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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
Had this been the reply to Burr’s initial letter, it is hardly conceivable that Burr would have pressed the issue. To do so would have been a flagrant defiance of the Code. But in an effort to deal with the second letter, Hamilton went further: “and in relation to any other language or conversation of Genl. H., which Colo. B. will specify, a prompt & frank avowal or denial will be given.”
Hamilton should have realized that under the circumstances—in asking Burr to specify rather than making a general disavowal—he was in effect admitting that he had made such defamatory statements. One must bear in mind that this exchange was between two of the most prominent men in America, that Van Ness and Pendleton were already party to it; and there was a common awareness that sooner or later it would become a matter of public knowledge. Even had he wanted to, Burr could not “honourably” have accepted a crumb when he had demanded the whole loaf.
On June 27, 1804, Van Ness delivered the formal challenge. Because Hamilton had cases in court that he felt it his duty to complete, the date was set for later than was customary, July 11, and Weehawken, New Jersey, was chosen as the site. It was a popular duelling ground, being readily accessible yet outside the jurisdiction of New York.
During that two-week wait, which must have been dreadful for Hamilton, the secret was well kept. Hamilton didn’t tell his family; Burr didn’t tell Theodosia. The two met at a Fourth of July banquet of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Hamilton was president. Hamilton was effervescent, even leaping atop a table and singing a song. Burr was his usual quietly urbane self. Meantime the seconds were busy working out the details, and a fifth person, Dr. David Hosack, was made privy to the affair, having been mutually chosen as surgeon.
It should not be assumed that Burr, because he was a good shot and had one previous duel under his belt, was under no strain as the day approached. At close quarters speed in getting off the shot was more important than fine marksmanship, and flintlock pistols were unreliable weapons at best. The chronicles of duelling are full of instances where the novice has triumphed over the expert by luck or the grace of God. Burr practiced assiduously at a man-sized target and on the day before the meeting wrote Theodosia, in South Carolina, “having lately written my will, and given my private letters and papers in charge to you … [I] request you to burn all such as, if by accident made public, would injure any person. This is more particularly applicable to the letters of my female correspondents.” To her husband he wrote: “if it should be my lot to fall … yet I shall live in you and your son. I commit to you all that is most dear to me—my reputation and my daughter.”
Hamilton, while ably carrying out his duties at the circuit court, found time to make his will, make a precise accounting of his assets and debits, write a tender letter to his wife, and compose a lengthy document attempting to explain his conduct. After stating that he was opposed to duelling on religious and moral grounds, that his wife and family were extremely dear to him and his life important to them, that a forced sale of his property might be injurious to his creditors, that he was conscious of no ill will toward Burr other than political opposition, he then asserted that “I shall hazard much, and can possibly gain nothing, by the issue of the interview.”
Any man in his situation might have said that much, but his further statements are more illuminating. He blamed Burr for “ artificial embarrassments from the manner of proceeding” but also granted that his “extremely severe” reflections on him went beyond the political: On different occasions I, in common with many others, have made very unfavourable criticisms on particular instances of the private conduct of this Gentleman.
In proportion as these impressions were entertained with sincerity and uttered with motives and for purposes, which might appear to me commendable, would be the difficulty (until they could be removed by evidence of their being erroneous) of explanation or apology. The disavowal required of me by Col Burr, in a general and indefinite form, was out of my power, if it had really been proper for me to submit to be so questioned.
Hamilton was aware that the correspondence would show that he had perhaps finally offered too much, by fire-eating standards: “I am not sure whether, under all the circumstances I did not go further in the attempt to accommodate, than a punctilious delicacy will justify. If so, I hope the motives I have stated will excuse me.”