Tolerance Hostility and Guns: A New York Friendship

A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr , by Arnold A. Rogow. Hill and Wang, 351 pages, $27.50.

One hundred and ninety-four years ago, long before schoolchildren found less elaborate ways to unleash aggression with guns, two rival New York politicians met each other at a discreetly hidden dueling ground in Weehawken, N.J. There, across the river from what is now 42nd Street, on a grassy ledge 20 feet above the Hudson, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton confronted each other at 10 paces with cocked .54-caliber pistols.

What followed on the field of honor that sunny Wednesday morning, July 11, 1804, was a tragedy that permanently altered the history of the early republic. Hamilton, 47, former Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington and creator of the national banking system, was fatally wounded and became an instant martyr. After hours of excruciating suffering, Hamilton died at 2 o’clock on July 12 and was given a funeral worthy of the “first citizen”–or saint–of New York. Burr, 48, Vice President of the United States, was indicted for premeditated murder in New Jersey and New York, and fled south, a fugitive from justice. Ever after ostracized as a coldblooded killer, Burr became a political outcast. As John Randolph of Virginia observed, Burr had “fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again.”

In this well-researched but clumsily written study of the complex relationship between the opponents in the infamous duel, historian Arnold A. Rogow has re-examined evidence in both men’s biographies to suggest that the motives that led Hamilton and Burr to such extreme hostility had been established years before their rivalry turned fatal in 1804. Both men had grown up as orphans. Hamilton, the illegitimate, unacknowledged son of a Jamaican planter and a mother accused of “whoring,” envied the more privileged background of Burr, who, though he lost both his parents and grandparents at an early age, was the son of the second president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century theologian whose sermons sparked America’s Great Awakening. Hamilton was denied admission to Princeton, where Burr graduated in 1772, but enrolled at Columbia (then Kings College).

During the American Revolution, both men distinguished themselves in characteristic manner: Hamilton as a duplicitous, fawning aide to Gen. George Washington, Burr as an independent-minded outsider and brave lieutenant colonel under Gen. Benedict Arnold. With the war won and the Constitution invented, the rivalry deepened when Hamilton and Burr became New York lawyers in 1783, often serving together as co-counsels in court, prosecuting civil and criminal cases. With women, both were courtly, gallant, dashing, with “persuasive voices.” Both married for love and security: Hamilton into one of New York’s richest, most influential families, the Schuylers; Burr to a widow 10 years older than himself.

Outwardly friendly to each other as they helped to turn the United States into a single, centrally governed nation, Hamilton and Burr remained rivals on a deeper level. Short, proud men, they were “mirror images of each other,” Mr. Rogow suggests. For Hamilton, however, the reflection was distorted. In Burr he glimpsed his own darker impulses. Naturally vengeful, stimulated by self-hatred, Hamilton began to wage war on Burr in 1792. “I feel it to be a religious duty,” he wrote that September, “to oppose his career.”

For the next 12 years, Hamilton sabotaged his rival at every turn. He helped to engineer Burr’s defeat in the mixed-up Presidential election of 1800–Burr and Jefferson received an equal number of electoral votes, throwing the election into the House of Representatives–and again in the New York gubernatorial race of 1804. Hamilton’s letters again and again decry Burr for being “profligate,” a “voluptuary in the extreme.” Yet Hamilton was no angel himself. He suffered, as John Adams harrumphed, from a “superabundance of secretions” which “he could not find whores enough to draw off.” But it was Hamilton’s obsessive and implacable hatred of Burr that became his true vice and, as Mr. Rogow shows, his ultimate undoing.

The rivalry reached its inevitable climax when Hamilton spread word during the New York gubernatorial contest that Burr was “a dangerous man” who “ought not to be trusted.” The final straw was added when Hamilton suggested that, even beyond politics, he held a “still more despicable opinion” of Burr, whereupon Burr demanded satisfaction and challenged Hamilton to the famous duel.

Historians have for decades debated what drove Burr to react so strongly to provocation. Burr, by nature sanguine, was not easily offended; and by 1804 he was a thick-skinned New York politician. An organizer of the Tammany Hall political machine and a former United States senator, Burr knew how to turn the other cheek when a rival such as Jefferson declared him a “crooked gun or other perverted machine.”

From 1860 to the present, biographers and novelists alike have speculated about the role that women played in the conflict between Hamilton and Burr. Eliza Bowen Jumel, said to have been a prostitute in her youth and both men’s lovers (Burr later married Jumel), has been suspected of coming between the antagonists, as has Hamilton’s mistress of 1791, Maria Reynolds, whom Burr represented when she sued her husband for divorce in 1793. But it was Gore Vidal’s brilliant, intuitive leap in Burr (1973) to recognize that it was the unusually close and often seductive relationship between Burr and his daughter Theodosia (deepened by the death of Theodosia’s mother in 1794) that was the true source of the slander that resulted in Burr’s challenge. Seen by Hamilton as incestuous, Burr’s intimacy with Theodosia, however far it went in actuality, supplied both men with an understandable motive for wanting to destroy each other. “I couldn’t think of anything of a ‘despicable’ nature that would drive [Burr] to so drastic an action,” Mr. Vidal explained in private correspondence with Mr. Rogow in 1995.

