The Big Duel II
Bill Long 10/5/07
The Exchange of Letters--Hamilton and Burr
Within six weeks after Burr had lost his race for the NY Governorship, it came to his attention that Hamilton had said some untoward things about him during the campaign. The Federalist candidate had dropped out; Federalists, therefore, met frantically with each other to discuss who was the "lesser of two evils" of the Republicans running for that position. At one of the meetings hosted by Albany Judge John Tayler, Tayler's son-in-law, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, was present. Cooper wrote two letters after the meeting summarizing some of what went on. He sent one dated April 12, 1804 to a certain Andrew Brown of Berne, NY; the second one, dated April 23, was sent to Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler. Both of them appeared in the Albany Register but apparently Burr only saw, or had called to his attention, the latter letter.
In that letter Cooper details many comments and attitudes felt by Hamiltion and Judge Kent with respect to Burr. Burr was, they said, "A dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government." Rather than hinting at these words as the worst thing that was either expressed there or on other occasions, he continued,
"I feel happy to think that I have been unusually cautious--for really sir, I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr."
When Burr read these words, he hit the ceiling. Already in the past he had confronted Hamilton twice on things he had said about him, and Hamilton (according to Burr) had twice apologized. But here was something that his so close to Burr's conception of honor that, in his vulnerable state (having lost the election), he simply couldn't let it pass. He had to inquire about it.*
[*Speculation abounds regarding what this "more despicable opinion" is. Gore Vidal, the novelist, thinks it is rumors of Burr's incestuous relationship with his daughter, but I don't know of any evidence that would support that theory.]
So begins the fateful series of communications between Burr and Hamilton, carried by their respective "seconds" --Van Ness for Burr and Pendleton for Hamilton-- to the other. The tone of the letters is rigidly formal and ritualized. One almost gets the impression that the conventions of courteous formality are so great that they will "trump" any difficulty that the parties have between them. But the rapid exchange of multiple letters, with the intermediaries also adding interpretive comments, makes for a fascinating and complex series of encounters. You have the impression while reading these back-and-forth letters that someone ought simply to put down the pen, walk across town and sit down to get this thing solved.
Mediation--A Modern Equivalent?
But this would have been easier said than done. In fact, I liken their exchange to the realities of modern mediation in the context of tort lawsuits. In those instances the parties are isolated in separate rooms while the mediator goes back and forth from one room to the other with offers of settlement. Often the mediator KNOWS at the beginning exactly what the settling number will be (it is almost half of what is demanded), but we have to go through a long and laborious ritual, full of invective at times, just to make sure that we do "justice" to people's demands/needs. A visitor from outer space would probably say that we are wasting our time in so doing, but that is our system.
The old "honor system," required the same kind of formalities, frequent mutual exchanges and intermediaries. Burr had to send the first missive, since he was the one offended. He wrote to Hamilton demanding to know what was this "still more despicable" opinion which Cooper had heard Hamilton utter on another occasion. He felt that since it touched his honor, thus he needed a "prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assetions of Dr. Cooper."
He sent this via Van Ness' hand early on Monday morning June 18, 1804. Hamilton seemingly was extremely bothered by the letter, and didn't know how to respond. Instead of issuing an answer right away, he decided to "sit on it" for two days until he had a chance to think it through. Indeed, Burr's demand was designed to unsettle Hamilton and begin to put him in a bind. Hamilton was required to think through if he wanted to "go down this road" at all. He decided that honor required him to respond. But how to respond? He had three ways he could have responded. On the one hand he could deny anything like that happened. Or he could admit it and "fold." Or, he could, in a sense, ask for more time.
He decided to do the last. He responded that he wasn't sure what Burr really meant, and that Burr would have to give "chapter and verse," so to speak, on what he meant. Did Burr have any idea of what Cooper meant when he said that? If so, he (Hamilton) would
"avow or disavow promptly and explicitly any precise or definite opinion, which I may be charged with having declared.."
If Hamilton was hoping that this would satisfy Burr, he had another "hope" coming. Burr found the answer evasive and immediately shot back. He saw Hamilton now trying to quibble over words, such as the meaning of "despicable." This in itself made him say,
"Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply."
Thus, by the end of the first week (Friday, June 22), Burr was sensing "blood." He had put Hamilton off balance and now was boring in closer. Hamilton responded to Burr's request for a more definite reply by hoping that Burr would withdraw the letter and try to answer his first letter. Burr, in response, didn't bite, but concluded in his next missive (June 25) that Hamilton's unwillingness to respond betokened a "sort of defiance" on Hamilton's part. As a result, Burr made a crucial step in this correspondence which would forever make it impossible for Hamilton to comply.
Negotiations Break Down
What did he do? He broadened the scope of his inquiry. Instead of just asking Hamilton to wrack his brain to see if he knew what Dr. Cooper had in mind in his April letter, Burr demanded:
"a General disavowal of any intention on the part of Genl Hamilton in his various conversations to convey impressions derogatory to the honor of Mr. Burr."
Now the die was cast! Burr knew, and Hamilton knew that Burr knew--that Hamilton could never disavow all the "derogatory" impressions conveyed about Burr by Hamilton in the past. He had heaped up 15 years of contumely on Burr; if he disavowed them he would lose his friends and be seen as a fearful man--afraid of Burr. If he avowed them, he would give Burr a reason to issue a duel challenge. Hamilton had simply no maneuvering room whatsoever, and so he tried to say that his negative things about Burr were solely on "political topics," to differentiate them from the personal invective that would stand behind a challenge to a duel. When Burr wrote back wanting a disclaimer, Hamilton couldn't give it to him.
So, negotations broke down on June 25, a Wednesday, and the only thing needed after this was to make preparations for the duel. As Milton Lomask points out in his two-volume biography of Burr (vol. 1, pp. 351ff.), Burr and Hamilton maintained their "wonted courtesy" towards each other, even attending some meetings together. The surreal notion of sitting nearby a person who you were planning to kill the next week didn't have an effect to reverse the course taken by the men.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long