Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 41. A DESPICABLE OPINION
Sometime in March 1804, Hamilton dined in Albany at the home of Judge John Tayler, a Republican merchant and former state assemblyman who was working for the election of Morgan Lewis. Both Judge Tayler and Hamilton expressed their dread at having Aaron Burr as governor. “You can have no conception of the exertions that are [being made] for Burr,” Tayler had told De Witt Clinton. “Every artifice that can be devised is used to promote his cause.”1
This private dinner on State Street triggered a chain of events that led inexorably to Hamilton’s duel with Burr. Present at Tayler’s table was Dr. Charles D. Cooper, a physician who had married Tayler’s adopted daughter. Contemptuous of Burr, Cooper was delighted to sit back and listen to two of New York’s most illustrious Federalists, Hamilton and James Kent, denounce him bluntly at the table. So exhilarated was Cooper by this virulent talk that on April 12 he dashed off an account to his friend Andrew Brown, telling him that Hamilton had spoken of Burr “as a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted.”2 Cooper asked a friend to deliver the letter; he later claimed it was purloined and opened. This may have been a cover story, though people often pored over private letters at local inns that served as post offices; it was not uncommon for letters to be intercepted and then turn up unexpectedly in print.
Before Cooper knew it, excerpts from his letter had appeared in the New-York Evening Post. Editor William Coleman evidently thought Cooper’s words had been published in a handbill and needed to be refuted. He reminded readers that Hamilton had “repeatedly declared” his neutrality in the race between Burr and Lewis.3 To drive home the point, Coleman ran a letter from Philip Schuyler repeating Hamilton’s pledge to stay aloof from the race and saying that he could never have made the statement attributed to him about Burr. By writing this letter, Schuyler, unwittingly, became the agent of his cherished son-in-law’s death.
Cooper took umbrage at Schuyler’s insinuation that he had invented the story and on April 23 wrote a second letter, this time to Schuyler, substantiating his claim that Hamilton had traduced Burr: “Gen. 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.”4 Cooper noted that in February Hamilton had said as much publicly when Federalists met at the City Tavern in Albany to choose a gubernatorial candidate. But it was Cooper’s next assertion that pushed relations between Hamilton and Burr past the breaking point. Far from being irresponsible, said Cooper, he had been “unusually cautious” in recounting the dinner at Tayler’s, “for really, sir, I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”5 This letter, which changed so many lives, appeared in the Albany Register on April 24, 1804.
On June 18, seven weeks after his election defeat, Burr received a copy of the upstate paper with Cooper’s letter. Whether it was sent by an irate friend or a malicious enemy, we do not know. In his cool, disdainful style, Burr had prided himself on sloughing off allegations and not dignifying them with responses. But now, banished to the political wilderness, Burr was no longer immune to criticism, and he flew into a rage. Like many people who hide hostility behind charming facades, Burr was, at bottom, a captive of his temper. With his insatiable appetite for political gossip, he knew that Hamilton had been maligning him for years. On two previous occasions, they had nearly entered into affairs of honor over Hamilton’s statements. During his feverish efforts to prevent Burr from becoming president during the 1801 election tie, Hamilton had called him profligate, bankrupt, corrupt, and unprincipled and had accused him of trying to cheat Jefferson out of the presidency. In October 1802, Hamilton had averted a duel over this by admitting that he had “no personal knowledge” of such machinations.6 Burr later told a friend:
It is too well known that Genl. H[amilton] had long indulged himself in illiberal freedoms with my character. He had a peculiar talent of saying things improper and offensive in such a manner as could not well be taken hold of. On two different occasions, however, having reason to apprehend that he had gone so far as to afford me fair occasion for calling on him, he anticipated me by coming forward voluntarily and making apologies and concessions. From delicacy to him and from a sincere desire for peace, I have never mentioned these circumstances, always hoping that the generosity of my conduct would have some influence on his.7
Some Burr admirers have noted that while Hamilton made scathing comments about Burr, he never responded in kind. This may say less about Burr’s ethics than his style. Where Hamilton was outspoken in denunciations of people, the wily Burr tended to cultivate a wary silence, a studied ambiguity, in his comments about political figures.
