Back When Political Duels Were Really Deadly
Vice President Burr's Slaying of Alexander Hamilton Gets Bicentennial Replay by Their Families
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page A03
WEEHAWKEN, N.J. -- On a bluff across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a vice president of the United States measured off 10 paces, turned and shot an acclaimed former U.S. Treasury secretary.
Neither deficits nor tax cuts or vice presidential four-letter invective had a whit to do with it.
When Aaron Burr shot his rival, tormentor and sometime friend Alexander Hamilton in a duel exactly 200 years ago Sunday, two men were destroyed. Hamilton's wound was mortal; he writhed for a day before dying. Burr walked away unscathed but with his reputation dashed for eternity.
Sunday at 10:30 a.m. the lineal descendants of Hamilton and Burr plan to gather on the Weehawken waterfront and reenact this most famous of American duels. Or sort of reenact it. Douglas Hamilton, an IBM salesman from Ohio and fifth-great-grandson of the treasury secretary, has declined to do anything so tacky as to fall to the ground, grasp his side and moan.
He proposes to fire his black-powder dueling pistol and wait for the Burr descendant to do the same. Then the Hamilton descendant will take a gentleman's knee.
"Most families don't go out and reenact the death of their ancestors," said Hamilton, who has agreed to don a high hat, coat and hair piece for the occasion. "I have assurances they'll do it with class."
Antonio Burr, a forensic psychologist in Manhattan, will take the role of Aaron Burr. "If I can convey a little bit of his presence and his sense of command, I'll be very pleased," Burr said. "I fully empathize with Hamilton's concern, though. We don't want any gore here."
If both families are energetic stewards of their ancestors' legacies, the Burrs are perhaps jauntier. They have been history's black sheep for two centuries now -- this is their first invitation to attend an anniversary of the duel.
The Burrs start at a considerable deficit, given that their great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, while a learned and witty man, also killed a founding father of the Republic. Later, Burr tried to establish his own nation west of the Mississippi, a scheme that led contemporaries and a few historians to label him a traitor. (A jury, however, acquitted Burr.)
"We're hungrier. We're the underdog," explains Stuart Fisk Johnson, president of the Aaron Burr Association and a barrister in the D.C. Superior Court, who will take the role of Aaron's second in the reenactment. "But we're certainly looking forward to dissolving any tensions with the Hamiltons. After 200 years, it's time to get along."
Hamilton got much the better of Burr, in death if not in life. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis to an unmarried Scottish father and a French mother, Hamilton came to this country as a student, served as an aide to Gen. George Washington, signed the Constitution, co-wrote the Federalist Papers and founded the central bank. He was a principal intellectual advocate of a strong federal government -- and a man who much feared the tyranny of the democratic majority.
Burr, too, was a man of accomplishment although not so grand as Hamilton. Burr was a brave soldier, an able political operative and a tough lawyer. He tended toward a more participatory vision of democracy.
After the Revolution, the men became prominent New York lawyers when the city's bar numbered about 35. They shared a love of smart clothes and beautiful women -- their wives and many other ladies, as well. (Burr wrote: "If you know any man dying from ennui, I recommend him to engage in a duel and an affair at the same time.")
Each man longed for fame, which Hamilton described as the "spring of action." But by 1804, their reputations had darkened and jealousies arose. President Thomas Jefferson never trusted Vice President Burr, and desired that his Virginia crowd -- James Madison and James Monroe -- should inherit the presidential mantle.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company