I wasn’t going to move this one from the archives until Colorado Bob reminded us over at Trail Mix that this is the anniversary of the most famous duel in American history. In 2004, it was reenacted by descendants of Burr and Hamilton. Burr still won–depending on your viewpoint.
The above is a contemporary engraving of the famed duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, fought on July 11, 1804, ending in Hamilton being mortally wounded and dying the next day.
The two men are a prime example of what can happen when politics and hot tempers override common sense. Political opponents for nearly twenty years, their trail to the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey had become a broad path to destruction in the contested election of 1800. The sitting Federalist president, John Adams, had basically made himself so unpopular through a series of political blunders that he had no chance of a second term. The vote came down to Congress, where Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who already had a reputation for political duplicity, were in a dead heat to step into the presidency. Hamilton, although he favored neither man, threw his considerable power behind Jefferson; he thus became president, and Burr vice-president.
Hamilton had by 1804 suffered several reversals of fortune, the most tragic being the death of his oldest son in an 1801 duel. Burr, too, was looking for new worlds in politics; his incompatibility with Jefferson made it likely that Jefferson would drop him from the ticket in the upcoming election, and Burr was planning to run for governor of New York–where Hamilton had powerful political connections (not the least being the Schuylers, his wife’s family).
A report of apparently very personal slurs on Burr’s character by Hamilton, published in an Albany newspaper in April 1804, was the immediate cause of the duel. The author, Charles Cooper, did not repeat the slurs, and a bewildered Hamilton could not recall making any recently. The writer Gore Vidal has speculated that Hamilton had insinuated that Burr was carrying on an incestuous relationship with his only daughter, Theodosia, and that it was a private report of this filth that sent Burr over the edge.
In New York, duelling was already illegal, which is why, when Burr issued his challenge and Hamilton accepted, the grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, were chosen. The rest is of course history; Hamilton took his shot and deliberately missed. According to the code of duello, this was a perfectly acceptable behavior, and would have given both men an out–Burr could have returned a deliberate miss and honor would have been satisfied. Hamilton, however, did not make his intention known, and according to the code, Burr’s shot to kill was likewise perfectly acceptable.
Hamilton died the next day and has been practically deified ever since; Burr has become a hissing villain, despite being acquitted of murder charges twice in the wake of the duel. His subsequent career included the infamous plot to form a separate country in the newly-acquired territories of the Louisiana Purchase and the heartbreaking loss of his daughter Theodosia at sea in 1812.
Hamilton, for all that he may have called the ambitious Burr a dangerous man, was equally dangerous, however, because of his political ideas. Hamilton was the spiritual father of the idea, now held by Karl Rove and others of that ilk, that one party should hold a permanent majority in government. Hamilton was a true elitist, believing the vote should be extended only to men of education, wealth and property. And he believed that the presidency, and election to the Senate in particular, should be for life.
Fortunately, with the election of Jefferson, in which he chose to throw his weight behind a man whose ideas were not compatible with his, the tide turned against Hamilton’s beliefs, and would, by the time of Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency a quarter-century later, become moot–until the twenty-first century.
So who truly was the more dangerous man that day in a hot New Jersey July?
History hasn’t really decided. Since Burr fired the fatal shot, it’s been axiomatic that he was.
So I’m taking the fabled knobite out: I ain’t got no dog in this fight. Although, on balance, I’d say Hamilton.
If I was a-sayin’. Which I ain’t. 😉