When Burr set eyes on Cooper’s letter, he was still smarting from his election defeat and the apparent collapse of his career. Before 1800, he could not have acted against Hamilton because of the latter’s immense influence in the Washington and Adams administrations. Then as vice president under Jefferson, Burr knew that his political fate might rest with the Federalists and that he could not antagonize Hamilton. Now, Hamilton was fair game. He still bore the famous name but without the power that once made it so fearsome. Joanne Freeman has written, “Burr was a man with a wounded reputation, a leader who had suffered personal abuse and the public humiliation of a lost election. A duel with Hamilton would redeem his honor and possibly dishonor Hamilton.”8 Sometime that spring, Burr told Charles Biddle that “he was determined to call out the first man of any respectability concerned in the infamous publications concerning him,” recalled Biddle. “He had no idea then of having to call on General Hamilton.”9 Burr was, however, laboring under the misimpression that Hamilton had drafted anonymous broadsides against him. Perhaps Cooper’s letter confirmed his hunch that Hamilton had been making mischief behind the scenes.
The great mystery behind Burr’s challenge to Hamilton lies in what exactly Charles Cooper meant when he said he could detail a “still more despicable opinion” that Hamilton had spouted against Burr. The question has led to two centuries of speculation. Gore Vidal has titillated readers of fiction with his supposition that Hamilton accused Burr of an incestuous liaison with his daughter, Theodosia. But Burr was such a dissipated, libidinous character that Hamilton had a rich field to choose from in assailing his personal reputation. Aaron Burr had been openly accused of every conceivable sin: deflowering virgins, breaking up marriages through adultery, forcing women into prostitution, accepting bribes, fornicating with slaves, looting the estates of legal clients. This grandson of theologian Jonathan Edwards had sampled many forbidden fruits. To give but one recent example of scandal: six months before the dinner at Tayler’s, Burr had received a letter from a former lover, Mrs. Hayt, that politely requested hush money. She explained that she was “in a state of pregnancy and in want…. [O]nly think what a small sum you gave me, agentleman of your connections.” She did not wish to expose him, she promised, “but I would thank you if you would be so kind as to send me a little money.”10 If Burr did not pay her, Hayt may have made good on her threat to expose him; if so, New York society would have been abuzz with the story. In the last analysis, however, the specific charge that Cooper had in mind was unimportant, for Burr was now poised to exploit any pretext to strike at Hamilton. Their affair of honor was less about slurs and personal insults than politics and party leadership.
On Monday morning, June 18, after digesting the Cooper letter, Burr asked his friend William P. Van Ness to come immediately to Richmond Hill, his home overlooking the Hudson. Burr was suffering from an ague, and his neck was wrapped in scarves. Many people, Burr told Van Ness, had informed him that “General Hamilton had at different times and upon various occasions used language and expressed opinions highly injurious to [my] reputation.”11Thus, it was clearly a catalog of cumulative insults, rather than the Cooper letter alone, that had provoked Burr to action. By eleven o’clock that morning, Van Ness materialized at Hamilton’s law office with a letter from Burr, sternly demanding an explanation of the “despicable” act alluded to in Cooper’s letter. Both the tone and substance of Burr’s letter telegraphed to Hamilton that Burr was commencing an affair of honor.
Everything in Alexander Hamilton’s life pointed to the fact that he would not dodge a duel or negotiate a compromise. He was incapable of turning the other cheek. With his checkered West Indian background, he had predicated his career on fiercely defending his honor. No impulse was more deeply rooted in his nature. This outspoken man was always armed for battle and vigilant in deflecting attacks on his integrity. On six occasions, Hamilton had been involved in the duel preliminaries that formed part of affairs of honor, and three times he had been attached to duels as a second or an adviser. Yet he had never actually been the principal in a duel. His editor, Harold C. Syrett, has observed that, until the summer of 1804, Hamilton “was obsessed with dueling in the abstract, but not with duels in fact.”12
The dueling cult was still widespread, though far from universal. Jefferson and Adams opposed dueling, and Franklin had deplored it as a “murderous practice.”13 Dueling was especially prevalent among military officers, who prided themselves on their romantic sense of honor and found this ritualized violence the perfect way to express it. Both Hamilton and Burr had been schooled in this patrician culture. Military men always feared that if they ducked a duel they might be branded cowards, drastically impairing their future ability to command troops. Since he envisioned a host of bloody possibilities in America’s immediate future—a civil war, anarchy, a secessionist revolt—and thought he might lead an army to deal with them, Hamilton dwelled on the implications for his courage in accepting or declining Burr’s challenge. Courage was inseparable from his conception of leadership. Said one contemporary of Hamilton: “He was a soldier and could not bear the imputation of wanting spirit. Least of all could he bear the supercilious vaunting of Aaron Burr that he had been called by him to account and shrunk from the call.”14
Dueling was de rigueur among those, like Burr and Hamilton, who identified with America’s social elite—Burr by birth, Hamilton by marriage and accomplishment. If a social inferior insulted you, you thrashed him with your cane. If you traded insults with a social equal, you selected pistols and repaired to the dueling ground. In theory, Burr could have sued Hamilton for libel, but it was thought infra dig for a gentleman to do so. Hamilton said loftily that he had largely refrained from libel suits because he preferred “repaying hatred with contempt.”15
Politicians were among the most ardent duelists. Many duels arose from partisan disputes and, as Joanne Freeman has shown in Affairs of Honor, they often followed contested elections, as losers sought to recoup their standing. Political parties were still fluid organizations based on personality cults, and no politician could afford to have his honor impugned. Though fought in secrecy and seclusion, duels always turned into highly public events that were covered afterward with rapt attention by the press. They were designed to sway public opinion and shape the images of the adversaries.
