In post-revolutionary America, the founders were all scrambling to find their place. As Joseph Ellis describes it in Founding Brothers, they were all classically educated and were comparing their Great Experiment to the glory days of the Republic of Rome. Everyone jostled for the title of Cincinnatus, Cato, Solon or Cicero. However, they all waited with baited breath to see who would be America’s Catiline. The name may not mean anything to our modern ears, but to those with familiarity with the history of the Roman Republic know that the Catiline conspiracy nearly brought it down. In the aftermath of the election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton thought he had found the American Catiline.
It had been a bitter campaign between sitting president John Adams and his former friend and vice president Thomas Jefferson. The voting exposed a flaw in the Constitution. The founders had not anticipated the rise of political parties, so each member of the electoral college cast a vote for two men. The winner would be the president and the first runner up the vice president. The electoral college was tied between Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr. This put the vote to the House of Representatives, where it languished in a tie. Burr picked up Jefferson’s Federalist opposition and never indicated he didn’t want it. He kept a judicious silence, and the scheming in the House went on for weeks until someone changed their vote making Jefferson president. Burr’s silence earned him Jefferson’s distrust, the hatred of his own party and won him no favors with the opposition. It was clear to his colleagues, Burr was out for power, and Alexander Hamilton declared him “America’s Catiline.”
Burr did nothing but reinforce this opinion when he turned his coat and ran for governor of New York as a Federalist while still serving as the Democratic-Republican vice president. He knew Jefferson was going to drop him in his second term and wanted to make sure he had a place to land. This was quite disgusting to Hamilton, and proved Burr did not have the moral fiber needed to lead the country. The war of words escalated until Hamilton called Burr “despicable” in a scene described in a letter by Dr. Charles Cooper printed in the Albany Register. Burr demanded an apology, and Hamilton would not back down. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.
Dueling was technically illegal, so a system was in place so gentlemen could settle affairs of honor without running afoul of the law. This was the language of the code duello. It was called an “interview” not a duel, and the place was set for a lonely ledge over the Hudson River at Weehawken, New Jersey. Each man brought a second and Hamilton brought a doctor. Hamilton had been challenged, so he brought the weapons. He brought a custom made pair of dueling pistols with a hair trigger. Only Hamilton knew about the hair trigger, which gave him an advantage. Hamilton selected his position, since he was the challenged party, and selected a vantage point looking into the rising sun. They counted off ten paces from each other. Both men answered present to their names. The two seconds and the doctor turned their backs, so they could not testify in court as to who shot whom. Two shots rang out. When they turned back around, Hamilton was grievously wounded. Burr attempted to go speak to Hamilton, insisting he had something to tell him, but his second hurried him back to the waiting boat on the Hudson. As Hamilton was taken back to New York, he warned the men to take care of his pistol as “it is undischarged and uncocked; it may go off and do harm”. This was confusing as both seconds and the doctor agreed there were two shots. They believed this was possibly due to Hamilton being delirious from loss of blood. He also assured his second, he had not intended to fire at Burr. Hamilton pronounced his own wound as mortal when the doctor examined him, and he was right. Hamilton died later that day.
As both of the seconds and the doctor turned their backs, there is much debate over what happened. In a written statement issued later, both of the seconds agree there was an interval between the two shots. Hamilton was insistent that he did not mean to fire at Burr. In fact, he chose a position that put him facing into the sun, a poor one if he meant to fire on Burr. He also never set the hair trigger, which would have given him a huge advantage. The night previously, Hamilton had told many people he intended to “waste his shot”. This was within the rules of code duello, and as long as Hamilton faced Burr’s fire, honor would be satisfied. However, Burr knew none of this. Ellis theorizes that instead of holding fire, Hamilton shot over Burr’s head. Burr heard the ball whizzing past his ears and fired back, and in the rules of the code duello he was within his rights to shoot to kill. However, Ellis does not believe Burr meant to kill Hamilton. Another tradition in the code duello was to superficially wound an opponent, generally on a hip or leg. Burr’s shot missed being a flesh wound by about four inches. Instead he missed, and the ball ricocheted off Hamilton’s rib doing the fatal internal damage.
Whether or not Burr meant to kill Hamilton, the “interview” destroyed his political career. He was vilified for Hamilton’s murder. Songs were written about the duel casting Burr as the blackest villain:
O Burr, O Burr, what has thou done?
Thou has shooted dead great Hamilton
You hid behind a bunch of thistle
And shotted him dead with a great hoss pistol
People compared him to Benedict Arnold and ministers made him the centerpiece of the sermons. This was enough for Burr and he fled New York in disgrace. He would not rear his head again until later in a plot to develop a separate kingdom in the West. The American Catiline was down, but certainly not out. For more on this adventure, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/aaron-burr-part-ii-king-america/