Duel with Aaron Burr likely a bid for immortality, not revenge
(A production error cut off the end of this story in the April 2018 print edition of American History. The full story is below.)
THE DUEL THAT Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fought on July 11, 1804, is American history’s most studied shootout. At Weehawken Flats, an isolated ledge on the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River across from what is now the west end of 42nd Street, the sitting vice president of the United States shot and killed a pillar of the Federalist Party who had been President George Washington’s right-hand man and the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, a fatal moment Henry Adams declared the most dramatic in the early politics of the Union.
What drove these men to pace off and take aim? Some maintain that Burr browbeat a reluctant Hamilton into a duel with the goal of killing him. Others
say the vice president simply was defending his honor. It is possible to conclude that Hamilton, surreptitiously using a pistol with a hair-trigger, meant to kill Burr, or that Hamilton was using his opponent to end a life of misery. Hamilton may have fired first, deliberately missing, in hopes that Burr would do likewise. Or Hamilton, feeling compelled by the code duello to participate in a duel he would rather have avoided, may not have fired until, mortally wounded, he squeezed the trigger by involuntary reflex.
Yet another explanation fits the known facts and also illuminates why Hamilton—despite behaving provocatively and increasing the likelihood that Burr, an excellent shot, would aim with deadly intent—may have decided not to fire at Burr. Hamilton, not yet 50, a husband and father of seven dependent children, did not want to die, at least according to the classic definition of suicide.
For a complex set of reasons, Hamilton seems to have come to view Burr’s challenge as a means to martyrdom, enabling Hamilton to achieve goals he held to be paramount.
Close in physique, Burr, 48, and Hamilton, 47, each had great talent and personal magnetism. Distinguished war
veterans and respected attorneys, they displayed intense ambition for power and influence—though of course in background the two could not have been less similar. Hamilton, “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler,” was born on a tiny Caribbean island. Burr was the son and grandson of Princeton presidents. Ultimately, though to the last the men maintained a superficial cordiality, character and philosophy fundamentally set the pair at odds. Hamilton was early to conclude that Burr was unrestrained by conscience and loyal only to himself, an antipathy that ran deeper and more viscerally than one politician’s dislike for another. Consider Hamilton’s critiques of the other man, even in truncated form: “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favor. . . . His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement. . . . I take it he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest or ambition. . . . Burr loves nothing but himself. . . . He is sanguine enough to hope everything—daring enough to try anything—wicked enough to scruple nothing.”
In Hamilton’s eyes, Burr’s talents, which he wielded without remorse, imperiled the republican experiment. “In a word if we have an embryo Caesar in the United States it is Burr,” Hamilton wrote, declaring, “I feel it a religious duty [emphasis added] to oppose his career.” Hamilton did just that, most famously in 1800. In that year’s election, a constitutional quirk gave the 73 Electoral College electors no way to distinguish between their choices for president and for vice president. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied at 73 votes, even though every elector wished Jefferson to be president and Burr vice president. The 12th Amendment would correct that procedural hiccup in 1804, but the 1800 election wound up in the House of Representatives, where most Federalists, a lame-duck majority convinced Jefferson was a radical atheist, viewed the Electoral College tie as a heaven-sent opportunity to bar the presidency to Jefferson. Even though Hamilton felt implacable enmity for Jefferson, the federalist tilt appalled him. Acting on his even stronger detestation of Burr, Hamilton worked feverishly to woo fellow federalists away from Burr, contributing to Jefferson’s eventual victory.
In 1804, Hamilton again did all he could to keep Burr out of office, this time New York’s governorship. That defeat devastated Burr. Heavily in debt, political career in tatters, he sought revenge for this and other of Hamilton’s assaults. A pretext soon presented itself.
In spring 1804, amid the heat of the gubernatorial campaign, the Albany Register carried reports by Dr. Charles Cooper asserting not only that Cooper had heard Hamilton warn that Burr was a dangerous man, but that the author could detail “a still more despicable opinion [emphasis added] which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” Indirectly, Hamilton’s attack was now out in public view. Burr sent his protégé, William Van Ness, to demand “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of any expression which would warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper”—the traditional overture to an “interview,” as duels were known. Under the so-called code duello, a gentleman convinced a peer had slurred his honor could demand an apology or a face-off in the form of a duel, from duellum, an archaic Latin contraction for “war of two.” A party accused of giving offense but refusing to apologize or duel had to endure the label of cowardice. Hamilton would not apologize. Soon he and Burr had an appointment. They kept the matter secret. They would duel at Weehawken because though New Jersey, like New York, outlawed dueling, New Jersey was more lax in enforcing its dueling ban.
The historical view is that a reluctant Hamilton accepted Burr’s challenge out of compunction. Hamilton’s sense of honor, pride, and, most importantly, his desire to remain a useful national presence kept him from declining. These points, while valid, do not tell the whole story. Hamilton did not simply fall victim to the code duello. He was extremely desirous of what might be called secular immortality—fame across the ages. His place in the American pantheon mattered profoundly to him. The spirit and manner in which one faced death figured strongly in legacies of that scale. Thirty years before, amid the Benedict Arnold affair, a younger Hamilton had seen at close hand the grace and courage with which British conspirator Major John André had embraced his death sentence. “A man of real merit is never seen in so favorable a light, as through the medium of adversity,” Hamilton wrote after watching André ascend the scaffold from which his corpse would be cut down. “The clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities. Misfortune cuts down the little vanities, that in prosperous times served as so many spots in his virtues; and gives a tone of humility that makes his worth more amiable.” Also during the War for Independence, Hamilton spoke of his desire for “a brilliant exit” whose circumstance would enshrine him as a hero. As biographer Ron Chernow notes, “Long beguiled by visions of a glorious death in battle, he had also never lost a certain youthful ardor for martyrdom.”
Three decades on, Hamilton had reasons public and private for being drawn to the martyr’s way. Politically, he had become irrelevant, a glorious has-been but still a has-been. By attacking President John Adams for “the disgusting egotism, the distempered jealousy, and the ungovernable indiscretion” of his temper, Hamilton had cost himself influence within the Federalist Party. He was living in an America changing into a Jeffersonian country, a democratic country—whereas Hamilton believed firmly in government of the people and for the people, but not by the people. This new America would belittle and in time forget Alexander Hamilton and his achievements. And a secessionist movement gaining strength in New England was bound to damage his legacy. “Mine is an odd destiny,” he wrote to Gouverneur Morris, then representing New York in the U.S. Senate. “Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself…as you know from the very beginning I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my rewards. What can I do better than withdraw from the Scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” [Emphasis added]
Privately Hamilton had even more cause to despair, notably the death at 19 of Philip, his firstborn son and brightest hope, shot down in 1801 in a duel the youth provoked by standing up for his father. Hamilton had counseled Philip to aim and fire his weapon so as to do no harm, on the surmise that the other combatant would do the same. Compounding that tragedy, Philip’s death had maddened his younger sister, Angelica. These events so rocked Hamilton that his visage changed—“strongly stamped with grief,” in a friend’s words. “Never did I see a man so completely overwhelmed with grief as Hamilton has been,” another friend wrote. Hamilton sickened with stomach and bowel complaints. In his sorrow, he found comfort in the Christian gospels, concluding that it was God’s will for Philip to exchange a “world full of evil,” for what Hamilton called “a happy immortality”—a phrase that must have rung felicitously in the mind of a man haunted by death and enfeebled by ailments.
The evidence is strong that Hamilton carefully prepared for martyrdom, were fate to bring him martyrdom—he accepted that possibility and acted to make it a reality. For example, he made surprisingly little effort to avoid the duel. He answered Burr’s challenge truculently: “I trust on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light as me. If not, I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequence.”
Hamilton’s second, Nathaniel Pendleton, later wrote a friend, “The truth is that General Hamilton had made up his mind to meet Mr. Burr before he called on me.”
Once the “interview” was on the calendar, Hamilton acted with calm fatalism and lawyerly precision, doing all he could to assure that posterity would cast Burr as the villain and himself as the hero. His intimate and moving farewell letter to his spouse, Eliza—“best of wives and best of women”—would touch even his harshest critics. In an “Apologia” released after his death, he wrote eloquently and movingly as to why he opposed dueling and how taking a life went against his Christian principles; thus, he would not fire at Burr. And Hamilton denied harboring animosity toward Burr, going so far as to write that it was his ardent wish that in the future Burr’s conduct would be so estimable as to make him “an ornament” to the nation—a panegyric that rings hollow given Hamilton’s history of denouncing Burr. However, the point was not accuracy or probity, but to portray Burr as malign and himself as magnanimous.
Hamilton, Washington’s match in nationalism and belief in a strong union, also wanted to strike a blow against Burr and those New England secessionists threatening both the American nation and his secular immortality.
His friend John Trumbull was going to attend a meeting in Boston that leaned toward secession. Days before the duel Hamilton told Trumbull, “You will see the principal men there. Tell them from ME, at MY request, for God’s sake, to cease these conversations and threatenings about a separation of the Union.”
On the eve of the duel, Hamilton spent precious time writing another Federalist friend, “Dismemberment of our Empire will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good.” Hamilton steadfastly approached his clandestine appointment at Weehawken with the serenity often encountered in those who have sorted out their end-of-life issues. He went out of his way to meet friends and to spend time with his family, such as sleeping with one of his young sons, John, who recalled that, when he and his father woke the next morning, “taking my hands in his palms, all four hands extended, he told me to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.”
At the July 4 Society of Cincinnati Ball at Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in Manhattan, Hamilton and Burr sat at the same table, their miens worlds apart. “The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause,” Trumbull said later. “Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour, while H entered with glee into the gaiety of a convivial party.” Hamilton even jumped atop a table to lead the group in a rousing military song about soldiers bravely facing death.
There is no stronger evidence for the proposition that Hamilton courted martyrdom than his preparations and behavior on the dueling grounds. Received wisdom holds that while Hamilton might have been foolhardy, even reckless, he was not suicidal. If so, Hamilton was following a strange logic, engaging in a duel with no means of protection save one’s hostile opponent’s kindness. Hamilton’s foe was both hostile and an excellent shot. Charles Biddle, later a close friend of Burr, said of him, “There was hardly ever a man could fire so true.” Events did transpire as Rufus King predicted when, hearing Hamilton say he would not fire at Burr, King declared, “Then sir, you will go like a lamb to the slaughter.” Nevertheless, Hamilton methodically out courtship of martyrdom.
At the killing ground, he behaved with deliberate provocation. As Pendleton was about to give the word to begin the duel, Hamilton interrupted the proceedings. He “then levelled his pistol in several directions, as if to try the light; then drew from his pockets & put on, a pair of spectacles, and again levelled his pistol in different directions, and once, as appeared to me, at Mr. Burr,” Van Ness said. Why? Clearly not, as Chernow speculates, to be sure to miss Burr! And Hamilton and his second made a decision that favored Burr. Winning choice of position, Hamilton stood face to the rising sun, leaving the best shooting position to Burr.
The firing sequence is much debated. The preponderance of evidence indicates that Hamilton’s gun discharged first. The likeliest explanation is that while Hamilton, consistent with his provocative gestures, was pointing his weapon in Burr’s direction the pistol accidentally discharged, sending its round into 12 feet up in four feet to Burr’s right. This explanation, perfectly plausible in the judgment of Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg’s expert on 18th century weapons, lines up with Hamilton’s explicit assertions that he would not fire at Burr, and with a warning Hamilton gave after being shot that his pistol was still loaded and cocked.
Alexander Hamilton was a man of honor. He had said he would not fire, and it seems reasonable that he would do as he had urged Philip to do—advice for which Hamilton, consciously or unconsciously, wished to atone. Hamilton basically reenacted his dead son’s duel, even using the same pistols. In the moment, Hamilton paid a fearsome price. Burr’s carefully directed bullet entered Hamilton’s right side, broke ribs, tore through his liver and diaphragm, and lodged against his spine. Brought to his friend William Bayard’s home in what is now Greenwich Village, Hamilton was 30 hours in agony despite medication before expiring. Hamilton, his friend Oliver Wolcott wrote to his wife, “suffers great pain—which he endures like a Hero”
Assuming that Hamilton was courting martyrdom to secure his legacy and to destroy Burr’s influence, he succeeded. Shock and horror and hatred subsequently tarred Burr as the most despised American leader since Benedict Arnold. Never again did he hold national power. Outrage over Hamilton’s tragic demise unleashed a torrent of grief and a wellspring of sentiment on behalf of all that he had sacrificed for his vision of America. Overnight and in permanence, Hamilton’s countrymen reimagined him the colossus he had hoped they would. His funeral was the largest and most solemn since Washington’s, his place in the American pantheon secure. Alexander Hamilton ended up exactly where he desperately desired to be. ✯