August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
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?
Of all the thousands of duels fought in this country, only one is known to every high-school student. Never before or since has there been an encounter between two such nationally prominent men, the Vice President of the United States and the former Secretary of the Treasury. Moreover, the outcome was considered by most persons a triumph of Evil over Good—in flagrant violation of the American dream.
Time has blurred the bitterness, but in general the popular notion of what happened is not much different now than when this bit of doggerel was nailed to Aaron Burr’s front door:
Of course Aaron Burr did not hide behind a thistle or anything else on that balmy July morning of 1804 when he had his fatal “interview” on the bluffs at Weehawken, New Jersey. The duel was conducted with all the sanguinary punctilio of a bullfight. Despite the public vilification of Burr, hypocritical in many quarters, it is difficult to censure him at any point in his quarrel with Alexander Hamilton. It was all in strict conformity with the accepted duelling code, which encompassed far more than the actual exchange of pistol shots; and when that code was followed, there were no heroes or villains, simply winners and losers. The people of the northeastern states, where the outcry was loudest, knew this, or at least the opinion makers knew it, but chose to ignore it because the wrong man fell.
There was, of course, an underlying intuition, particularly in areas where the Puritan heritage was strongest, that such a lethal custom was wrong in itself; but only a front-page tragedy could bring it to the surface, and it was quick to sink again. Duelling continued in full career for over a half century longer, and it took a general change in the social structure and outlook to end it, not moral outrage alone. Nor did any subsequent encounter cause a tenth part of the furor sparked by the Hamilton-Burr affair.
Why? Was Hamilton a saint and Burr a devil? Not until that July morning. In fact, there were many intriguing similarities between the two men. They were academic prodigies: Burr had graduated from the College of New Jersey at the age of sixteen, and Hamilton, after having managed a sizable business in the West Indies when only fourteen, had been an honor student at King’s College until the Revolution beckoned him. Both were recognized heroes of that long conflict, though hardly more than boys at the start. Both were unabashedly ambitious and egotistical. Both found it easy to earn money and hard to keep it. Both were politicians in the sense of Machiavelli’s The Prince; neither was at home on the hustings. Both were extremely attractive to women and equally attracted by them. Even physically they were much alike—handsome, of smallish stature, wearing their expensive silk clothing with a distinctive flair. Each, at one time or another, had been called an “arrogant little man.”
Yet there were dissimilarities as well, some obvious, some less so. Hamilton was American by adoption, the bastard son of a Scottish father and a mother at least partly French, born on the tiny island of Nevis in the West Indies. Though his father’s desertion and his mother’s early death left him with no immediate family, his early brilliance had so impressed relatives and older friends, including his school-master, that they sent him to New York to complete his education. His parents, if obviously careless, had been well-born, and his illegitimacy seems never to have been a serious social burden, though it may well have spurred him to make a name for himself. Burr, on the other hand, came from a line of distinguished and eminently respectable native Americans. His place in society was ready-made; he could well have been content with a successful law career, except that it bored him—and that was his undoing.
Both were complex men, and brief characterizations are dangerous. But it is fairly safe to say that Hamilton was emotional, firm in his convictions, witty on occasion but lacking a personal sense of humor, and at times indecisive because of his capacity to see all sides of a question. Even though he did much, he was perhaps more of a thinker than a doer. He was aristocratic in his outlook and was often accused of being a monarchist or “monacrat.” Certainly he wanted a unified nation and a diminishment of sectional loyalties.
Burr was an urbane man, sardonically humorous, seldom precipitate in his actions, at least until the time of the duel and its aftermath. His personal ambition was greater than Hamilton’s in that he aimed higher. Hamilton wore his politics on his sleeve; Burr did not, possibly because he had no passionate convictions. He practically invented Tammany Hall as a political power base and posed as a champion of the common people, though like most politicians of the time he didn’t pretend to associate with them; he merely provided them with the beer and rum with which to drink his health, much as a feudal lord might do. Supremely selfish, he could still be generous, particularly to young people of promise. In fact, he seems to have had a strong compulsion to share in other people’s lives. This was first manifest in his extreme devotion to his daughter Theodosia and everything that concerned her; after her death he became mother hen to other people’s children. He was vain about his appearance and self-conscious about his receding hair, yet refused to wear a powdered wig when they were still acceptable. In fact, Burr’s life reveals so many paradoxes that it would be supercilious to brand him a scoundrel in all his ways. The fundamental difference, perhaps, between him and Hamilton was that while both were devious, Hamilton usually acted from moral conviction and Burr did not. This was the difference that led to the death of one and the ruin of the other.
