Even by just naming this post, "The Duel," most people have a good idea in their head which duel I'm talking about. While there were plenty of duels fought during our history, one has gone down as the most infamous. Why? Mostly because it involved the country's vice-president and the first Secretary of the Treasury. You'd think that this story is pretty cut and dry, or so history textbooks would make you think so. Most know that Burr and Hamilton didn't like each other, but they're not sure why. They know that at the duel the two men shot at each other and Hamilton ended up getting fatally wounded. Hamilton is the martyr for the Federalist cause while Burr is a cowardly dog that shot the intellectual giant. Like usual, the textbooks get it wrong, or at least leave out important segments. Textbooks cannot be expected to expound on every situation so I can't hold too much against them. However, history is written by the winner, and Hamilton, though he died, won.
Before I get to the duel, I'll give you a little bit of background on our players. Hamilton "was born on the West Indies island of Nevis, the illegitimate son of a down-on-her-luck beauty of French extraction and a hard-drinking Scottish merchant with a flair for bankruptcy. In part because of his undistinguished origins, Hamilton always seemed compelled to be proving himself; he needed to impress his superiors with his own superiority (Ellis, 22)." That being said, Hamilton had a certain way of doing things, a passion you could say, that put him at odds with other powerful people. Though he meant it to be libelous, John Adams' description of Hamilton as "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler" was undoubtedly true. From that little snippet you can tell that Adams didn't much care for the charismatic financial wizard and high ranking officer that Hamilton was. Adams was a bitter enemy to Hamilton, and they were in the same party, though Adams belonged to the more moderate side of the Federalist. At the very top of the list of Hamilton's foes would be Thomas Jefferson. A Democratic-Republican, Jefferson constantly butted heads with his former cabinet mate.
Aaron Burr on the other hand, had come from a more "distinguished bloodline" which gave his aristocratic bearing its roots and biological rationale. Burr was kind of an odd duck to say the least and made a few interesting decisions in his life. Most of them involved undermining the United States and creating his own country, but we're not talking about that today. Burr really didn't belong to any one party. He may of been Jefferson's vice president, but he had support from the moderate wing of the Federalist, and after it was clear that Jefferson would drop him as his second in command after he was re-elected, Burr tried to run as a Federalist for the governorship of New York. It didn't work out. Hamilton noticed Burr's lack of alliance to any one party and constantly insulted Burr in conversation by referring to him as "totally unprincipled" and "despotic in his ordinary demeanor."
So, how did things boil down to a duel between the two men? Well, it turns out it was an issue of name-calling. The Albany Register had published a letter in which the author, Dr. Charles Cooper, recalled Hamilton questioning Burr's qualifications for being governor of New York. Further into Cooper's letter, the word despicable came up in description of Burr by Hamilton. Burr found out and that was the last straw. Nobody, but nobody called him despicable! Just picture Burr getting all bent out of shape in the same way Marty McFly did when someone called him chicken. Honestly, Hamilton had been dogging Burr for years, talking behind his back and insulting him whenever he got the chance. Burr simply had enough of it. He demanded an apology from Hamilton. Hamilton basically responded by saying he couldn't apologize for something he doesn't remember saying. That really got Burr going. They sent a bunch of letters to each other demanding apology, one for what he allegedly said, the other for trying to make him apologize for something he may not of said. Friends of theirs even tried to intervene, but it was no use. Hamilton even eventually apologized for what he said, but by that time Burr wanted to humiliate Hamilton. He wanted a blanket apology for everything Hamilton had ever said to him. This would stand and things eventually devolved into Burr challenging Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton was slightly confused by the whole thing, as he made it perfectly clear to Burr that he said such things in political circles, and was not meant to be taken personally. Burr's feelings were apparently hurt and he would have his satisfaction. Why didn't Hamilton refuse? The short answer is that he felt that the mere act of refusing a duel would be tantamount to political suicide. He could never be trusted again by his fellow politicians and would have to basically go into early retirement.
Duels were very much illegal at that time in many of the states, including their home state of New York, so they had to find a secret place to have the duel. Oh, and they weren't officially called duels. They were instead referred to as "interviews." You may be thinking to yourself how stupid that is, but this duelist vocabulary created a "language of deniability" if any of them had to testify in court. Things also functioned under the code duello, which was basically the unwritten rules on how everyone didn't get caught doing this completely illegal practice. As such, in Hamilton's and Burr's duel, many of the people present weren't allowed to watch, just for the fact that they could honestly say that they didn't see anything. The famous picture of the duel (above) is therefore inaccurate, as it shows many witnessing the duel. In reality, only the two men's seconds witnessed what happened. The doctor present had to literally turn his back on the whole thing, while the rowman that took them there had to stay in the boat and look the other way. In essence, this code duello would lead to the entire duel being shrouded in mystery.
Let me give you a little more background on duels in general back in the day. The two men had there seconds, which were the only ones to witness the duel, and also gave the men their weapons. It was also their job to start the count after someone shot and missed. They were given the count of three then the duelist had to fire or they lost their turn. At ten paces, the two men would face each other and basically wait for someone to make their move. Most duels ended with no one hitting each other, honestly. The guns they used at that time may of been incredibly powerful at close range, with their large rounds and all, but they were also incredibly inaccurate. If both men missed, then they decided whether their honor was satisfied, and if not, they shot again. Most, if they were really mad but didn't want to kill the other person, aimed at the others legs or hip and tried to graze them. So, in essence, the duel was this odd ritual that was done not to kill one another, but to convince each other that the mere act was a representation that they were man enough to get shot at. At least that's my interpretation.
Weehawken would be the site of the duel, a out of the way ridge in which Hamilton's oldest son had lost his life in a duel to protect his father's honor. Yikes. The two other main players in this ordeal were each man's second. Hamilton's was named Pendleton, and Burr's Van Ness. Since Hamilton was the challenged, he got the choice of weapons. He chose the very same guns used at his son's duel. Creepy. Hamilton, before the duel started, had talked to Pendleton and stated that he was going to miss on purpose, giving Burr a chance to pause and reflect. Hamilton didn't think Burr would then shoot him. It was a gamble, but one that he thought he could win. Lets fast forward a bit to the end of the duel. Trust me on this one. Two shots rang out and Hamilton had been shot. "The one ounce ball had struck him on the right side, making a hole two inches in diameter about four inches above his hip. the projectile fractured his rib cage, ricocheted off the rib and up through his liver and diaphragm, then splinted the second lumbar vertebra, where it lodged (Ellis, 25)." Hamilton immediately collapsed. Though not his dying words as I once was led to believe, he remarked to the doctor present that he knew this was a fatal wound. It turns out that even with our fancy newfangled medical technology, we could never have saved the man. Burr's shot had literally tore his insides apart. That being said, he was a goner and everyone knew it. He was taken ashore to a friends house and died early in the morning. Burr, after seeing what happened, seemed visibly shocked and full of regret. He tried to go to Hamilton, but Van Ness led him away exclaiming that they had to get out of there. Burr tried to force his way back, claiming that he had to talk to the dying Hamilton, but Van Ness basically dragged him away.
We then come to the mystery of it all. Van Ness and Pendleton were literally the only ones who saw what happened, so logically whatever they said of the duel was true. This turns out to be false, as the only thing that the two agreed upon and put into a joint statement was that two shots were fired and that there was a long pause between the shots. This could also be backed up by those not watching, as they could tell based on sound. Pro-Hamilton people claimed that Burr had shot first and killed Hamilton right out. Burr's people claimed that Hamilton aimed and missed and it was only right that Burr wait for the count and shoot. He just happened to shoot the poor man. Van Ness and Hamilton's supporters claimed that Burr had shot him and in the surprised impact, Hamilton also shot off his gun, though in the air into a tree. This theory has credence in that investigators did find the tree to be badly damaged when they studied it the next day, and Hamilton's warning on the boat to handle his gun delicately, as he hadn't shot it. So, Hamilton in his mind had not wanted to take a shot at Burr, but in the confusion of it all, had shot and didn't realize it, as they both went off at nearly the same time. The only problem is the charge that the shots were fired far apart. So, the Hamilton side of things can't be right.
On Burr's side, people claimed that Hamilton had indeed shot at Burr, but missed. Burr waited four or five seconds for the smoke to clear and then took a shot. He would have probably lost his turn had his second been counting. It turns out he was too distracted by the first shot. So, Burr took it upon himself to count and shoot. While this fits with the two shots and the timing, it doesn't fit with Hamilton's claim that he didn't shoo the gun, or the damaged tree. Who knew something as cut and dry as a duel could be so complicated!? Like with most historical stories, the truth lies somewhere in between. Hamilton had to of shot first, but he shot up into the trees, not at Burr. In his mind, he thought that this would give Burr some pause. A few seconds later, Burr shot and ended up hitting Hamilton. The fact that Hamilton was talking about his gun not going off in the boat was probably a side effect of just being shot and not knowing what the heck was going on. So, we can definitely say that Burr was the outright villain, striking Hamilton after he shot into the air. Or can we? It was witnessed by all those present that Burr was visibly shocked and full of regret immediately after Hamilton fell. He even remarked before the duel that only doctor was necessary, and even he was probably not needed. It is conceivable to assume that though Burr shot in the direction of Hamilton, he did not intend to do him any harm. But, with the complete inaccuracy of the weapons used, the ball went in a different direction then he wanted and shot his political enemy in the side. So, pictures like the one on the left are actually completely BS. There was no Burr standing proudly over a wounded Hamilton. No Hamilton reaching out to Burr and cursing his name.
After the death of Hamilton, Burr's reputation went out the window. He was labeled the new Benedict Arnold and eventually ran off to the west. There he conspired with the British on taking up land, something he figured he might as well do since everyone considered him a traitor anyway. Duels were decried by the government and the clergy alike and it became incredibly unpopular, though only in the north. The south hung on to the notion, perhaps needing a tried and true way to defend their honor. The funny thing is that it could have all been avoided had Hamilton apologized from the get go and not goaded Burr on. It's also interesting to note that the true events could have been further detailed had the rules of code duello not been so strictly enforced. And it can be tragically noted that both men really didn't mean the other harm, it just ended very badly. So there you have it. A more detailed, if not drawn out version of the most famous duel our country has ever had.
Quotes and all the general information contained in this post was obtained from: Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis. Random House Books. 2000.