The Big Duel III
Bill Long 10/5/07
The Duel and its Aftermath
The duel was postponed for several days while Hamilton took care of some of his business dealings. He also drew up his will, wrote letters of affection to his wife and children, and otherwise put his affairs in order. Then, it was on to the duel. Though both NY and NJ outlawed dueling (though I don't know exactly when they passed their statutes, nor did any of the articles give the text of the statutes. This is a problem....), a customary place for duels was just West of the Hudson, in current day Union City (precisely around 42nd Street, in fact). It was knowns as Weehawken at the time.
The way these duels worked was to give each participant an excuse of "plausible deniability," as we say today, so that none of them would know anything in the case of a subsequent legal proceeding. That is to say, the physician accompanying the parties would be "out of earshot;" the seconds would be witnesses, but they didn't agree on everything that was done. The bargemen would wait down by the boats. Even the guns would be placed in a portmanteau (suitcase) so that no one could testify that they ever actually saw one.
By prearrangement, Burr and his second, Van Ness, arrived at about 6:30 a.m., and proceeded to clear some of the ground. Hamilton arrived with Pendleton a little later. According to the Code duello, the European Code of dueling that had been refined by the Irish Code in the 1770s, the seconds were to decide two questions: who would stand where and who would fire the first shot. They decided these questions by lot, and Hamilton "won" both draws. Therefore, he would be the one to fire first, if he chose. Here is where things get a little murky. Hamilton said in his letter written the night before the duel that he, as a Christian, couldn't countenance participating in the drawing and discharging of weapons, and so he would not do that.
Thus, the impression is received that Hamilton didn't shoot at all. But other testimony given after the event says that Hamilton did shoot, but that the shot went astray, hitting the branch of a tree 12' high, either because Hamilton chose to do it or because the force of Burr's shot at Hamilton caused him to shoot his own gun. In any case, the impression is probably true that Hamilton 'wanted out' of the encounter, but that he could only do so by 'playing along' to the extent of drawing and probably shooting the weapon. Burr immediately followed with his shot, and felled Hamilton, with a fatal wound in the ribs. Burr went over towards Hamilton, with his face seeming to express regret (according to eyewitnesses) and then was led away by his second.
Hamilton apparently evinced few vital signs, but when he was in the boat back to NYC, he revived. He was brought to the house of a friend, Mr. William Bayard. Burr waited around his own house, sending a note to the attending physican, Dr. David Hosack, to get in touch with him to inform him of Hamilton's condition. By 2:00 p.m. on the following day, however, Hamilton was dead.
The popular reaction to this duel was swift and condemnatory. Almost all rose up as in one voice against Burr. Inaccurate stories circulated that Burr had been planning his shooting craft for some time; that Hamilton had gone manfully to the duel, baring his chest to Burr; that while Hamilton lay dying in Greenwhich Village, Burr had celebrated raucously with friends at Richmond Hill. Burr stayed around 11 days but then decided, since the tumult wasn't subsiding, to leave. A NY coroner's inquest was debating whether to indict him for murder; it ended up indicting him, in New York, for two misdemeanors--having uttered and sent a challenge. For all who think, however, that misdemeanors are small things--ask US Sen. Larry Craig. New Jersey, however, took a different tack, and murder charges were soon forthcoming.
Realizing that people would be hard on his heels, Burr retreated to the plantation home of Pierce Butler, one of SC's delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As Lomask says tersely, "The Vice-President of the United States had become a fugitive from justice" (Aaron Burr, Vol. 1, p. 358). Adding to the aura of Burr, however, was the fact that he was back in Washington DC in February 1805, presiding over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. All agreed, even Burr's political foes, that he conducted himself masterfully in that role.
One more essay will "finish" our treatment of Burr and Hamilton.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long