The lives of these two proud men had been closely intertwined since the earliest days of the Revolutionary War. Both of them sought glory on the battlefield, and some historians have tried to trace their mutual antagonism to a rivalry during those years. This requires much supposition supported by little evidence. As lawyers after the war they occasionally assisted each other in the preparation of cases and frequently dined in each other’s homes. New York was small in those days, smaller than Philadelphia or Boston, and there could be few secrets among the elite. Had there been any serious enmity, it would have been known.
Politics caused the split, and it was long in coming. During the war, while still a highly valued aide to General Washington, Hamilton had married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler, head of one of the four socially, economically, and politically leading families of New York. Eliza was not exactly a belle and had no intellectual pretensions, but she adored him, bore him eight children, forgave his frequent infidelities, and by being a Schuyler made it almost automatic that he would eventually become involved in politics, though this was probably inevitable in any case. Before the war was over, Hamilton had already written a precise, well-conceived plan for the reorganization of the Confederation.
Both men started out in the New York state legislature, but at first Burr was something of a political dilettante. He sat out the struggle over the new Federal Constitution, then joined the winners, which put him temporarily on the side of Hamilton, who had labored mightily and become President Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury. General Schuyler was elected to the United States Senate, though his initial term of office ran only two years. The Federalist Party was strong in New York—Hamilton’s friend Rufus King was the other senator—and Hamilton and his father-in-law seemed in firm control of it. However, Governor George Clinton was no friend, and he had appointed Burr to be his attorney general, considerably increasing his political prominence.
In 1791, when Senator Schuyler came up for re-election, his victory seemed assured. Hamilton was off in Philadelphia, the national capital, busy at his fiscal duties, sensing no peril. But Burr, seeing his moment and seizing it, had quietly formed a coalition of Clinton supporters and Federalists who had soured on Schuyler’s autocratic ways; and when the maneuver culminated in the state legislature, which then did the choosing, he was the new senator-elect. Characteristically, he had won the office without even seeming to run for it. Schuyler was enraged; Hamilton was shocked. Outwardly he and Burr remained friendly, but privately Hamilton wrote that “his eyes were opened at last to the true nature of Burr.”
As a senator Burr made many speeches but said little. No one knew then or later what he really stood for, possibly including himself. But he made few enemies on ideological grounds. Secretary Hamilton, however, was making many. He and the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, had a basic and enduring difference. Hamilton wanted a strong central government, an industrialized economy, and close relations with monarchical England. Jefferson put individual rights ahead of central government, had almost a mystical regard for an agrarian economy and the liberty that theoretically went with it, and greatly preferred the new French republic to England. Whenever Jefferson took a strong stand against the mother country, Hamilton undermined it by leaking information to the British minister—diplomatic meddling that added personal animosity to the ideological feud. Had anyone wanted to prophesy a duel between national figures, he very likely would have picked these two as the antagonists. Jefferson had many loyal adherents, and Hamilton was creating an opposition that eventually was to eliminate him from the national scene.
In time both men resigned from the Cabinet for reasons unrelated to the feud, but Hamilton continued to be Washington’s closest adviser. In fact, he may have been more powerful than when in office. Still, it was a delegated power. Hamilton never succeeded in creating a broad political base of his own. He believed that loyalty to the new country should be created through self-interest. The selfinterest of the moneyed and educated class should come first, however, as it was the natural prime mover, while the masses should come to realize that their own self-interest was best served by this arrangement. He was humane and just enough to realize that this might seem a lopsided equation, and he struggled to balance it in some fashion but never succeeded. It is only fair to him to remind ourselves that the problem is still with us.
Burr had much the same theory but was clever enough to keep it to himself. The French Revolution had made a deep impact upon most Americans. They felt the Age of the Common Man was come. Though he often misjudged the public mind, Burr did not misjudge this. He became the people’s champion, using the Sons of Liberty and the Tammany Society as his base and the Democratic-Republicans—eventually to become the Democratic Party—as his instrument.
Burr had placed himself on the winning side, yet when he ran for reelection to the Senate he was beaten by General Schuyler, thanks to an all-out effort by Hamilton, who hit below as well as above the belt. A pattern was beginning to form. Hamilton, who would never again hold public office, whose Federalist Party was waning fast, was still capable of checkmating Burr when it counted. He was aided by his sincere conviction that Burr was evil; it gave his words a persuasive power that mere political polemics would not have had. But it was probably only now that Burr began to feel personally affronted by him.
