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Hamilton-Burr Duel

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HI US 221-001 | Hamilton-Burr Duel | Liberty University | | Matthew Waterman | 4/27/2012 |

The Hamilton-Burr Duel is a very interesting case in history because a lot of people are unsure what the real reasons behind it were. Some people believe that Hamilton was depressed and suicidal and Burr was a murderous maniac. Other people think that it was just the pride in them and that in politics back then it is dishonorable to your reputation if you back down from a case as serious as a duel. Both of these cases are very reasonable to believe and are most likely correct. The first letter sent from Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton was Burr asking Hamilton for an explanation of an article that was written in the The Albany Register in which Dr. Charles Cooper, who was present at a dinner with Alexander Hamilton, tells that Hamilton was quoted as to have made comments about Burr quotes which are as follows: “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” As well as Dr. Cooper telling The Albany Register “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” Aaron Burr and Hamilton happened to be adverse politicians and, oddly enough, at the same time supposed “friends”. The words Dr. Cooper accused Hamilton of saying were clearly serious claims and that is why Burr wanted an explanation of these claims because his supposed “friend” supposedly made offensive comments in citing his opinion of why Burr should not take office as a Governor. Also significantly enough, Burr believed Hamilton to be one of the reasons he did not get into office as Governor of New York previously in the year. Then, of course, he is now hearing Hamilton made a derogatory claim of Burr that was “still more despicable” meaning that this second claim was so derogatory that Dr. Cooper could not repeat again the claim Hamilton made about Burr.

Burr reading all of this in a newspaper absolutely deemed it appropriate that Hamilton at least clear himself from this speculation and, if necessary, he would expect an apology from Hamilton. In the responsive letter from Hamilton, Hamilton preceded to justify himself and blame Dr. Cooper as the accomplice of the whole ordeal because Dr. Cooper used the phrase “Still more despicable” in the wrong sort of context. He was trying to meander his way out of his accusation by explaining it as misunderstanding and grammatical context. The way in which Hamilton wrote his responding letter had the context of being extremely defensive because his response was very fiery which portrayed in a way that Hamilton was completely guilty and he also was extremely insincere in his letter. Hamilton therefore did not believe he owed any sort of apology; he was practically admitting to it, but not in an upfront manner. Burr, outraged of what he is witnessing, asks Hamilton to settle their dispute in an “Interview” otherwise known as a “Duel”. Hamilton was believed to be suicidal and accepted the “interview” invitation, therefore, proceeding to purposely sign his own death warrant. Burr had previously lost his first born son in a duel three years earlier and his daughter became mentally ill by cause of his son’s death in the duel because she loved and missed him so much and was so devastated by her brother’s death that she pretended he was still present in her daily life. Also Hamilton admitted to having an affair with a woman because claims had been made against him by the man whose wife he had the affair with, James Reynolds that Hamilton colluded with Reynolds for speculation in treasury securities and embezzlement and that Hamilton had been making money on his own as secretary of Treasury. Because of these dramatic events that were taking place in Hamilton’s life it is believed that his plan all along was to go to the duel grounds expecting to give Burr one more chance to reconsider the duel by firing a shot in the air, but of course the logic behind this strategy was unfit for the cause of reason and success. It seemed more as a suicide mission than anything. Unfortunately for “gentlemen” in those days, the way honor was found was by offering a gentleman to a duel. It was a way for them to defend their reputation. Aaron Burr felt that his he had been dishonored or insulted by Alexander Hamilton so therefore to defend his honor, reputation, and pride he felt he should resolve the situation in a duel. Hamilton then also having to defend his honor, reputation, and pride felt obliged to accept the offer. Unfortunately for Hamilton, he did not believe in Duels, which is another reason why he decided he would fire a “reconsider” shot in the air. He would absolutely not fire upon Burr because it was against his beliefs and if he were to get shot in the process then so be it. Another reason these men entered into a duel is for publicity. They believed that whoever won the duel it would help their political career and “reputation” and if one submit to the other then they embarrassed themselves and did not defend their honor, pride and reputation which also hurt their political career. Another term known for what they were practicing in those days in such a gruesome manner is called “saving face”. After much planning and negotiating between Hamilton’s and Burr’s right hand men also known as their “Second”, which were Nathaniel Pendleton and William P. Van Ness, they decided that Hamilton and Burr would have their duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11th, 1804 between the hours of 7 am to 7:30 am. They chose this location because New Jersey you were less likely to get accused for committing a duel as a crime. The pistols they chose were .55 calibers. Supposedly, nobody besides their “seconds” knew about the meeting place and time for the duel but each had a boat rower row them to the island and each also had a doctor come to the island with them. Finally the duel was at hand, the participants (Hamilton and Burr) made sure they were ten paces from each other. The command to fire was “Present”. Hamilton was believed to have the intentions to stay consistent with his plan but some believe that the trigger was happy and as Hamilton went to direct his gun in the air and shoot, it shot to early leaving, shooting just above Burr’s shoulder, which lead Burr to believe he was shooting at the command of “present” and Burr fired back immediately which resulted in a gunshot wound to Hamilton in his side, piercing his liver. Burr, realizing what he had just done, immediately went to Hamilton’s side showing actions of regret for what he had done. Burr’s “second” grabbed him and told them they had to leave before Hamilton’s doctor came over to the duel scene. Hamilton’s doctor Dr.Hosack rushed over to the scene, went to Hamilton’s side, Hamilton was barely able to utter the words “This is a mortal wound, doctor”. Dr. Hosack then felt Hamilton’s pulse, felt nothing, felt Hamilton’s Heart, and felt no beat. It appeared as though Hamilton was lifeless. However, on the boat ride back, Hamilton seemingly came to life and uttered the words “My vision is indistinct”. He then proceeded to tell them to make sure they take care of the pistol because it is undischarged and easily could go off because it is a triggering happy, shooting happy gun and then mentioned words of his reinsurance to his “second” asking if Pendleton knew of his intentions not to fire at Burr, but that the gun’s trigger was unfortunately extremely sensitive and loose and the end result appeared to be him firing upon Burr at the command “Present” . Hamilton died 36 hours later after his gunshot wound was inflicted. Burr was criticized and known as a murderer.

This story shows that the way they tried to earn their honor, reputation, and pride back then was extremely uncivilized, immature, and unbelievably prideful. There is a good reason why political candidates do not do this anymore and it is because it is unreasonable and silly. If political candidates really feel dishonored and insulted and want to gain their honor and respect back in some kind of physical action; I am sure America would love to see them take their issues to the ring.

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Duel At Dawn, 1804," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2000).
Gaylord, Irving C. The Burr-Hamilton Duel, with Correspondence Preceding Same, Etc. New York, 1889: Hamilton Bank,1804
Freeman, Joanne B. Dueling as politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel, issue 2, third series, volume 53,289-318, William and Mary Quarterly (April 1996)
Rogow, Arnold A. “The Hamilton-Burr Duel.” In Book Notes: Stories from American History, edited by Brian Lamb, 41-45. New York: Public Affairs 2001
[ 2 ]. Duel At Dawn, 1804," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2000).
Gaylord, Irving C. The Burr-Hamilton Duel, with Correspondence Preceding Same, Etc. New York, 1889: Hamilton Bank,1804
Freeman, Joanne B. Dueling as politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel, issue 2, third series, volume 53,289-318, William and Mary Quarterly (April 1996)
Rogow, Arnold A. “The Hamilton-Burr Duel.” In Book Notes: Stories from American History, edited by Brian Lamb, 41-45. New York: Public Affairs 2001

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