Duels were also elaborate forms of conflict resolution, which is why duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents. The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets. Experience had taught Hamilton that if he was tough and agile in negotiations he could settle disputes without resort to weapons. In the unlikely event that a duel occurred, the antagonists frequently tried only to wound each other, clipping an arm or a leg. If both parties survived the first round of a duel, they still had a chance to pause and settle their dispute before a second round. The point was not to exhibit deadly marks-manship; it was to demonstrate courage by submitting to the duel. Further militating against a mortal ending was that many states had levied harsh penalties for dueling. Although these laws were seldom applied, especially when social luminaries were involved, the possibility of prosecution always existed. Even if no legal action was taken, the culprit might still be ostracized as a bloodthirsty scoundrel, defeating his purpose in having dueled.
Hamilton could thus have assumed that he would likely emerge alive, though not unscathed, from his affair of honor with Burr. At the same time, he faced a situation in many ways unlike anything he had ever experienced. In previous affairs, Hamilton had been on the offensive, taking opponents by surprise and briskly demanding apologies and retractions. He was a past master at using this technique to muzzle specific people who had slandered him. Now he found himself on the receiving end, deprived of the righteous wrath and moral authority of being the wronged party. He could not take an aggressive, high-minded tone, since it was he who stood accused of slander.
Ordinarily, Hamilton might have assumed that the worldly Burr would see that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by murdering him. They had been colleagues for twenty years and had enjoyed each other’s company. That spring, Hamilton had told a mutual friend that political disputes were more civilized in New York than in Philadelphia and that they “never carried party matters so far as to let it interfere with their social parties.” He even mentioned that he and Colonel Burr “always behaved with courtesy to each other.”16 Yet Hamilton knew that Burr’s career had been damaged, even ruined, and he feared that he was in a homicidal mood. Hamilton told his friend the Reverend John M. Mason that “for several months past he had been convinced that nothing would satisfy the malice of Burr but the sacrifice of his life.”17 At every step, Hamilton proceeded with a sense of gravity that suggested his awareness of the possibility of his impending death.
Throughout his affair with Burr, Hamilton evinced ambivalence about dueling. In light of his extensive history of affairs of honor, it may seem disingenuous for Hamilton to have stated that he did not believe in duels. But with his son Philip’s death and his own growing attention to religion, Hamilton had developed a principled aversion to the practice. By a spooky coincidence, in the last great speech of his career Hamilton eloquently denounced dueling. During the Harry Croswell case, he argued that it was forbidden “on the principle of natural justice that no man shall be the avenger of his own wrongs, especially by a deed alike interdicted by the laws of God and man.”18 In agreeing to duel with Burr, Hamilton claimed to be acting contrary to his own wishes in order to appease public opinion. As his second, Nathaniel Pendleton, later wrote, dueling might be barbarous, but it was “a custom which has nevertheless received the sanction of public opinion in the refined age and nation in which we live, by which it is made the test of honor or disgrace.”19 In 1804, Alexander Hamilton did not think he could afford to flunk that test, though many friends would fault him for bowing to this popular prejudice.