There were to be more such major checkmates. During the undeclared war with France invasion was feared, and President Adams persuaded a reluctant George Washington to become commander in chief of an almost non-existent army with the proviso that he would take the field only if invasion actually occurred. This meant that the second-in-command would have the job of raising and organizing a fighting force. Washington wanted Hamilton to be that man. So did Hamilton, though it would mean great financial sacrifice, as his law practice was booming. John Adams, who detested Hamilton for opposing his nomination in 1796, objected. But Washington was adamant, and after much bickering Hamilton got the post over many officers senior to him during the Revolution, and with it the rank of major general. Burr wanted a commission as a brigadier. Hamilton’s influence with Washington scotched that. Burr was naturally infuriated—and so was President Adams, who complained that Washington, after forcing him to approve “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second in command under himself … now dreaded an intriguer in a poor brigadier!”
True … in part. Both were intriguers of the first rank, but most historians agree that Hamilton was not “unprincipled” in the usual sense. He wanted power, he wanted fame, he would have welcomed a land war with France, or, failing that, one with Spain; but when none of these opportunities was forthcoming, he worked ceaselessly and imaginatively at the humdrum and relatively thankless task of laying the groundwork for a truly professional army, one that would survive him for many years.
The next checkmate came in the election of 1800. It must be remembered that at that time the winner in the Electoral College became President and the runner-up the Vice President. However, among candidates of the same party there was usually an understanding as to which office each was aiming for. When Jefferson ran for President and Burr entered the race, it was generally understood by the Democratic-Republicans that he was aiming for the second spot, and they voted for him accordingly. It was soon obvious that John Adams was out of contention, as Burr had anticipated, because Federalist votes were divided between him and the Southerner Charles Pinckney.
When the electoral votes were counted in November, the country was astonished to find Jefferson and Burr tied. No matter, thought most Jeffersonians; Burr knows the people’s choice and will gracefully concede. But these innocents did not fully realize that their party was in the grip of the same North-South cleavage that had doomed Adams. The tie transferred the battle to the House of Representatives, where the North had more votes than the South. Aaron Burr seemed to be sitting in the catbird seat.
But Hamilton, his old nemesis, now went to work in earnest. Despite his loathing for Jefferson he recognized him as a man of integrity, unlikely to do the country as much damage as the serpentine Burr. The Federalists, weak as they were, now became the key to the situation, but they were of many minds and by no means subservient to Hamilton. After repeated tie votes in the House, which actually threatened to tear the country apart, making “Secession!” a familiar cry in several areas, Hamilton succeeded in persuading enough Federalist delegations to refrain from voting or to cast blank ballots to swing the election to Jefferson.
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.
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. …”
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.”
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. …”
The most important rule was unusual: “The Second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready—being answered in the affirmative, he shall say ‘ present ’ after which the parties shall present & fire when they please.” The normal signal was “Fire!” or some combination containing that word, and many writers have carelessly assumed that this was the case—in direct contradiction to the joint press statement made by the two seconds immediately after the event: “[Pendleton] gave the word present as had been agreed on, and both of the parties took aim & fired in succession.”
It must be remembered that there were only three surviving participants—Burr, Van Ness, and Pendleton, as Dr. Hosack was still down at the riverbank—and all three wrote accounts of what happened. Pendleton and Van Ness made their joint statement, and later each wrote individual supplements. Both Burr and Van Ness said that Hamilton, as he took his station, elevated his pistol as if to try the light and then, apologizing for the delay, put on his spectacles. This, of course, would indicate that he intended to shoot for keeps. Pendleton had opportunity to rebut this but did not; he simply failed to mention it. Hamilton must have been wearing his glasses as he fell and when Dr. Hosack reached him, or this would have been a manifest lie. Pendleton contented himself with saying that when he handed the pistol to his friend, he asked him if he wanted the hair trigger set, and Hamilton replied “ Not this time .”
The most publicized point of disagreement was as to which man fired first. Burr and Van Ness maintained till the end of their days that it was Hamilton, while Pendleton was equally convinced that his friend fired only by reflex action after he was struck. To prove his point he took a companion with him the day after Hamilton’s death to revisit the site. They found that Hamilton’s bullet had passed through the limb of a cedar tree, about twelve and a half feet above the ground, some thirteen or fourteen feet from where Hamilton had stood. They cut off the limb and gave it to John Church. So regardless of when the shot was fired, it was fired high, but not straight up.
