We rend our garments and bemoan the bitter partisanship of today’s politicians. Benghazi. The IRS. Vote suppression. Immigration. Why can’t they all get along?
Today, we can note the bright side: At least they don’t shoot each other like they used to.
On this date 210 years ago, longtime political rivals Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton fought their legendary duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804. Both lost: Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, his life; Burr, the sitting Vice President, his future.
The public funeral for Hamilton acclaimed him as nearly a secular saint, burnishing a reputation that had acquired layers of tarnish in bleak years before the duel.
Burr, quickly indicted for murder in two states, found himself pushed to the margins of American politics. In desperation, he embarked an on audacious plan to mount a private invasion of Spain’s colonies of Florida, Texas, and Mexico that would produce a new American empire.
Through the decade before their duel, Hamilton had denounced Burr repeatedly, calling him an “embryo-Caesar” and “unprincipled both as a public and private man.” In the winter of 1800-01, to block Burr from the presidency, Hamilton wrote that Burr “is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement.”
Yet Burr, though often portrayed as the villain of the piece, never impugned Hamilton’s character. “I never knew Colonel Burr to speak ill of any man,” a friend wrote.
In 1804, Hamilton’s tirades turned personal. In public remarks, he denounced Burr in his usual fashion, then added that he thought Burr “still more despicable.” Burr demanded a retraction; in that era, “despicable” connoted perverted personal habits.
Twice before, Burr had objected to remarks by Hamilton; twice before, Hamilton had withdrawn them. This time, Hamilton would not retract. He agreed to meet Burr on the dueling ground. For Burr, honor required that he challenge a man who chronically maligned him and had called him despicable.
Both men subscribed to the code duello, under which men of honor proved themselves in single combat. Burr had dueled once before. He and his opponent both missed. Hamilton had never dueled, but eleven times engaged in the foreplay of challenges that often led to a duel. His eldest son, Philip, died in a duel in 1801.
Days after the contest, Burr distilled into three words his unrepentant view of the affair, and of his adversary. The report was circulating that Hamilton never intended to fire at Burr during the duel. “Contemptible,” Burr wrote, “if true.”
Despite the tragic ending of the Burr-Hamilton duel for both participants, for another generation the practice remained popular among American politicians. President Andrew Jackson, involved in 13 duels, carried a pistol ball in his ribs for 40 years from an 1806 duel; he killed his adversary in that encounter. Navy hero Stephen Decatur died in an 1820 duel with another leading sailor, James Barron. In an 1826 duel, Senator John Randolph of Virginia and then-Secretary of State Henry Clay happily missed each other twice.
Despite the spleen and spite displayed by our current political gladiators, at least they do not reach for a set of pistols to resolve their differences. Not yet, anyway.
David O. Stewart is the author of American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. His most recent book is an historical mystery about the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, The Lincoln Deception. His previous books are The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, and Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy.
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