instead of challenging immediately, Burr’s return letter merely asked for a definite reply, though it effectively destroyed most of Hamilton’s tenuous argument and requested that he disavow “uttering expressions or opinions derogatory to my honor.”
“Despicable,” the easy out, was gone. Hamilton couldn’t tell himself or anyone else that he hadn’t derogated Burr’s “honor”; he had spent fifteen years doing it. He told Van Ness that he would make no reply. Van Ness, to his credit, cautioned him not to be hasty, but Hamilton remained firm. Only now, with a challenge inevitable, did he seek advice, which perhaps he should have done much sooner. He visited his friend Major Nathaniel Pendleton, who was not adroit enough to save the day but did make efforts. He had conversations with Van Ness, Burr’s potential second, and there was a further exchange of correspondence, though no longer directly between the principals. In the end Pendleton was authorized by Hamilton to state that “in answer to a letter, properly adapted … [he] would be able to answer consistently with his honor, and the truth in substance, That the conversation to which Doctor Cooper alluded, turned wholly on political topics, and did not attribute to CoIo. Burr, any instance of dishonourable conduct, nor relate to his private character. …”