It is hard to escape the impression that in the early stages of negotiations it was the headstrong Hamilton, not Burr, who was the intransigent party. The letter that William P. Van Ness carried to Hamilton’s law office on June 18 demanded a “prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial” of any expression that might have justified Charles Cooper’s use of the term despicable.20 Hamilton could have mollified Burr by saying that he had no personal quarrel with him and offering a bland statement of apology or regret. Instead, he adopted the slightly irritated tone of a busy man being unjustly harassed. In niggling, hairsplitting style, Hamilton objected that Burr’s charge against him was too general and that “if Mr. Burr would refer to any particular expressions, he would recognize or disavow them.”21
Technically, Hamilton was correct. In affairs of honor, the aggressor was supposed to pinpoint his accusations and do so as soon after the event as possible. In his own experiences, Hamilton had cited chapter and verse about the charges. Now Burr was dragging up dinner-party chatter from three months ago and resting everything on an adjective. For a man with Hamilton’s full schedule, it was difficult, if not impossible, to recollect old table talk, and he had legitimate grounds to protest. Yet he must have suspected that Burr was trying to coax him into a duel to satisfy political purposes as well as rage. If so, he played into Burr’s hands by behaving in a haughty, inflexible manner.
When Van Ness said that he found his response inadequate, Hamilton promised that he would review the Albany Register—he had never even seen the Cooper quote—as well as Burr’s letter and get back to him later in the day. At 1:30 P.M., Hamilton stopped by Van Ness’s home and pleaded a “variety of engagements,” while assuring him of a response by Wednesday. He told Van Ness that “he was sorry Mr Burr had adopted the present course, that it was a subject that required some deliberation, and that he wished to proceed with justifiable caution and circumspection.”22
On Wednesday evening, June 20, Hamilton dropped off his response at Van Ness’s home. Instead of applying balm to Burr’s wounds, Hamilton struck a didactic tone and quibbled over the word despicable. “’Tis evident that the phrase ‘still more despicable’ admits of infinite shades from very light to very dark. How am I to judge of the degree intended?”23 A defensive tone crept into his prose: “I deem it inadmissible on principle to consent to be interrogated as to the justness of the inferences which may be drawn by others from whatever I may have said of a political opponent in the course of a fifteen years competition.”24 He stood ready to avow or disavow specific charges, but he would not give Burr a blanket retraction. Then he curtly added lines that committed him to a duel: “I trust, on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstance and must abide the consequences.”25
In his acerbic reply the next day, Burr only hardened his position. He thought Hamilton had patronized him with a pedantic discourse. “The question is not whether [Cooper] has understood the meaning of the word or has used it according to syntax and with grammatical accuracy,” Burr wrote, “but whether you have authorised this application either directly or by uttering expressions or opinions derogatory to my honor.” Far from being appeased, Burr resolved to proceed with his challenge: “Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.”26
At noon on Friday, June 22, Van Ness delivered Burr’s message to Hamilton, who read it in his presence. Hamilton seemed perplexed and said that Burr’s letter “contained several offensive expressions and seemed to close the door to all further reply…. [H]e had hoped the answer he had returned to Col. Burr’s first letter would have given a different direction to the controversy.”27 As if this were a legal debate or a tutorial in logic, Hamilton could not see why Burr would expect him to make a specific disavowal to a general statement. He did not appreciate the need for personal delicacy. Eager to defuse the controversy, Van Ness fairly dictated language to Hamilton that would have ended the matter. He said that if Hamilton replied to Burr that “he could recollect the use of no terms that would justify the construction made by Dr Cooper it would…have opened a door for accommodation.”28 But Hamilton, turning a deaf ear, repeated his original objection to a broad disavowal. Since Hamilton had refused to reply, Van Ness returned to Richmond Hill and in formed Burr that he “must pursue such [a] course as he should deem most proper.”29 In a shockingly brief span, the two men had moved to the brink of a duel and were ready to lay down their lives over an adjective.
After talking with Hamilton, Van Ness consulted with Nathaniel Pendleton. At first, Pendleton could not understand why Hamilton refused to repudiate any statement he might have made. “Mr. Pendleton replied that he believed General Hamilton would have no objections to make such [a] declaration and left me for the purpose of consulting him,” Van Ness recalled.30 Pendleton was chastened by his visit with Hamilton, who called Burr’s letter “rude and offensive” and unanswerable.31 Later in the day, Pendleton told Van Ness that he had not appreciated “the whole force and extent” of Hamilton’s feelings and his profound difficulty in complying with Burr’s request.32 In a new letter, Hamilton gave Burr a good tongue-lashing, describing his expressions as “indecorous and improper” and making compromise ever more elusive.33 He tried to turn the tables on Burr, seize the moral high ground, and cast himself as the victim. It clearly bothered him that he was being asked to make amends to Burr, whom he regarded as his intellectual, political, and ethical inferior.
