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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
He then made two statements that did much to brand Burr with the mark of Cain, whether purposely or not. The first: “As well because it is possible that I may have injured Col Burr, however convinced myself that my opinions and declarations have been well founded … I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and to reflect.”
The second: “To those, who with me abhorring the practice of Dueling may think that I ought on no account to have added to the number of bad examples, I answer that my relative situation, as well in public as private appeals, inforcing all the considerations which constitute what men of the world denominate honor, impressed on me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call. The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.” (The emphases, it should be noted, are all Hamilton’s own.)
The two statements are mutually antagonistic. Obviously Hamilton felt that a refusal to fight would end his political influence (although that is doubtful in light of his war record), but so would his death—which he was proposing to make almost inevitable by throwing away his first shot. Some biographers and historians, unfamiliar with duelling, have written that by 1800 it had become little more than a ceremony without lethal intent. In duels with swords this was sometimes true, as good fencers, without undue danger to themselves, could attempt to draw first blood without thrusting toward a mortal spot. But pistols, unless there was a mutual understanding, allowed no such flexibility. To aim for an arm or a leg, increasing the chances of missing, while your opponent might be aiming at your vitals was a risk few men were prepared to take. Hamilton, as the challenged party, had specified pistols, and no hint was ever given to Burr that he intended to waste his shot.
One recent writer has even stated that the pistols were of small caliber and so presumably less deadly. This is manifestly untrue. They are .56 caliber, as large a bore as any, and are now owned by the Chase Manhattan Bank. Hamilton borrowed the pair from his brother-in-law, John Barker Church, and so far as is known did not take even one practice shot. These weapons already had a curiously pertinent history. Church and Burr had not only fought their bloodless duel with them, but young Philip Hamilton had been killed by one of them. They seem an odd choice for Philip’s father to have made—unless he thought they were a good omen so far as Burr was concerned.
The distance was to be ten paces—as the challenged party Hamilton could honorably have specified twelve or even fifteen, considerably increasing the chances of a miss. But the supreme proof that Hamilton, after accepting the challenge, did nothing to minimize its dangers is the almost incredible secrecy that was kept. Aside from the seconds and the surgeon, Church undoubtedly knew, and probably there were others. Certainly the circle was large enough for Hamilton to have had the word leaked without being suspected. Had he done so, there is little question that public opinion would have prevented the encounter. In the most important event of his life he was a man of honor in its true sense.
Hamilton owned a country place, the Grange, where his family was staying; but it is presumed he spent the last night at his town house on Cedar Street in Manhattan, as he had to be up at five to make it across the river on time. There is no record of how well he slept, but the man who awakened Burr wrote afterward that he found him in deep slumber.
Burr and Van Ness were the first to climb the stony path up to the duelling ground and busied themselves in clearing away twigs and branches. Hamilton, Pendleton, and Dr. Hosack arrived a few minutes later. The surgeon was left with the bargemen at the river’s edge, and one can imagine that both Hamilton and his second, carrying the case of pistols, glanced back at him in desperate hope that his services would not be needed, because by now Pendleton knew that his friend intended “not to fire at Col. Burr the first time, but to receive his fire, and fire in the air.” He had pleaded with him to reconsider but failed.
The site was a narrow ledge, later covered by railroad tracks. It may not have been the exact spot where Philip had fallen, but his son must have been strong in Hamilton’s memory as he reached it. The principals, dapper in their silk knee breeches, nodded formally while Pendleton and Van Ness “measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position as also to determine by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the Second of Genl Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took .their stations. … [Pendleton] then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing. …”