Long gone are the days when you’d get a sitting US Vice-President challenging a former Secretary of the Treasury to a dawn duel, but that was exactly what you got in the gung-ho days of 1804 in what became one of America’s most famous duels. Aaron Burr, then the man the President would first turn to when a vigorous nod was needed, and Alexander Hamilton, depicted as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and brains behind the nation’s financial system, stared each other down across a misty, riverside clearing; brought there by an irreparable rupture to a long-running, bitter, and highly personal feud.
Burr, you would have thought, should have known better given he was Vice-President. But then he had also fought in the Revolutionary War, once saving an entire Brigade from capture from the beastly British, so was accustomed to the cocksure feel of loaded musket ball. He also fathered two illegitimate children, but that’s not really that relevant. Burr became seriously involved in politics when he was appointed New York State Attorney General. He also founded a bank. The Bank of Manhattan Bank that was later swallowed by Chase Manhattan, itself like a Matryoshka doll, eventually disappearing into the gut of J.P Morgan.
Anyway, it was the founding of the bank that historians argue might have lit the fuse of their ill-fated relationship. Burr had, incidentally, around the same time fought a duel with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, but that duel ended in two missed shots, an apology and a quick hand shake. Cue no more problem. The problem Hamilton had with the Bank of Manhattan was that Burr had told him, and other stakeholders corralled into lending support, that he was setting up a much needed water company for Manhattan. Nice plan. But Burr then quietly changed the charter to banking, a far more profitable but arguably less community-minded venture. Burr’s slippery deceit ultimately led to the delay of a fresh water system, which later caused countless deaths due to an unfortunate outbreak of malaria. All in all, not good citizenship.
Alexander Hamilton was a man of equal gifts. He was Chief of Staff to George Washington, the first President of the United States, and banged many a dinner table in wet-lipped defence of the US Constitution. He founded the first National Bank, established The New York Post newspaper and still had time to get the US Coast Guard up and running. He also founded the Federalist party which dominated national and state politics until losing to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans in 1800. When Jefferson and Burr tied for the Presidency, Hamilton gave Jefferson a nudge as, despite their philosophical differences, he’d prefer to have Jefferson round for tea than Burr. When Burr later tried to run for the Governor of New York state, Hamilton was not shy in sharing his view that Burr was a bad egg. Burr, took affront. Letters were exchanged but the apology Burr was looking for never materialised. The only option left was to challenge Hamilton to pistols at dawn. The difficulty for Hamilton was that this went against his religious views but despite his stiff moral code he was compelled to accept. Honour mattered. The fact that his son had only recently died in a duel himself, didn’t seem to affect his decision.
The dual itself took place early on the morning of the 11th July 1804, on the banks of the Hudson river below the imposing cliffs of the Palisades. Burr arrived first, just after six thirty in the morning. Hamilton landed shortly after. Small talk was exchanged before they took their positions. What followed is still debated, as all those present had their backs turned so they could, if ever collared by a bobby on their lunch break, truthfully claim that they didn’t see anything. The fact is two shots were fired. It was common in duels, for both to fire a shot into the ground to demonstrate courage, and then the principles could shake hands and make it home before the house woke up. The problem for Hamilton was that instead of firing into the ground he sent a musket ball fizzing past Burr’s ear and ricocheting into the wood behind. Irrespective of whether he intended to miss or not, Burr wasted no time and returned fire sending his own musket ball ricocheting off Hamilton’s right hip, through his liver before coming to rest in his second lumbar vertebra. Historians have debated that perhaps Burr’s fatal shot was designed to miss, and hit his target by accident, but given he was the one who wanted the duel and was an ex-army man, that might be a bit generous. Towards the end of his life Burr said “Had I read Sterne or Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me”. A lesson today for any petulant youth with access to a hand gun. Hamilton died the following day, and Burr was charged with his murder. It never went to trial.
Two hundred years later, descendants of both Burr and Hamilton re-enacted the whole shooting match near the Hudson river drawing a crowd of more than a thousand people. Hamilton’s fifth great-grandson stepped in to do the honours which was good of him. There was a bouncy castle and everyone agreed to do it again soon, so no hard feelings.
Duels, then, an effective way of making a point but all a bit fatal. Stick to Twitter.