Judge Nathaniel Pendleton was a confidant of Hamilton who had fought in the Revolution before becoming a U.S. district-court judge in Georgia. Even though he suspected Pendleton of Republican leanings, Hamilton had developed such high respect for him that he had recommended him to President Washington as a candidate for secretary of state: “Judge Pendleton writes well, is of respectable abilities, and [is] a gentlemanlike, smooth man.”34 In 1796, Pendleton moved to New York to escape the Georgia climate, which was harming his health, and he quickly established himself as a distinguished jurist.
The courteous, dignified Pendleton was dismayed by Hamilton’s rigidity. “The truth is that General Hamilton had made up his mind to meet Mr. Burr before he called upon me, provided he should be required to do what his first letter declined,” Pendleton later told a relative. “And it was owing to my solicitude and my efforts to prevent extremities that the correspondence was kept open from 23 June to the 27th.”35 Burr, it must be said, proved no less obdurate. George Clinton later told one senator that “Burr’s intention to challenge was known to a certain club…long before it was known to Hamilton…. [T]his circumstance induced many to considerit more like an assassination than a duel.”36 Between Hamilton’s combative psychology and Burr’s need to solve his political quandary, there was little room for the seconds to hammer out a deal.
In replying to Hamilton’s unyielding second letter, Burr obeyed the inexorable logic of an affair of honor. He wrote to Hamilton and regretted that he lacked “the frankness of a soldier and the candor of a gentleman” and quoted Hamilton’s ominous phrase that he was ready to meet the consequences. “This I deemed a sort of defiance,” said Burr. “Thus, sir, you have invited the course I am about to pursue and now by your silence impose it upon me.”37Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had moved from frosty words to a mutual and irreversible commitment to a duel.
Hamilton spent that weekend at the Grange and did not set eyes on Burr’s letter until June 26. Over the weekend, Pendleton met several times with Van Ness, trying to arbitrate a solution. If Hamilton had been the more recalcitrant one at first, it was now Burr’s turn to throw up insurmountable obstacles. Pendleton thought he saw a way out of the impasse. If Burr asked Hamilton to specify whether there had been “any impeachment of his privatecharacter” (italics added) during the Albany dinner, Hamilton could disclaim such a statement.38 But Burr had drawn up truculent instructions for Van Ness that precluded any such harmonious resolution. For a long time, he said, he had endured Hamilton’s insults “till it approached to humiliation,” and he concluded that Hamilton had “a settled and implacable malevolence” toward him.39 By this point, Burr was clearly spoiling for a fight. On Monday, Pendleton asked Hamilton to recount what had been said at the Albany dinner. Hamilton’s recollections were fuzzy, and he remembered only that he had spoken of “the political principles and views of Col. Burr…without reference to any particular instance of past conduct or to private character.”40
By this point, Burr had gone far beyond the Cooper slur and upped the stakes dramatically. Van Ness told Pendleton that Burr now wanted Hamilton to make a general disavowal of any previous statements that might have conveyed “impressions derogatory to the honor of Mr. Burr,” and he made clear that “more will now be required than would have been asked at first.”41 Burr was deliberately making impossible demands, asking Hamilton to deny that he had ever maligned Burr, at any time or place, in his public or private character. Hamilton could not sign such a document, which would have been untrue and which Burr might have brandished in future elections as an endorsement. Hamilton must have feared that such a concession would strip him of standing in Federalist eyes and make military leadership difficult. Burr’s provocation only adds to the suspicion that the “despicable” statement was just a transparent pretext to pounce on Hamilton. After discussing the latest demands with Hamilton, Pendleton reported back to Van Ness that Hamilton now perceived “predetermined hostility” on Burr’s part.42
At this point, a confrontation was unavoidable. On Wednesday, June 27, Van Ness delivered to Pendleton a formal duel request. Henceforth, Burr would entertain no further letters from Hamilton, and all communication would take place between the seconds. Duels tended to occur posthaste to prevent the secret from leaking out. But this duel was scheduled at a relatively distant date, July 11, for reasons that speak well of Hamilton. The New York Supreme Court was holding its final session in Manhattan on Friday, July 6, and Hamilton felt duty bound to satisfy clients who had lawsuits pending. His sense of professional responsibility was impeccable. He told Pendleton, “I should not think it right in the midst of a circuit court to withdraw my services from those who may have confided important interests to me and expose them to the embarrassment of seeking other counsel who may not have time to be sufficiently instructed.”43 He also needed time to put his personal affairs in order. For the next two weeks, Hamilton hid the situation from Eliza and the children, as Burr did from his daughter, Theodosia. Only a handful of politically well-connected people in New York knew of the unfolding drama.
Once a duel was agreed upon, Hamilton had to reconcile the two glaringly incompatible elements of the situation: his need to fight to preserve his political prestige and his equally powerful need to remain true to his avowed opposition to dueling. He opted for a solution chosen by honorable duelists before him: he would throw away his fire—that is, purposely miss his opponent. This was the strategy Hamilton’s son Philip had disastrously followed in his duel. It was likely Hamilton himself, writing in the New-York Evening Post, who gave this description of Philip’s approach: “[A]verse in principle to the shedding of blood in private combat, anxious to repair his original fault, as far as he was able without dishonor, and to stand acquitted to his own mind, [he] came to the determination to reserve his fire, receive that of his antagonist, and then discharge his pistol in the air.”44 Only after Philip threw his fire away was his second supposed to announce his reason for doing so and try to resolve the dispute.
Aside from Pendleton, Hamilton confided his plan to waste his shot to Rufus King, the former minister to Great Britain and “a very moderate and judicious friend,” who tried several times to talk him out of it.45 King found dueling abhorrent but told Hamilton that “he owed [it] to his family and the rights of self-defence to fire at his antagonist.”46 King sneaked out of town the morning of the encounter, leading to criticism that he had acted cravenly when he could have headed off the catastrophe. King said that even though Hamilton had the “most capacious and discriminating” mind he had ever known, he rigidly followed the rules known as the “code duello.”47 Pendleton was likewise horrified at Hamilton’s decision to throw away his shot and exhorted him not to “decide lightly, but take time to deliberate fully.”48 Hamilton would not listen. As so often in his career—the Reynolds and Adams pamphlets spring to mind—he became possessed by a notion and would not let it go. In this frame of mind and in spite of his son’s experience, he was impervious to reason.
Hamilton’s decision has given rise to speculation that he was severely depressed and that the duel was suicidal. Henry Adams phrased it, “Instead of killing Burr, [Hamilton] invited Burr to kill him.”49 Historian Douglas Adair has evoked a guilt-ridden Hamilton who planned to atone for his sins by exposing himself to Burr’s murderous gunfire. In 1978, four psychobiographers studied the duel and also concluded that it was a disguised suicide.
It is indisputable that in Hamilton’s final years he was seriously depressed by personal and political setbacks, and his judgment was often spectacularly faulty. Long beguiled by visions of a glorious death in battle, he had also never lost a certain youthful ardor for martyrdom. Yet in the duel with Burr, he obeyed the antique logic of affairs of honor. Because he followed a script lost to later generations, his actions seem lunatic rather than merely rash and wrongheaded. “He did not think of this course of action as suicidal,” Joseph Ellis has written, “but as another gallant gamble of the sort he was accustomed to winning.”50 While the duel shocked many contemporaries, Hamilton and Burr partisans understood its logic, even if they did not endorse it. Attorney David B. Ogden said that his friend Hamilton knew that if he did not duel, “it would in a great measure deprive him of the power of being hereafter useful to his country.”51 Likewise, William P. Van Ness said that Burr had to defend his honor, for if he “tamely sat down in silence and dropped the affair, what must have been the feelings of his friends?”52
Hamilton gambled that Burr would not shoot to kill. He knew that Burr had nothing to gain by murdering him. Burr would be denounced from every pulpit as an assassin, and it would destroy the remnants of his career. Since he had provoked the duel to rehabilitate his career, it did not make sense for him to kill Hamilton. Hamilton calculated (correctly, it turned out) that Burr could not kill him without committing political suicide at the same time. This did not rule out the possibility, of course, that Burr might kill him accidentally or that he might submit to a murderous rage that overrode his political interests. If Burr did kill him, Hamilton knew, he would at least have the posthumous satisfaction of destroying Burr’s alliance with the Federalists. On the other hand, Hamilton never wavered in his belief that if he did not face Burr’s fire, he would lose standing in the political circles that mattered to him. With an exalted sense of his place in history, he viewed himself as a potential savior of the republic. He once told a friend, “Perhaps my sensibility is the effect of an exaggerated estimate of my services to the U[nited] States, but on such a subject every man will judge for himself.”53
The antagonists approached their rendezvous in starkly different personal situations. Hamilton had a large family of dependents: Eliza and seven children ranging in age from two to nearly twenty. Some observers criticized Hamilton for having recklessly jeopardized his family to salvage his reputation. Burr, by contrast, was a widower with a daughter, Theodosia, who had married into the wealthy Alston family of South Carolina; he did not need to worry about the financial aftermath of his death.
