Wednesday, July 11, 2007

July 11, 1804:

Burr Plugs Hamilton

Dueling was already illegal in New York State by 1804, so the Third Vice President of the United States and the former US Secretary of the Treasury crossed over to New Jersey for their duel 203 years ago. It had been a long time in coming: Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been political enemies for many years, and specifically Burr blamed Hamilton for torpedoing his try for the presidency in 1800 and the governorship of New York in 1804 -- and with considerable reason. So Burr challenged Hamilton to meet on the field of honor.

American Experience described the scene that summer morning in an episode called "The Duel."

Narrator: Early on July 11th, Aaron Burr and his second, William Van Ness, arrived on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson. At that same moment, Alexander Hamilton reached a dock on the New York shore. He brought with him a doctor and his second, Judge Pendleton, who carried the pistols.

At 7 a.m. Hamilton’s party reached New Jersey and set out for the woods. In a clearing, Burr was waiting. Judge Pendleton described what happened next.

Pendleton: When Hamilton arrived the parties exchanged salutations. The seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces. They cast lots for the choice of position. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others' presence.

Narrator: Once Hamilton and Burr had loaded pistols in hand, the rules mandated that they take up positions 20 feet apart. When the signal was given, they had three seconds to fire.

It was at this point that the two seconds gave completely different accounts of Hamilton’s actions. According to Judge Pendleton, Hamilton had made a fateful decision: that it would be morally wrong to shoot at Burr.

Pendleton: He had made up his mind not to fire at Burr, but to fire in the air.

Narrator: But according to Burr’s second, William Van Ness, Hamilton showed every sign of intending to shoot his rival.

Van Ness: While his second was explaining the rules, Hamilton raised and leveled his pistol. He then drew from his pocket a pair of spectacles & observed that he was ready to proceed.

Narrator: Van Ness claimed that Hamilton shot at Burr but missed. Whatever Hamilton’s actions, both seconds agreed that after Hamilton fired, Burr stood unhurt. Now, Hamilton’s fate was in Burr’s hands.

Pendleton: The fire of Burr took effect, and Hamilton almost instantly fell. Burr then advanced toward Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to be expressive of regret, but without speaking turned about and withdrew.

Narrator: The doctor was not optimistic about Hamilton's condition.

Dr. Hosack: His look of death I shall never forget. I observed to Mr. Pendleton, that the only chance of reviving him was to immediately get him upon the water.

Narrator: In the hours after the duel, Aaron Burr returned home and, according to his maid, ate a hearty breakfast. Then he sent a note to the doctor to inquire after Hamilton’s health.

Burr had shot Hamilton in the stomach and the bullet had lodged next to his spine. He lingered 36 hours in excruciating pain, with his family and the doctor at his side.

No comments: