American Experience: The Duel
An Analysis in Answers to Four Questions
By Kim Patrick Noyes for History 207A
By Kim Patrick Noyes for History 207A
1. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were both highly intelligent and ambitious men as well as hyper-aggressive competitors and, not coincidentally, hyper-sexual philanderers. They were both powerful men who could be charming and for whom the ladies had an eye and whom had an eye for the ladies. However, where Burr simply was charming Hamilton acted charming when he wanted to be so but otherwise was rather misanthropic in private. In the upshot he was more intelligent than Burr who was politically more sophisticated and thus a more effective politician (and lawyer). In all fairness Hamilton was no slouch as a politician and lawyer both not unrelated vocations in which he excelled nearly as effectively as Burr. However, he was a black and white thinker who felt individual people were either his ally or his enemy: there was no middle ground. This cost Hamilton more than he probably recognized. Where Hamilton was a visionary driven by ideology Burr was a political tactician driven by material self-interest. Both men were willing to cross their bosses in order to achieve their goals, even to the point of treason. Hamilton did so when he let the British, whom he admired, know that his boss was bluffing about renewing a treaty with the French if America did not get concessions out of the British. This was on purely ideological grounds as perpetrated by an ideologue. Burr did so out of purely personally ambitious grounds when he attempted to become emperor of lands in then-Mexico (which included what is now Texas) and the then-Louisiana Territory.
The two men were as different as day and night in their heritage and formative experience as well. Hamilton, born on Nevis in or about 1755, was the illegitimate progeny of a traveling trader from Scotland and a compulsive adulteress. Burr was born as the child of elites in 1756 in New York into the Jonathan Edwards clan. Hamilton had the fateful good fortune to be discovered by a St. Croix businessman benefactor who recognized Hamilton's potential and working in collaboration with a reverend sent him to school in the American colonies for a formal education. Around the same time Burr was shipped off by his family to Princeton University where his maternal grandfather Jonathan Edwards had begun his studies there at the same age and later served as its President for a time. Within a short time of graduating from that institution Hamilton was rejected for admittance there and thus ended up attending Columbia University.
2. The opening salvo in the conflict between Hamilton and Burr was Burr's decision to challenge Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Shuyler for his New York United States Senate seat in 1791. He successfully took it by aligning himself with two political families (Clinton and Livingston) who were rivals of the Shuyler Family and by extension, Alexander Hamilton. To make matters worse, Burr seemed to do it as a nakedly ambitious ploy devoid of any ideological motive.
Another layer of depth to the breach between them was their being on opposite sides of the dominant political axis of conflict at that time, to wit, Hamilton being a Federalist and Burr being a Jeffersonian anti-Federalist who officially were known as Democratic-Republicans. However, even before the two came into direct conflict they already had come into indirect competition... for the respect of General George Washington. Burr got to Washington first but the two of them did not get along while Burr served on Washington's general staff for a brief time during the war. Hamilton got there second but he and Washington clicked immediately and maintained a good working chemistry for years to come extending into and through Washington's Presidency.
The next time these two men locked horns occurred when an internal memo of sorts penned by Hamilton that was intended for only the eyes of particular members of the Federalist Party which treatise heavily excoriated then-President John Adams was leaked by Burr to the public. This caused great embarrassment to Hamilton and permanently damaged the Federalist Party.
Within the same calendar year Hamilton was gifted by fate to return the favor in full measure and fully availed himself of the opportunity. Thomas Jefferson ran for President in the Presidential election of 1800 with Burr as his running mate (candidate for Vice President of the United States). Burr made full use of his impressive political skills to recruit votes in the electoral college for Jefferson and himself. For reasons which remain unclear (was it a coincident of fate or political savvy or a mix of both?) Jefferson and Burr came up with an equal number of votes in the electoral college. Per the United States Constitution, Congress and in particular the lower chamber (United States House of Representatives) controlled by Hamilton's Federalists was to vote to break the deadlock in the electoral college and did so. Burr thought it bad form to campaign for himself under the circumstances. Hamilton, while no lover of Jefferson, felt he was the lesser of two evils when compared to Burr as at least Jefferson had beliefs beyond personal ambition. Therefore, Hamilton actively campaigned for Jefferson and against Burr and turned what started out as a Federalist consensus in favor of Burr into one in favor of Jefferson who as a consequence became the third President of the United States.
The final and decisive chapter in their feud occurred four years later when Burr ran for the New York governorship. In a naked display of political ambition, Burr switched allegiance to Hamilton's Federalist Party and Hamilton, who famously viewed it as a religious duty to oppose Burr's political career, actively campaigned against Burr's candidacy. Burr lost the Federalist Party candidacy but forge ahead as an independent candidate. At this point both sides of the political divide hammered upon him, none ferociously than Hamilton. Comments he made about Burr at a dinner party hosted by Hamilton's father-in-law found their way to Burr via a letter from an attendee of the party which made its way into a newspaper. This gave Burr while still licking his fresh wounds the sour grapes impetus to ultimately challenge Hamilton to a duel. The two of them badly mishandled the negotiations leading up to the duel unnecessarily making it an inevitable tragedy of history to which we all know the famous outcome.
Male elites (and sometimes even non-elites) of this era settled their public differences by means of "affairs of honor" which was a euphemism for dueling. This was a carefully staged war dance that began with an exchange of letters which usually settled differences. Failing that the two men would have "seconds" or what we nowadays might refer to as "wing-men" act as intermediaries and representatives and witnesses and assistants. By way of their assistance matters taken as far as meeting at the dueling site might still be settled non-violently. Indeed, given the inaccuracy inherent to the smooth-bored pistols they used shots could be fired and nobody be harmed seriously or even at all. Death was a rare outcome to dueling which was technically illegal just about everywhere and also verboten by just about every religious denomination.
3. Burr, who never ceased to be personally ambitious even after killing Hamilton, was still then-President Jefferson's Vice President, but Jefferson never ceased shunning him since the political intrigues of 1800 viewing him as disloyal. He was safe in the nation's capitol but faced murder indictments in New York (where he lived) and New Jersey (where the duel occurred). Shunned in the northern states he found more sympathy in the southern states who viewed the matter of the entire affair as a matter of honor, not a crime. This exposed yet another rift that foreshadowed the growing cultural divide that would lead to America's second civil war later in the 1860's.
To the surprise of some and chagrin of President Jefferson in the impeachment trial of United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Chase over which Burr presided (as Vice President as required by the Constitution in a tied chamber) he deigned to actually give Justice Chase a fair trial. This was as opposed to railroading him through the system as Jefferson had hoped and intended would happen. This entire affair was a naked attempt by Jefferson to stack the Supreme Court in his favor as FDR would later and also unsuccessfully attempt when faced with a Supreme Court thwarting the President's policy agenda. The primary focus of analysis regarding Burr's rationale for not towing the party line seems to run along the either/or axis of his doing it out of a sense of exalted ethics or contrariwise disloyally doing it to Jefferson for icing him out of the political arena since the 1800 election. For one thing, I find it difficult to label as "disloyal" any attempt to thwart one's boss from doing something that is incontrovertibly ethically wrong. My own judgment in this matter is that the truth includes a bit of both ethics and politics.
Burr's Conspiracy was a rather hair-brained attempt to become "emperor" of a new principality to be carved out of parts of both the then-Louisiana Territory and perhaps part of then-Mexico which included what is now Texas. The plot was to hinge largely on the assistance of a corrupt U.S. Army general, the then-head of the United States Army, General James Wilkinson, no less, who was also the military governor of the Northern Louisiana Territory.(and a spy for Spain). Ironically enough, this man would later be a double-traitor and turn in Burr to U.S. authorities. This would not happen before Burr had first sought British financial backing and be turned down and then with private financial backing create a small mercenary strike force. As a result of Wilkinson's double-crossing him he was arrested in Louisiana in 1807 and shipped off to Virginia to stand trial. He was spared being publicly hanged by means of a legal technicality betting him acquitted (the proverbial black glove did not fit apparently). However, he was now thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the American people, North and South, and left the country in disgrace.
4. Being the revolutionary whom he was, Thomas Jefferson seemed to have an aversion for rules, even rules he was constitutionally-bound to honor, technically at least. Jefferson in the Chase Case attempted to subvert the independence of the Supreme Court when it suited his own agenda by attempting to railroad a flawed but not corrupt Supreme Court associate justice en route to he hoped subsequently doing something similar to his distant relative the Federalist U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Both men despised each other, family ties notwithstanding.
In the Supreme Court case Marbury vs. Madison President Jefferson through his agent, U.S. Secretary of State James Madison, attempted to subvert the will of outgoing President John Adams)by not delivering a last-minute signed justice-of-the-peace of the District of Columbia appointment to one William Marbury, a Federalist. Marbury sued Madison to force him to deliver to him his appointment to that office to which Madison refused. Chief Justice Marshall shrewdly navigated treacherous political waters that might have been stirred into a storm of constitutional crisis had he directed the court to take on Jefferson directly causing Jefferson to perhaps defy the will of the court. What Marshall did instead was to rule as unconstitutional the law that gave his court the right to rule in this case in the first place. He then went on to bitch-slap Jefferson by suggesting Marbury deserved his appointment and by extension, that Jefferson should do the right thing. In the end Jefferson achieved a tactical victory while Marshall achieved a strategic victory. This case established a vitally important legal precedent that continues to this day, to wit, the Supreme Court's authority known as "judicial review" to declare as unconstitutional laws written by the United States Federal government which concept has been extended to include laws by all levels of government.