Deeply conflicted about the duel, Hamilton displayed a fatalistic passivity. When King told Hamilton that Burr undoubtedly meant to murder him and that Hamilton should prepare as best he could, Hamilton replied that he could not bear the thought of taking another human life, to which King retorted, “Then, sir, you will go like a lamb to be slaughtered.”54 The day before the duel, Pendleton begged Hamilton to study the pistols and handed him one. “He quickly raised it to a line,” said Robert Troup, “but, dropping his arms as quickly, he returned the pistol to Pendleton and this constituted the whole of his preparation to fight an antagonist very adroit in firing with pistols. I verily believe that Hamilton had not fired a pistol since the termination of the revolutionary war.”55
Quite different was the diligent preparation of Aaron Burr, a superb marksman who had killed several enemy soldiers during the Revolution. After the duel with Hamilton, the press was awash with rumors that Burr had engaged in intensive target practice. One Federalist paper quoted a Burr friend as admitting “that for three months past, he had been in the constant habit of practicing with pistols.”56 The Reverend John M. Mason insisted that “Burr went out determined to kill” Hamilton and for a long time had been “qualifying himself to become a ‘dead shot.’”57 John Barker Church later said that he had reason to believe that Burr “had been for some time practising with his pistols for this purpose.”58 Burr’s friend Charles Biddle disputed this, saying that Burr “had no occasion to practice, for perhaps there was hardly ever a man could fire so true and no man possessed more coolness or courage.”59 So commonplace was the accusation that Burr had taken repeated target practice that it is probably more than mere Federalist mythology. George W. Strong, Eliza’s lawyer in later years, visited Burr’s home right before the duel. “He went out once to Burr’s place at Richmond Hill on business,” recalled his son, John Strong, “and there he saw the board set up and perforated with pistol balls, where the infernal, cold-blooded scoundrel had been practicing.”60
At least outwardly, Hamilton and Burr continued to mingle in New York society, pretending that nothing was amiss. Charles Biddle told of an acquaintance who “dined in company with Hamilton and Burr the week before the duel. He has since told me he had not the most distant idea of there being any difference between them.”61 Their final encounter before the duel occurred on the Fourth of July. Since Washington’s death, Hamilton had been president general of the Society of the Cincinnati, the order of retired Revolutionay War officers that had aroused suspicions of hereditary rule. Hamilton could not skip the group’s festivities without drawing notice, and he and Burr shared a banquet table at Fraunces Tavern. The year before, Burr had joined the society when courting the Federalist vote.
Burr sat morose and taciturn among the other members, averting his eyes from Hamilton. As John Trumbull recalled, “The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicions of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour, while Hamilton entered with glee into the gaiety of a convivial party.”62 At first, Hamilton could not be induced to sing, then submitted. “Well, you shall have it,” he said, doubtless to cheers from the veterans.63 Some have said his valedictory song was a haunting old military ballad called “How Stands the Glass Around,” a song reputedly sung by General Wolfe on the eve of his battlefield death outside Quebec in 1759. Others said that it was a soldiers’ drinking song called “The Drum.” Both tunes expressed a common sentiment: a soldier’s proud resignation in the face of war and death. One version of the evening has Hamilton standing on a table, lustily belting out his ballad. As he delivered this rendition, Burr is said to have raised his eyes and watched his foe with fixed attention.
