Hamilton and Burr: What's the real story?

In History class, we were always taught that Hamilton was the good guy and Burr was the bad guy. Now that the anniversary of the famous duel is approaching, I think that it’s a good time to straighten out the story. Anyone have the facts? I ask this since Burr’s descendents seem to be contradicting the traditional story that Burr was in the wrong. And we know that the way politics works, we may not be getting the full story.

I highly recommend Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers. It includes an entire chapter on the Burr-Hamilton duel, and is (IMO) quite thorough and detailed.

P.S. I don’t own the book, else I’d actually answer the question. :slight_smile:

Just from remembering it though, I think I may go out and buy it, it was so good. If I do, I’ll be back.

I liked Ellis’ book very much, but why limit yourself to a chapter when you can read Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America, by Thomas Fleming?

However, as a historical issue this is a GD question, and not a GQ. There can be no factual statement of right and wrong. Historians can be found on every side and in between, and like every other subject pertaining to the Founding Fathers, fads and fashions in the world of history come into play. Whatever is said about the matter today will be looked at in a different light in another generation, just as we look at last generation’s ideas differently today.

Ok, I went out and bought it. :smiley:

Ellis’ final conclusion (after LOTS of (interesting) backstory, some of which I’ll probably get into) is:

Ellis goes on to debate whether or not Burr meant to kill Hamilton, eventually concluding that it is impossible to know for sure, but likely that Burr had only meant to injure, if to hit Hamilton at all. His evidence is that "Burr’s initial reaction to Hamilton’s collapse, as described by [both men’s seconds], was apparent surprise and regret, Burr wished to speak to Hamilton just after the duel, Burr had previously stated that one doctor would be sufficient at the duel but “even that unnecessary,” and that a popular target for one wishing to wound rather than kill was the hip, and Burr had been only a few inches off that mark (Ellis also describes the inherent inaccuracy of the pistols being used: a custom-made pair owned by Hamilton’s brother-in-law which were smoothbore, took a .54 calibre ball, and required 20 pounds of force to pull the trigger with the hair-trigger not set. The hair-trigger was a secret catch which Hamilton knew about but Burr (probably) didn’t, and which was set on neither of the pistols.)

The REASON for the duel is interesting as well, and something which is rarely touched on in high school U.S. History courses.

Sometime in April of 1804, one Dr. Charles Cooper had a letter published in the Albany Register, which focused on Burr’s candidacy for governer of New York and concluded with “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General HAMILTON has expressed of Mr. BURR.”

Burr then asked Hamilton to explain: “You might perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.”

According to Ellis, since niether letter (Cooper’s or Burr’s) contained a specific libelous statement,

But Hamilton didn’t. He apparently sent back a fiery letter saying that he couldn’t deny or acknowledge the statement, and moreover, the word “despicable” “admits to infinite shades, from the very light to very dark. How am I to judge of the degree intended?”

Ellis continues:

After a few more exchanges, Nathaniel Pendleton, Hamilton’s second, was working hard to find a way out of the escalating conflict, as required by the code duello. Pendleton persuaded Hamilton to agree to a statement that the conversation with Dr. Cooper (which inspired the original letter), “consisted of comments on the political principles and views of Col. Burr . . . without reference to any instance of past conduct, or to private character” and “turned wholly on political topics and did not attribute to Colo Burr, any instance of dishonorable conduct, nor relate to his private character.”

According to code duello, Burr should have “felt obliged to accept Hamilton’s explanation as the equivalent of an apology,” since according to Ellis, “affairs of honor were supposed to involve only personal charges. Political and ideological disagreements, no matter how deep, lay outside the field of honor on which a gentleman could demand satisfaction.”

But Burr’s blood, as Ellis has put it, was now up. Through his second, William Van Ness, he relayed the following message:

More correspondence ensued, Hamilton basically saying that Burr had completely changed the terms of his original grievance. Finally, on June 27, 1804, only nine days after Dr. Cooper’s letter was originally published, Burr, through Van Ness wrote

The duel.

There is much much more to this story, and those are only the basics. Ellis’s work is brilliantly written (and footnoted), so if you’re at all interested in this, please do go out and find the book in a library or buy it. It covers some other very interesting events – from Amazon.com’s review:

I realize now that I had intended to explain something else and forgot. In this quote:

The “preduel pledge” that Ellis is referring to was explained by him previously:

Well, you could watch the re-enactment and take notes. :wink:

As usual, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the duel, and conflicting testimony even from people who were there.

I don’t have Duel with me, but in Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow, the fat, new bestseller, Chernow draws more or less the same conclusion as Ellis, but also shows why there may be different interpretations drawn.

He writes that Hamilton’s friend Nathaniel Pendleton:

Hamilton himself seemed to confirm this as he was being rowed away from the site:

However, this was said to Pendleton, who may or may not be believable.

What is the “real” story? We’ll never know.

There is a theatrical tradition that they duelled over a lady, the actress playing “Polly Peachum” in a then-current production of The Beggar’s Opera.