International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: NY Duels
A (Seriously) Biased
Revision of the Burr vs. Hamilton Duel Based on an Old High-School Term
John M. Edwards rogue ancestor,
Aaron Burr, shot Alexander Hamilton with a Hoss-pistol from a mere
ten paces awayand got away with it. Happening upon Hamiltons
gaudy mausoleum in New York City, Edwards says our foppish former
Treasury Secretary deserved it!
On the morning of
July 11, 1804, two wrathful Revolutionary parties headed for the desolate
no-mans land of Weehawken, New Jersey, in separate boats to take
part in a classical revenge play.
U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr had been awakened by his friend John
Swartwout, who had found him in a deep slumber. Burr shook the fog from
his head and dressed with his usual eleganceblack cotton pantaloons
and half-boots and a bombazine coat. He met his companions at the foot
of Charleton Street on Manhattan Island, and John Gould rowed them across
the Hudson to the north side of the beach in Weehawken.
As had been agreed previously, Burr arrived before his enemy, the "Little
Lion," Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, while a loyal
flunky of Burrs named Van Ness cleared the grounds of underbrush.
The "Deadly Interview" (Colonial American slang for "duel")
was a long time coming, nigh on inevitable, but, dear readers, dont
get impatient: well get to what caused the rift later since we
want to get straight to the "action."
The ground was opposite what is now 42nd Street on a little ledge twenty
feet above the river. The celebrity-match duelists were protected from
interruption by a sheer cliff above the ledge, making the place inaccessible
from above. Nor could the upcoming duel be seen by the hoi polloi from
the beach below.
Hamiltons boat arrived at about 7 A.M., with his second, Pendleton,
and Dr. David Hosack. The opponents exchanged formal greetings, ten
paces were measured off, and the seconds drew lots to see who would
give the word to fire and make the choice of position. Pendleton won
Pistols loaded, the antagonists took their positions, facing each other
as if within a classic Cain versus Abel fable. When Pendleton asked
if they were ready, the coward Hamilton, waffling, abruptly cried out,
There was an uncomfortable pause, then Hamilton continued, "In
certain states of the light one requires glasses." He then leveled
his pistol in several directions to test the light. Finally, he put
on his spectacles and repeated the experiment several times more. Obviously,
he was stalling for time. The empirical redcoat sun that never sets
frowned down with arched eyebrows on this vile proceeding in the ex-colonies.
Then the word was given and both men presented and fired!
Burr remained erect, but Hamilton raised himself convulsively, staggered,
and fell headlong to the ground. Burr had fired with an accuracy that
sent his ball into Hamiltons right side; as the ball struck, Hamilton
danced involuntarily on his toes and turned a little to the left, like
a Mozart-era Bohemian marionette acting out an epileptic "St. Vituss
Dance," at which moment his pistol went off and he fell flat on
Burr started toward his downed foe with a gesture that seemed to Pendleton
to express regret, but Van Ness urged Burr to leave the field immediately,
so that he wouldnt be recognized by the boatmen or the surgeon,
who were already fast approaching.
In his own defense, Burr later dramatically recalled that at the command
"Present!" Hamilton greedily took aim and fired promptly.
Burr said that he himself fired two or three seconds later and that
Hamilton, as he fell, said, "I am a dead man."
At dusk on the hallowed
grounds of Trinity Church on Broadway, opposite Wall Street, in Manhattan,
I was blundering around the Revolutionary War- period gravestones, with
those cool stylized carved heads adorned by either angel or bat wings,
when I landed by chance upon the mausoleum of a rather famous fellow:
This kind of gave me the creeps since one of my aforesaid familial ancestors
had dispatched Hamilton to hell in a historic duel. A paranormal chill
crept up my spine like a famished leech. I wondered if Alex was going
to rise up from the dead like a bloodsucking freak from Tales from the
Crypt and throttle me.
Intrigued, I threw myself into research. I began with Gore Vidals
classic Burr and then headed on to the so-so library specials.
In one amusing tome, the blunt historian began by telling us that Hamilton
came from an "illegitimate birth" on the Caribbean island
of Nevis, and that his enemies later suggested (falsely) that he had
Now compare Alexs lowly origins with that of my illustrious patrician
relative, Aaron Burr, who was the grandson of none other than the famous
theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards!