During this strange period of concealment, Hamilton continued to perform his fatherly duties. His son James, now a student at Columbia College, asked him to review a speech he had written. James was mystified by his father’s response and only later understood its import. “My dear James,” Hamilton began, “I have prepared for you a thesis on discretion. You may need it. God Bless you. Your affectionate father. A.H.”64 In retrospect, this homily sounds like the confessions of a man who had never learned to be discreet himself. Hamilton told his son: “A prudent silence will frequently be taken for wisdom and a sentence or two cautiously thrown in will sometimes gain the palm of knowledge, while a man well informed but indiscreet and unreserved will not uncommonly talk himself out of all consideration and weight.” Someone without discretion, Hamilton added, was apt to have “numerous enemies and is occasionally involved by it in the most [difficul]ties and dangers.”65 Did Hamilton here give vent to tacit regret for the loose language he had employed toward Burr?
By the spring of 1804, Alexander and Eliza had completed their retreat, the Grange, and begun entertaining on a grander scale. In May, they had hosted a dinner for Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother, who had just married Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore. Then, in the week preceding the duel, Hamilton invited seventy people to the Grange for a lavish ball that included John Trumbull, Robert Troup, Nicholas Fish, and William Short, Jefferson’s onetime secretary in Paris. Hamilton was fascinated by the French fête champêtre, the elegant alfresco parties held in wooded surroundings, favored by the French aristocracy. In the woods, Hamilton had planted a small cluster of unseen musicians, so that guests caught faint strains of a horn and clarinet as they strolled. John Church Hamilton left a sketch of his father at this dinner that conveys his social magnetism:
Never was the fascination of his manner more remarked, gay and grave as was the chanced topic…. Never did he exhibit more the safe softness with the man of society. Eloquent feelings, sportive genius, graceful narrative—all spoke the charm of a generous, rich, and highly cultivated nature. Even at this time, amid the brilliant circle, he brought forward the son of a deceased friend, commended him to the attention of an influential friend, then took him aside and conferred with him as to his plans for the future. This was one of the last sunny days of Hamilton’s short life.66
Hamilton devoted considerable time to arranging his affairs and drawing up farewell letters. The solemnity with which he performed these duties seems to bespeak some premonition that he might die. On July 1, he drew up a statement of assets and liabilities that showed him with a comfortable net worth. Yet he acknowledged that, if death prompted a forced sale of his property, the proceeds might not suffice for his fifty-five thousand dollars in debt. Most of the money had been spent on the Grange, so he needed to defend this splurge: “To men who have been so much harassed in the busy world as myself, it is natural to look forward to a comfortable retirement in the sequel of life as a principal desideratum. This desire I have felt in the strongest manner and to prepare for it has latterly been a favourite object.”67 Hamilton had expected to retire his debts with his twelve thousand dollars in annual income. Now he had to reckon on the chance that Eliza might be deprived of this money. Trying to console himself, he computed that Eliza stood to inherit some money from her recently deceased mother, and “her father is understood to possess a large estate.”68 He further noted that the Grange, “by the progressive rise of property on this island and the felicity of its situation,” would “become more and more valuable.”69 Unfortunately, Hamilton’s estimates were to prove grossly optimistic, so that the man who had so ably managed the nation’s finances left his own family oppressed with debts.
Aware of the duel’s political dimensions, Hamilton labored over a statement that would justify his conduct to the public. He admitted that he might have injured Burr, even though he had spoken only the truth. As a result, he wrote, he planned “to reserve and throw away my first fire and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and to reflect.”70 The wording here is significant. Hamilton assumed that Burr would have two such opportunities. Thus, Hamilton would have to signal to Burr his intention to waste his shot. He could either, as Philip had, fail to lift his pistol, or fire first and very wide of the mark.
In the statement, Hamilton acknowledged the grievous pain he might cause his family and even the harm he would do to his creditors. Writing for public consumption, Hamilton sounded more statesmanlike toward Burr than he probably felt. It is hard to take at face value his contention that he bore “no ill-will to Col Burr distinct from political opposition.”71 He saw that while he had much to lose by refraining from the duel, he had precious little to gain by facing it: “I shall hazard much and can possibly gain nothing by the issue of the interview.”72 Why then did he fight? To maintain his sense of honor and capacity for leadership, he argued, he had to bow to the public’s belief in dueling: “The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.”73 In other words, he had to safeguard his career to safeguard the country. His self-interest and America’s were indistinguishable. For Burr, Hamilton’s letter reeked of sanctimony. When he later read it, he reacted with coldhearted contempt: “It reads like the confessions of a penitent monk.”74