From the novelist’s brainstorm, the historian has now gone the next step, uncovering evidence that Hamilton did indeed believe that Burr could be his own daughter’s lover. Decoding Hamilton’s confidential correspondence with Gouverneur Morris in 1792–the same year Hamilton declared his holy war on Burr–Mr. Rogow reveals that Hamilton assigned code names to President Washington (Scavola, a first-century B.C. Roman tribune), five cabinet officers (Hamilton dubbed himself “Paulus,” a brilliant general and much admired writer in the third century A.D.), and 19 Senators and Representatives, including Burr, to whom Hamilton gave the name of “Savius,” a first-century A.D. Roman who was charged with seducing his son–an act, Mr. Rogow writes, said to have “scandalized even the most debauched Romans of his day.”

While motive is now clearer, still without being definitive, details of the duel in Weehawken have long been uncertain. Did both men fire a shot? Who fired first? Eyewitness accounts disagreed on practically every important point. Burr’s second, William P. Van Ness, afterward insisted that Hamilton fired first and fired to kill; after fussing with his spectacles because of the angle of the morning light, Hamilton leveled his pistol at Burr, in accordance with the rules of dueling, and fired a shot that was intended “to take, if possible, the life of his adversary.”

Hamilton’s second, Nathaniel Pendleton, was meanwhile confident that Hamilton had not fired first, but instead had kept to his “fixed resolution to do [Burr] no harm.” Hamilton’s letters to his wife on July 10 confirm that he wanted posterity to know that he had decided to risk his life at Weehawken but intended not to fire his weapon. Indeed, as Hamilton lay dying, and as the New York Evening Post , the newspaper Hamilton had founded, reported on July 16, Hamilton maintained that he had not fired at Burr, and that he planned to reserve and throw away his shot. A search of the dueling ground by Pendleton revealed that Hamilton had squeezed off a shot that went 4 feet wide of Burr, hitting a tree limb 12 1/2 feet off the ground.

Until 1976, no one had ever had a chance to look at the most important pieces of surviving evidence–the pistols themselves, a set of 9-inch, English-made dueling weapons provided by Hamilton and borrowed from his brother-in-law, John Barker Church. On the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial, an arms expert was invited to supervise the creation of authentic reproductions of the pistols by David Rockefeller, chairman of the board of the Chase Manhattan Bank, in whose vaults the pistols had been stored since 1930. The arms expert, Merrill Lindsay, discovered that, unlike proper dueling pistols, both of the Church weapons had been weighted for greater accuracy and were designed less for dueling, as Mr. Rogow emphasizes, than for killing. Most surprising of all, both pistols had been equipped with a concealed hair-trigger that required a mere half-pound squeeze rather than the usual 10- to 12-pound pull. Hamilton, knowing the trick, could therefore have squeezed off a shot far more quickly than Burr. Hamilton, moreover, owned a pair of regular English dueling pistols but had decided to borrow the trick set from his brother-in-law.

Mr. Lindsay maintained that Hamilton “booby-trapped himself” at Weehawken. “As Hamilton lowered the gun on its target, he was holding a little too tightly and accidentally fired before he had Burr in his sights. Burr squeezed hard and slow and put an aimed shot into Hamilton.” This also explains why, with death fast approaching, Hamilton would stick to his story, pre-established on the eve of the duel, that he never intended to fire at Burr. If a hidden hair-trigger were found in pistols that Hamilton had supplied for the duel, Burr might look less the villain and Hamilton more the fool.

On July 20, John Randolph of Virginia wrote to James Monroe. Hamilton’s “violent death, at the hands of a man whom he persisted in discountenancing … which at first might be imputed to elevated principles, is, I fear, for the honor of human nature to be referred to personal pique against Mr. Burr.” Or, as Jay Gatsby says to Nick Carraway in American literature’s most all-purpose explanation for love that ends in violent tragedy, “It was just personal.”

Hamilton, the more emotionally flawed of the two, could not help himself. His blind aim had been to destroy Burr, even if the cost to himself was absolute. “Had he valued his own life more and hated Burr less, there probably would have been no fatal duel,” Mr. Rogow concludes, “but for the duel not to have happened would have required a history and a relationship between the two very different from the one described here.” It would also have required a different society, and a different set of values about hostility and tolerance and the use of guns in American life. We can only marvel that more of our great political rivalries–Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy come most quickly to mind–did not end up on the grassy ledge in the heights of Weehawken.

Late in life, Burr got the last word. Referring to Lawrence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy , in which the narrator’s Uncle Toby, tormented by a fly all through dinner, at last catches the fly, but instead of retaliating frees it, Burr remarked, “If I had read Sterne more, and Voltaire less, I should have known that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”