- 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
William Bayard, an old friend and legal client, was waiting anxiously at the dock. His servant had seen the barge leave, and Bayard had correctly deduced its errand. He broke into tears when he saw Hamilton lying in the bottom of the boat. Hosack’s account makes it clear that his patient was taken to the Bayard house, which was nearby. People have written that Hamilton died at the Grange, but even if it weren’t for the doctor’s and other evidence, a dying man would never have been carted to the country, particularly when he had a town house of his own. During that first day Hosack gave him “upwards of an ounce of laudanum,” yet his sufferings were “almost intolerable.”
The news spread fast. French frigates in the harbor offered to send their surgeons, familiar with gunshot wounds, to assist. They came but agreed that the patient was beyond help. His wife and seven children arrived, and Hosack says: “As a proof of his extraordinary composure of mind … he alone could calm the frantic grief of their mother. ‘ Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian ,’ were the words with which he frequently, with a firm voice, but in a pathetic and impressive manner, addressed her.”
But Hamilton was to find that being a Christian had its problems. Word was sent to Benjamin Moore, the Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, that the dying man wished to take Holy Communion. The bishop arrived in due course, protesting that this put him in a most embarrassing position; the church didn’t approve of duelling, and Hamilton had lost his right to its comforts. Whereupon he bustled away. Later he was persuaded to return and put Hamilton through a rigorous inquisition, acting as both judge and prosecutor, and finally, upon being assured that the penitent, even if miraculously restored to health, would never duel again, he reluctantly performed the sacred rite.
At two o’clock in the afternoon of the second day, thirty-one hours after the heavy bullet struck him, Alexander Hamilton died. At that moment he became a martyr, more so than he could ever have imagined.
Aaron Burr seems to have had little intimation of the magnitude of the storm that was about to break. Immediately after the encounter he had returned to his home and written letters to the effect that it was a job well done and expressing no fear of the future. Indeed, no man could have expected such general condemnation; it is difficult to understand even after the fact. The Sons of Liberty and Tammany, forgetting all the beer and rum that had flowed down their gullets, abandoned him in favor of a man who had never pretended to be their champion.
All the correspondence relating to the duel was immediately published in the newspapers, as well as Hamilton’s statement of his intent to throw away his shot. This was remembered, and his admission that Burr’s challenge was justified was immediately forgotten by all but a few. Politics played its part; the dying Federalists hoped to draw new life from a glorified dead man; the anti-Burr Democratic-Republicans, of which there were many, hoped to destroy Burr while they could. The clergy, too, saw its chance and hurled fire and brimstone from the pulpits.
Emotions were further aroused by Hamilton’s impressive military funeral; the procession took two hours to pass a given point. A city ordinance was suspended to allow the muffled tolling of bells morning, noon, and evening. Foreign warships peaked their yards and fired minute guns; merchant vessels flew their colors at half-mast. There hadn’t been such mourning since the death of Washington. Indeed, Washington was much in people’s minds—they remembered that though they had frequently mistrusted Hamilton, Washington never had. More, they knew instinctively that their fledgling country, torn by dissension, needed symbols from its short past to help sustain it. Now one Revolutionary War symbol had been slain by another; it was an affront to the national soul, at least as represented by the state of New York.
Still, it is hard to believe that a coroner’s jury, acting for the state of New York, could so far forget legality as to indict Burr for murder in the state of New Jersey, over which it had no jurisdiction. The report of this jury is an astonishing document. It blazes with such phrases as “the Vice-President of the United States, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the devil” and “the Said Aaron Burr, a Certain Pistol of the Value of One Dollar … had and held in his right hand, to, at, and against the right-side of the Belly of the Said Alexander Hamilton did then and there shoot off and discharge.” There is no mention whatever that Hamilton too had a pistol in his hand, nor is there any indication that a duel was involved except that Van Ness and Pendleton were also indicted.