Notable American Duels

On July 11, 1804, long-standing political and personal tension between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, two of America’s “founding fathers” came to a head. Their rivalry was longstanding and Burr believed he may have been the President, instead of the Vice President, if it had not been for Hamilton’s interference (America’s Library, 2008). The Hamilton-Burr duel is an instance where a personal insult was the impetus for the duel. Hamilton voiced his disdain for Burr at a political dinner held for the Federalist party.

The exact slur was not printed but Burr twice demanded and failed to receive what he would have considered an adequate apology from Hamilton. After failing the Second time, Burr demanded a duel (Jefferson National Expansion, 2008). Burr, ultimately, did receive “satisfaction”. He shot and mortally wounded Hamilton, who shot his pistol into the air, and Hamilton died the next day (Jefferson National Expansion, 2008). Burr was indicted for murder, dueling was not legal in New York, but was never prosecuted for the crime (America’s Library, 2008).

He went on to serve out his term as Vice President. A question that had plagued historians is why, exactly, these men undertook such a drastic means of settling what amount to a fairly petty matter. For Burr, obviously, the idea of avenging an insult is explanation enough. But Hamilton was opposed to dueling on moral and religious grounds. He did not even expect to be challenged to a duel but was known for being very protective of his notions of personal honor, possibly because of his insecurities concerning his own illegitimacy (Freeman, 1996).

However, Hamilton’s failure to respond was not meant as an insult. Rather, a friend, Rufus king, advised Hamilton that the letter sent to Hamilton by Burr did not merit a response. Hamilton intended to accept a challenge should it have been offered but he hadn’t any intention of shooting Burr (Freeman, 1996). According to Joanne B. Freeman, Hamilton’s moral reasoning for accepting the duel was thus: He had satisfied the code of honor by accepting Burr’s challenge, violating the civil law only under duress.

He had maintained his political integrity by refusing to apologize for heartfelt political convictions. Now he would uphold his moral and religious principles by withholding his fire (Freeman, 1996). It is interesting that Hamilton wanted none of the “satisfaction” of killing or wounding his opponent. As we shall see, this pageant aspect of dueling was not entirely unique, as represented in the Jackson vs. Avery duel described below.

For Hamilton, his honor would be sustained by not killing his opponent. Convoluted reasoning, to be certain, but quite in line with the more Northern ideal that honor could be measured by a man’s ability to withhold from vices, in this case bloodlust. Hamilton saw the honor in dueling not in the death of his opponent, but in having the courage to participate in such an affair, which he felt would benefit him politically as well as personally (Freeman, 1996).