Which makes me wonder: Why was the batard Hamilton immortalized on our
ten-dollar bills, when brave Burr is still relatively obscure to most
Americans. He is known mostly for being the most famous U.S. Vice-President
in history, which doesnt mean muchright up there, I guess,
with Spiro Agnew, Fritz Mondale, and "Lunch" Cheney (whose
own version of the duel might be the convenient "hunting accident").
There was a rumor circulating around (started by yours truly) that the
humiliated Hamilton didnt die from the gunshot wound at all, but
was instead sent packing by the powers-that-be to first Europe, then
New Zealand, to live out the rest of his sorry life in secret under
an assumed name. . . .
But what I liked best about the colorful flamboyant rogue and dandy
Aaron Burr is that he came this close to becoming the Emporer of Mexico!
Back when the going was good, an adventuresome gentleman orator such
as he, relying on divine providence and wearing a powdered wig, with
a good steed and sackful of Maderia, could indeed conquer the worldof
course, as long as he was a Freemason.
proud papa of the Federalist Papers, hadnt washed any of his powdered
wigs in weeks. He looked like Mad King George on a bad hair day. Downing
a glass of Triangle Trade rum--and another, and another--he stuck his
feathered quill into a small bottle of squid ink and began to write
a letter with an unsteady but flowery hand. Addressing his son-in-law
Charles Cooper, he described Aaron Burr as "the most dangerous
man in the community."
Later, a couple of letters expressing Hamiltons view of Burr somehow
found their way into the Albany Register of April 24, 1804. This, of
course, was not the first time Hamilton had spoken disparagingly of
Burrs character, but he had previously expressed his sentiments
only in private speech and letters, and as long as they were confidential
Burr thought it wiser to ignore them and meet Hamilton with outward
courtesy and friendship.
Now, however, Hamiltons private opinion had become public. No
longer could it be ignored. By "The Code," there could be
only one answera duel!
In early America, the duel was the accepted way for gentlemen to answer
real or fancied slights upon their characters. Hamilton had blocked
Burr at every turnin legitimate political controversies and on
other occasions not so kosher. The first reaction came on June 18, 1804,
when the mysterious Van Ness appeared at Hamiltons door like a
forbidding cloaked wraith with a formal communication:
"Sir, I send for your perusal a letter signed Charles D. Cooper,
which though apparently published some time ago, has but very recently
come to my knowledge. Mr. Van Ness, who does me the favor of delivering
this, will point out to you that clause of this letter to which I particularly
request your attention. You must perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt
and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expression
which would warrant the assertions of M. Cooper. I have the honor to
be your obedient servant, A. Burr."
Hamilton replied that the matter "required consideration,"
then on June 20, 1804, Hamiltons lengthy overblown missive arrived.
It refused to make "avowal or disavowal," and proceeded to
analyze the offending phrases. He tried to escape the accusation of
"more despicable" by saying it admits shades of meaning from
"light to dark." He tried to pass off the comment as within
the bounds "admissible between political opponents."
"I stand ready," Hamilton at last conceded, "to avow
or disavow promptly and explicitly my precise or definite opinion which
I may be charged with having declared of any gentleman. . . . I trust,
on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light with me.
If not, I can only regret the circumstances and must abide the consequences"the
conventional phrase attesting to a willingness to accept a challenge
if and when given.
Burr replied like lightning, in dignified but firm words. He stated
that "political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the
necessity of a rigid adherence to all the laws of honour and all the
rules of decorum. I neither claim such privilege nor indulge it in others."
Burrs reply continued thus: "The question is not whether
I have understood the meaning of the word (despicable) or used it according
to syntax and with grammatical accuracy, but whether you have authorized
this application, either directly or by uttering expression or opinion
derogatory to my honour. Your letter has furnished me with new reasons
for requiring a definite reply."
How stupid could Hamilton be? All he had to do was deny he had used
such words, and the duel would never have happened. But he let the opportunity
pass. Neither did he bother replying to the fiery precise prose from
his formidable rival. One wonders whether Hamilton thought that by ignoring
the problem it would go away. He might have even been in a mild state
of shock. This, dear readers, was not very bright. Burr! Cold.
So Burr reacted with a challenge to a duel, which Van Ness delivered
to Hamilton with a superior sneer on June 27, 1804. In it, Burr accused
Hamilton of "a settled and implaceable malevolence, that he will
never cease to conduct towards Mr. Burr to violate those courtesies
The "Fatal Interview," as duels were sometimes called in those
days, was clinched and inescapable: verily, the Talk of the Town, New
But this wasnt just a matter of name-calling.
The revolutionary wrath of Burr may indeed have been justified. One
cant help but wonder, peradventure, if somewhere along the way
early on a woman was involved. At every step in Aaron Burrs political
career, mean Mr. Hamilton, by direct methods and secret intrigue, was
there to trip him up, by opposing him and blocking practically every
chance he had to advance himself.
Indeed, it was Hamilton who had exerted his influence on President Washington
to reject Burr for Ambassador to France in 1794; it was Hamilton who,
as second-in-command of the Continental Army in 1798, refused Burr a
military commission; it was Hamilton who during the presidential election
of 1800 threw his weight behind Jefferson and condemned Burr as unfit
and corrupt; it was Hamilton who turned the tide against him when Burr
ran for Governor in 1804; it was Hamilton who for years had written
letters denouncing Burr as unqualified and unprincipled.
Without a doubt, these unwarranted attacks ruined Burrs political
career and embittered him with "the system." Burr had every
right to give the cruel and vain Mr. Hamilton a drubbing. Whether he
had a right to kill him is another matter entirely.
Bleeding and vomiting profusely, the wounded Mr. Hamilton was transported
to New York, where he (supposedly) died after 51 hours of agony at 2
P.M. on July 12, 1804. Bishop Benjamin Moore administered the last rights
and later reported that before the final send-off of the soul, the enlightened
economic genius rasped, "I have no ill will against Colonel Burr.
I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm, and I forgive all
that happened." Thus ended the life of one of Americas greatest
Governor Morris delivered his funeral oration to weeping thousands.
But in the privacy of his diary he wrote that he would find the proposed
address rather difficult, considering Hamiltons illegitimate birth,
his vain opinionated character, his advocacy of monarchy (George Wahington
was "King George" to little old Alex), and so on. To a friend,
Morris said, "Colonel Burr ought to be considered in the same light
with any other man who has killed another in a duel"that
"in doing justice to the dead" he would not "injure the
In his eulogy, Morris spoke of Hamiltons gallantry during the
Revolution, his public service and concern for the public welfare, his
professional skill and unrivalled eloquence. As to Hamiltons death,
Morris obfuscated, "I must not dwell. . . . Suffer your indignation
not to lead to any act which might offend the insulted majesty of law."
But unfortunately there was a massive public outcry against Burr. Wild
rumors circulated. In one story Burr was said to have spent the days
before the duel in alternating revelry and target-practice. Burr had
worn silk on the day of the duel, since that prized material was known
to deflect bullets. Hamilton had refused to shrink from the speeding
missile. Burr had laughed and rubbed his hands in glee when Hamilton
fell, and regretted only that the ball hadnt hit his enemys
heart. In short, it was murder in cold blood.
All over the nation, processions and mass meetings were held to mourn
the departed hero and denounce his killer. Even the Federalists, who
had secretly worked against Hamilton, were now loud in their praise
of him, especially since he was safely dead. The frenzied populace of
New York threatened to burn down the rascal Republican Burrs house
around his ears, as they paraded and demonstratedand shouted out
"Oh, Burr, oh Burr, what hast thou done?
Thou hast shooted dead great Hamilton.
You hid behind a bunch of thistle
And shooted him dead with a great Hoss-pistol."
An outcast in New York, Burr ran fast to New Jersey, then Philadelphia,
and eventually, traveling under the pseudonym "R. King," he
went to Georgia and Florida (then a Spanish possession). He lay low
until the furor and uproar subsided, then returned to Washington to
serve out the rest of his Vice-Presidency under the scornful eye of
President Thomas Jefferson.
As an interesting aside, dear readers, I offer the fact that both Hamilton
and Burr were quite short, about 56 standing on their
tippytoes for colonial portraitists. According to one airhead historian
in my stack of books, in some psychological cases, "small people
are known to be overly belligerent and hot-tempered to compensate for
their lack of stature." Would American history have turned out
differently if the antagonists of The Duel had been tall? he pontificates.
I imagine the historian cited here, whom will remain blessedly anonymous,
is now safely locked up in a sanatorium somewhere.
Even as he avoided the consequences of the dastardly duel, Burr was
hatching a grand new master plan. In 1803, the size of the United States
had nearly doubled with the Louisiana Purchase, brokered between Jefferson
and Napoleon for only several mil. Further expansion was anticipated
into the Spanish territories of Florida, Mexico, and even Central and
Burr, now ruined both financially and politically, began to think, with
characteristic megalomania, of conquering many of these territories.
Burrs exact intentions are not clearly known even today, but apparently
he sought British support for an invasion of Mexico. He may have hoped
to establish a new empire, installing himself as absolute ruler, in
the Spanish territories beyond Louisiana.
Beginning in 1805, Burr traveled extensively trying to rustle up support
for a stampede against the Spanish Lands. But the outlaw Burr was instead
arrested in Mississippi in 1807 and brought to Richmond, Virginia, to
be tried for treason. Burr was in the end acquitted of treason. Once
again he had literally gotten away with figurative murder.
Free but deeply disgraced, the mercurial Burr set sail for Europe in
1808, traveling in England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, before
returning to New York just in time for the War of 1812. He resumed his
law practice and lived quietly in New York, trying to pay off his immense
debts, until his death on Staten Island in 1836.
Recently I noticed
for the first time that the New York Post, a piece of trash, was
founded by none other than that scoundrel Alexander Hamilton.
I am severely haunted by his august visage almost every day when I pay
for corner bodega staples with the legendary bastard emblazoned on the
ten-dollar bill. "Heres a Ham!" I flap him face down on
the counter like Monopoly money to avoid seeing his self-satisfied and
evil smilish grin:
With a cheery Welsh accent I imagine Hammie, lips white worms, whispering
with ironic vampiric elan, "I kind of like John Edwards: he sort
of stuck up for me, too."
Instead, I glimpse: In God We Trust.
© John M. Edwards September 2009
Burr, Samuel Engel Jr. Colonel Aaron Burr. New York: Exposition Press,
Damiels, Jonathan. Ordeal of Ambition. Garden City: Doubleday, 1979.
Khastler, Laurence S. The Unpredictable Mr. Aaron Burr. New York: Vantage
Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation. New
York: Harper and Row, 1959.
Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: A Concise Biography. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1976.
Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure. New York:
Parmet, Herbert S., and Hecht, Marie B. Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious
Man. New York:Macmillan, 1967.
Schackner, Nathan. Aaron Burr: A Biography. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1981.
Van Doren, Mark. Correspondence of Aaron Burr and His Daughter Theodosia.
New York: Stratford Press,1929.
Vidal, Gore. Burr. New York: Random House, 1973.
John M. Edwards as a smartalecky kid, of course, has no idea who Andy
Warhol is, even when he shares a cab with him back from a party.
The first thing you notice about Andy Warhol is that he is an albino.
Needless to say, as a young kid with the attention span of Huckleberry
Hound, I was excited and delighted by this fact. I even clapped my hands
together because it was so funny.
My father Thomas R. Edwards Jr. and Dick Poirier, both eminent literary
critics and co-editors of Raritan, were explaining to me after a successful
party, with some kids my age there that I used to know a little, something
I should know. My father said the nice man with white hair (and red eyes)
sharing the cab with us was a famous film director, who had made a movie
about my favorite monster "Frankenstein."
"That sounds neat," I said, pretending to pay attention.
"Andy, I have one question for you," Dick said. "In your
films the camera never moves and all the subjects just pass by. Why is
"Move the camera. . . ." Mr. Warhol said absentmindedly. "Ive
never thought of that!"
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus),
with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being
stuck in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines
as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape,
Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging
Markets, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Poetry
Motel, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Trips, Big World, Vagabondish,
Glimpse, BootsnAll, Hack Writers, Trav Monkey, Road Junky, Richmond Review,
Borderlines, ForeWord, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly
Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American
Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative
Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Travel Writing Award, and a Solas Award
(sponsored by Travelers Tales). He lives in New York Citys
"Hells Kitchen," where you can eat ethnic every night
with soul survivors from Danté's Inferno. His indie zine, "Unpleasant
Vacations: The Magazine of Misadventure," went belly up. His future
bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders, have not been released. His new work-in-progress,
"Dubya Dubya Deux," is about a time traveler. He is editor-in-chief
of the upcoming annual Rotten Vacations, co-edited by Bruce Northam and
© John M. Edwards September 2009
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