David O. Stewart: What was Aaron Burr supposed to do?
When Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton fought their legendary duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804, both lost: Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, his life; Burr his future.
Quickly indicted for murder in two states and pushed to the margins of American politics, Burr embarked an on audacious plan for a private invasion of Spain’s colonies of Florida, Texas, and Mexico. His goal, never realized, was a new American empire.
Despite the grim consequences of the duel, Burr never expressed regret over it.
Since 1792, Hamilton had denounced Burr repeatedly, calling him an “embryo-Caesar” and “unprincipled both as a public and private man.” In the winter of 1800-01, to block Burr from the presidency, Hamilton wrote that Burr “is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement.”
Yet Burr never impugned Hamilton’s character. “I never knew Colonel Burr to speak ill of any man,” a friend wrote.
In 1804, Hamilton’s tirades turned personal. In public remarks, he denounced Burr in the usual fashion, then added that he thought Burr “still more despicable.” Burr demanded a retraction; “despicable” connoted dishonor. Twice before, Burr had objected to remarks by Hamilton; twice before, Hamilton withdrew them. This time, Hamilton would not retract. He agreed to meet Burr on the dueling ground.
Both men subscribed to the code duello, under which men of honor proved themselves in single combat. Burr had dueled once before. He and his opponent both missed. Hamilton had never dueled, but eleven times engaged in the foreplay of challenges that often led to a duel. His eldest son, Philip, died in a duel in 1801.
For Burr and many contemporaries, honor required that he challenge a man who chronically maligned him and had called him despicable.
Days after the contest, Burr distilled into three words his unrepentant view of the affair, and of his adversary. The report was circulating that Hamilton never intended to fire at Burr during the duel. “Contemptible,” Burr wrote, “if true.”
David O. Stewart is the author of the newly published American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. His previous books are The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, and Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy.