The Big Duel I
Bill Long 10/5/07
Understanding the Hamilton-Burr "Interview" of July 11, 1804
Buried deeply in the treasure trove of strange American stories is the July 11, 1804 duel between Vice-President Aaron Burr (he was in office at the time, serving under Thomas Jefferson) and New York Federalist opponent and former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. These two men reflected the different worlds of their origin, but they also fully shared similar ambitions, ruthlessness and commitment to a code of gentlemanly conduct which led to this unseemly event. I spent the last few days re-reading some of the primary documents in this case--the letters transcribed between the two principles beginning on Monday, June 18, 1804 and ending with the hurried accounts of the duel written shortly after the Wed. July 11 encounter.
The word at the time for their duel was an "interview." The word goes back to the 16th century in Egnlish and is derived from the Latin through the French, and means a "seeing between" or a "meeting of persons face to face." It is a sort of euphemism for what actually took place, of course, but the euphemism is fully reflective of the highly stylized and ritualized conduct entered into by these two principles after Burr issued his first letter to Hamilton on June 18.
The purpose of this and the next three essays is to set the context for understanding the duel, reviewing the letter-exchange from about June 18-July 1 and then commenting on the duel itself. The duel was postponed for several days after the exchange of letters, not because the seconds or principals were trying desperately to avoid the encounter between Burr and Hamilton, but because Hamilton had important business dealings to complete. After all, can't go down in flames and leave your business affairs in disarray. Burr as Vice-President, on the other hand, really had nothing to do. The office had not yet been defined clearly (it still isn't defined that clearly), and he had much leisure to hang around his Richmond Hill (NYC) home.
Two essays that might help you probe deeper into this subect are Joanne Freeman's "Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel," William & Mary Quarterly 53 (1996), 289-318 and, from a law journal, C.A. Harwell Wells' "The End of the Affair? Anti-Dueling Laws and Social Norms in Antebellum America," 54 Vand. L. Rev. 1805 (2001).
The Past of the Protagonists
This is not the place to probe more than superficially into the biographies of the two principles. I will say a few words here about Aaron Burr, however, for his tragic and larger-than-life life was the basis for my inquiry into this subject and, I hope, into the allegations of treason he faced a few years later. Burr was a scion of the American religious and educational aristocracy, such as it existed in pre-Revolutionary America. His maternal grandfather was the great theologian and thinker Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), and his father was the second President of College of New Jersey (i.e., Princeton) and the Presbyterian minister Aaron Burr, Sr. Surrounded by all this piety and intellectual firepower, one would think that Burr would have risen to enormous heights in these fields or, at least, been guarded by their virtues in the tumultuous course of life.
But life has ways of playing tricks on great and small alike. Our Aaron was born in 1756 and within two years he had lost both parents and his grandfather Jonathan to the "insalubrious" climate and raging smallbox (and its inoculations--his grandfather Jonathan died as a result of a Feb. 1758 inoculation in Princeton) in New Jersey. Brought up in the home of an uncle he despised, and already displaying a fractious temperament at at early age, I think Aaron Burr realized as soon as his consciousness developed that authority figures were fickle and unreasonable and that life was unpredictable. Here is a precious quotation from George Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards, written by Aaron's mother when Aaron Jr. was 19 months old, shortly before her untimely death:
"Aaron is a little dirty noisy boy, very different from Sally in almost every respect. He begins to talk a little, is very sly and mischievious. He has more sprightliness than Sally and most say he is handsomer, but not so good tempered. He is very resolute and requires a good governor to bring him to terms."
I think that last sentence characterizes the life of Aaron Burr, Jr--he was very resolute (we see this in the duel correspondences with Hamilton) and required a good governor to bring him to terms. But, as so often is the case for people brought up in environments with unpredictability in home life, they are anti-authoritarian. They can't stand knuckling under the authority of anyone else, and they often debunk the people in authority over them--either out of jealousy or displaced anger from not being able to attack the real sources of their bitterness--in this case Aaron's uncle Timothy, in whose home he was reared in Elizabeth, NJ. These two characteristics, then, Aaron's "resoluteness" and his unwillingness to recognize other authorities, led to his problems.