Hamilton’s best chance to make his opponent pause and reflect was to risk all in an effort to get off the first shot, aimed straight up—the unmistakable signal of peaceable intent. But somehow this brilliant man seems to have been at cross-purposes with himself from beginning to end of the entire affair. He must have hated Burr on this day, if on no other, and conceivably in that final moment he was torn between his avowed purpose and the urge to make a fight of it. If so it was costly indecision.
Burr aimed for Hamilton’s midriff. For a man hoping to beat his opponent by a split second this was wise because, like a solar-plexus punch, it ensured that there would be no accurate return shot. But both Burr and his second stated that Hamilton had already fired; Burr even said that he waited an instant until the smoke cleared away from his target. One wonders at their public insistence upon this point; it convicts Burr of deliberately inflicting a mortal wound when his opponent could no longer shoot back. A disabling shot would have been sufficient to prevent a second exchange, at the same time satisfying Burr’s “honor.” If it happened as he said, this was the worst mistake in judgment that Burr ever made. If Pendleton’s version is correct, then Burr was amply justified.
Probably no one really knew what happened. After Pendleton’s fatal shout of “Present!” it was all too fast. In the excitement, preconceived notions took over. Burr and Van Ness expected Hamilton to fire and thought he had; Pendleton, expecting his man not to fire, thought he hadn’t. The only certainty was that Hamilton was lying there, and when Dr. Hosack was called and ran to him, he gasped, “This is a mortal wound, Doctor.” He then became unconscious, and Hosack thought he was dead. There is dispute as to whether Burr made an effort to show sympathy but agreement that Van Ness made a futile and ludicrous effort to hide the Vice President’s face with an umbrella so that Hosack couldn’t swear he had seen him there. Then they hastened away.
No stretcher had been brought. Pendleton and the doctor carried the apparently lifeless body as best they could down to the bargemen. While crossing the river Hamilton recovered consciousness; his first words, according to Dr. Hosack, were “My vision is indistinct.” A little later his sight improved, but he had no feeling in his legs (the bullet had lodged in his spine). His glance fell on the case of pistols, with the one he had held lying on the outside, and he said: “Take care of that pistol; it is undischarged and still cocked; it may go off and do harm;—Pendleton knows (attempting to turn his head towards him) that I did not intend to fire at him.” The two men took this amnesia as final proof that he had fired after being struck, but we know now that such a severe shock can blank out memory of events immediately preceding it. So the verdict must remain “Not proven.” As they approached the shore he spoke again: “Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for—let the event be gradually broken to her; but give her hopes.”
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.
Burr, lawyer that he was, saw that this was no time to press legalities. Lynch law was in the wind. He slipped into New Jersey—an odd choice, as he was promptly indicted there—then managed to head south, knowing that he would be safe in the District of Columbia, at least while he remained Vice President. He was a sorely puzzled, angry, but resilient man. He found he still had some friends in the District, and even some enemies were charitable. He was invited to dine by President Jefferson, probably for the first time, which might indicate that Jefferson was not sorry Hamilton had died. Judge Peters, a friend of Hamilton, declared that “as an old military man Colonel Burr could not have acted otherwise than he did. I never knew Colonel Burr speak ill of any man, and he had a right to expect a different treatment from what he experienced.”
People wondered if he would have the nerve to preside over the Senate. He did, and did it well. As his term ended he made a farewell speech so eloquent that it reportedly moved some of the senators to tears. Yet all this was frosting and no cake, and he knew it. He was a man without a job, and his reputation was sinister. He headed west, to the new country beyond the mountains. Affable, apparently unassuming, he struck the right note with the people there, people who cared little for what Easterners might think of a man. Very likely they would have sent him back to Washington as a senator, but the bad judgment and bad luck that had begun with his first letter to Hamilton would now accompany him for the rest of his long life. His activities in the South, involving the Spanish—the nature of which has never been clarified—led next to his having to defend himself against a charge of treason. No matter that he escaped conviction; the name Aaron Burr would be forever after besmirched.
After Burr’s long hand-to-mouth exile in Europe the murder indictments against him were dropped, and he resumed his law practice in New York but remained a social recluse—essentially a man without a country. The deaths of his precious Theodosia and almost equally precious grandson added to his afflictions. If he found any pleasure, other than with willing women, it was in secretly financing the education of bright children from his own scant income. But he held his head up and expressed few regrets, though once, while reading the passage from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy where Uncle Toby humanely puts a fly out the window, saying that the world is wide enough for them both, he remarked:
“If I had read Sterne more, and Voltaire less, I should have known that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”