Oh, I probably should point to one example of his insubordination. There are many--but during the Revolutionary War he countermanded the authority of General Henry Knox in the Sept. 15, 1776 attack on Manhattan by British General Howe by appealing to the troops over the authority of Knox to get them to retreat to Harlem. This, and his famous criticisms of General George Washington's faults as a strategist and general, meant that he didn't get promoted to positions higher than Colonel and that he managed to get on the wrong side of the most honored man in America in the 1780s and 1790s (Washington). Yet, he chafed at not being promoted. So, that is the what one might call the sad contradiction and tragedy of Aaron Burr. He was a man of tremendous talent and intelligence, but his generous criticism of superiors, combined with a bitterness and resentment when he didn't get promotions to positions he felt he deserved, led him to a rather isolated position with respect to most people.
He and Alexander Hamilton were two of the brilliant young men rising in prominence in New York State in the 1780s. A telling story from the end of Burr's life describes the sad "philosophy" which consumed Burr as it related to the rivalry with Hamilton. It is recounted in James' Parton's old (1892) biography of Burr. Near the end of his long life (he died in 1836), Burr had been reading one of his favorite books, Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne. The passage that evoked his great feeling was one in which Uncle Toby carefully put a fly out of the window (not killing it), making the observation that the world was big enough for both him and the fly. Burr commented:
"If I had read Sterne more, and Voltaire less, I should have known that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me" (quoted in Interview in Weekawken (1960), p. 175).
So now we have a bit of a picture of a resolute, talented, articulate, ambitious man, a man who hated authority but sought with eagerness the trappings that authority brings. What happened to provoke the fight leading to the duel with Hamilton is now our concern.
The Election of 1804 and the Narrowing of Burr's Vision
When I speak of the "election of 1804," one naturally thinks of the Presidential election of that year, when Thomas Jefferson was elected to a second term. But that election was not the major one for Burr. He had lost the confidence of Jefferson in him and would be dropped from the Republican ticket that year. So, thinking to capitalize on his visibility, and taking advantage of the crumbling fortunes of the Federalists in NY State, Burr decided to run for Governor of New York. This sent Hamilton into apoplectic fits of anger and jealousy, and he did everything he could to derail the fortunes of Burr. Suffice it to say that Burr lost the election to a relatively unknown person, backed by another faction of the Republican Party. The election happened at the end of April 1804.
Burr was never one very skilled at nursing his wounds in private. So, with all the hurt of a betrayed and dishonored man, he decided to pursue Hamilton once and for all. He did so by invoking the time-honored tradition of a gentleman's honor, codified for the previous few hundred years in the Code Duello--the "code of the duel." What he did beginning June 18 was to manipulate, or tactically force, Hamilton into a position where he would either have to admit an error and thus lose face in society and among his friends, or stand up to a challenge, and thus face the possibility of losing his life and leaving his wife and seven children bereft.
This is not the place to go into the history of dueling in America, or a detailed exposition of the nature of a gentleman's honor that, when traduced, had to be upheld. Suffice it to say that honor related more to areas of personal or private slight than public or political disagreement. Everyone agreed that even vigorous disagreement in the latter sphere was one of the "costs of doing business" if you entered into public life. But even in the public sphere, you had to watch what you called someone. Traducing their character by calling them a liar or a scoundrel (a particularly bad epithet!) was tantamount to issuing a challenge to meet on the "field of honor"--i.e., in a duel. Anti-dueling legislation had been passed, beginning in MA in the 1710s and 1720s, but so strong was the persistence of this European-inherited custom that the laws were only minimally honored. Indeed, when the serious move to enforce these laws began after this duel, it faced much greater success in the North than in the South. Some would claim that the notion of a Southern Gentleman's honor, where even the slightest transgressions could lead to immense consequences, didn't really disappear until well after the Civil War. Well, well after...
So we have a culture of honor, where one's personal integrity has to be upheld against all challengers, and the ultimate means for upholding it is in the duel. Hamilton himself had participated in about a dozen duels in the decade preceding his fatal "interview" with Burr, but he steadfastly declared his opposition to the practice. I will quote later from his deathbed confession to a pastor, where he utterly renounces the practice. Sounds like it would be similar to Aaron Burr's renouncing womanizing (he was a famous womanizer after he lost his wife in the early 1790s). In any case, the gentelman's code would not permit one's honor to be besmirched. Normally these besmirchments could be handled either through conversation between principals or "seconds," (men they chose to be their intermediaries), but sometimes things just got out of hand.
Let's turn to the way now that the Burr/Hamilton situation got out of hand.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long