On July 11, 1804, the most famous duel in American history took place between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, then the Vice President of the United States. Ellis first relates the most common version of the duel story, which states that, in accordance with the rules or customs of code duello, Hamilton and Burr shot at one another from a distance of ten paces on the plains of Weehawken, NJ. Hamilton was mortally wounded, and died the next day. Burr, although unharmed, could never recover his political standing afterwards.
Ellis concludes that although this version of “the interview at Weehawken” is historically accurate, it is also too brief. In order to understand the true significance and aftermath of the duel, one must first consider the personalities of the assailants, and the argument that brought them to that fateful place.
At the time of the duel, Colonel Aaron Burr was the Thomas Jefferson's Vice President. He had previously held the offices of Senator and Attorney General of New York. Burr’s distinguished ancestry included the famous theologian Jonathan Edwards, from whom he inherited his black hair and dark eyes. On the morning of Wednesday, July 11, 1804, Burr left his Richmond Hill home in Manhattan. Although dressed in the clothes he wore the night before, he carried himself with a nonchalant elegance befitting a gentlemen of his aristocratic heritage. Unlike Hamilton, who left a written account of his mental state, Burr memorialized nothing of his own thoughts. He soon met his associate, William Van Ness, who rowed him across the Hudson River toward the appointed location.
In the meantime, General Alexander Hamilton had left his home, near present day Wall Street, and boarded a small boat with his physician, Dr. David Hosack, and his associate, Nathaniel Pendleton. Unlike Burr, who had a dark demeanor and complexion, Hamilton was fair-skinned with blue eyes. Hamilton’s ancestry was less refined than Burr’s; he was the illegitimate child of a French woman and a Scottish alcoholic. Born in the West Indies, Hamilton was always driven to transcend his low origins through an ambitious nature, pronounced intellect, and bravado. After distinguishing himself in the Revolutionary War, where he rose to the position of Senior Officer of the Army, he became a protégé of George Washington, and was appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury. He was one of the leading members of the Federalist party, and a major contributor to the United States government in its nascent period.
At the time of the duel, Hamilton was forty-nine years old, and his beloved Federalist party was in serious decline after losing the Presidency to Jefferson. Eager to resolve his issues with Burr in a gentlemanly fashion, he maintained an air of reticence, which was unusual for the “little lion of Federalism.” Ellis describes Hamilton’s general temperament as “kinetic energy incessantly expressing itself in bursts of conspicuous brilliance” (22). Despite his uncharacteristic silence on that morning, Hamilton intended to let his first shot go astray. According to his last will and testament, he had no hopes of injuring Burr, and hoped that his opponent might “pause and reflect” before firing his own shot.
Ellis then notes that the duel did not actually occur on the plains of Weehawken, as usually reported. In truth, it took place on a narrow ledge twenty feet above water level, at the base of a cliff near Weehawken. The isolated spot was a popular location for duels, since it offered privacy for this illegal act.
The Burr party arrived first, around 7:00am, and was shortly joined by Hamilton and his associates. Van Ness would serve as Burr’s second, Pendleton as Hamilton’s. As dueling was illegal, the encounter was dubbed an “interview,” and all efforts were made so that those in attendance could deny knowledge of the actual event. For example, Dr. Hosack turned his back during the actual duel, so he could therefore not be considered an “eye witness.”
Hamilton chose the weapons, as he was the one being challenged. He picked a pair of highly decorative pistols once owned by his brother-in-law, the same weapons used in the 1801 duel in which his son Phillip died. The pistols had a hair-trigger that required less pressure to discharge, but were inaccurate at longer ranges. Hamilton certainly knew these details, but it is unlikely that he shared them with Burr.
Hamilton also had the right to choose position, and he selected the north-facing side, meaning the rising sun was in his eyes. Donning his eyeglasses, he practiced his aim a bit before starting. This detail is somewhat confusing, considering his recorded desire to miss the first shot. Once both parties were ready, they stood ten paces apart and prepared to shoot one time each, in accordance with dueling etiquette.
What happened next remains the subject of mystery, speculation, and conspiracy theories.
Shots were fired, leaving Hamilton fatally wounded on the ground. Burr's bullet ricocheted off of Hamilton’s ribs, ending up in his spine. Before lapsing into unconsciousness, Hamilton told Pendleton it was a mortal wound. Though a distressed Burr attempted to speak to Hamilton, Van Ness spirited him away under an umbrella, presumably so that they could later claim not to have “witnessed” Hamilton’s injuries.
Meanwhile Dr. Hosack brought the still-breathing Hamilton across the Hudson, to the home of James Bayard, a political associate. He died there the following day, surrounded by his wife and seven children. His funeral two days later was an extravagant event that drew hundreds.
“The overwhelming popular consensus was that Burr had murdered Hamilton in cold blood” (26). Declaring Burr the new Benedict Arnold, the press depicted him as a cold-blooded assassin. Burr fled the city, a tattered political reputation left behind in his wake.
The mystery surrounding the duel was intensified by Pendleton and Van Ness’s “Joint Statement,” published soon after the event. They claimed that both parties fired shots, which defended Burr from charges of outright murder. However, the statement only increased speculation. Hamilton's supporters claimed he had only reflexively fired his weapon after being shot. Those who supported Burr claimed that both men fired, and the only difference was that Hamilton missed his target. The controversy was further complicated by Hamilton's will, which revealed an intention to miss Burr. Burr never spoke publicly on the subject. No consensus could ever be reached, though Hamilton's story has persisted historically, if only because he left record of it.
Ellis concludes that claims of outright murder are erroneous. He believes that Hamilton shot his weapon intending to miss, and that Burr fired intending to wound Hamilton, but not to kill him. As evidence, he refers to the account of a distraught Burr attempting to speak to his foe, and offers details from the dueling site which suggest Hamilton has not fired directly at Burr.
Ellis then considers why two notable statesman would resort to a duel. Hamilton and Burr had a long history of political animosity, stemming from a 1789 incident in which Burr shifted his alliance from a candidate Hamilton supported in order to secure himself the position of Attorney General of New York. Although they remained friends during the Revolutionary War, all ties were officially severed once Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law for a Senate seat in 1791. As Senator, Burr continuously opposed Hamilton’s fiscal politics, which he proposed as Secretary of the Treasury. In the election of 1800, Hamilton supported Jefferson, his foremost political enemy, over Burr for the Presidency, viewing Jefferson as less offensive than Burr, whom he considered “beyond redemption” (42). Burr then became Jefferson’s Vice President by default; at the time, the candidate receiving the second most electoral votes was automatically given that position.
Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel when the latter publicly called him “despicable” for again shifting his political allegiance, this time to aid a campaign to become Governor of New York. As it turned out, Burr was seeking the governorship to spearhead a scheme wherein the New England states would secede from the Union. A staunch defender of national unity, Hamilton's final letter before his death read, “Tell them from ME, at MY request, for God’s sake, to cease these conversations and threatening about a separation of the Union. It must hang together for as long as it can” (44). Hamilton knew that the wily and ingenious Burr could cause great harm if elected Governor, and so she publicly maligned the man, a serious offense. When Burr did lose the position, he angrily challenged his foe to duel.
However, Ellis points out that both of these men were already suffering fading reputations by 1804. Hamilton's Federalist Party was in serious decline, and Hamilton himself had held no political office for almost a decade. After his lackluster Vice Presidency, Burr had lost the support of his own Republican Party. This fear of political oblivion helps to explain why they would be so willing to risk their lives for political reputation.
However, Ellis also views their decades-long "war of words" as a reflection of the fragile state of the U.S. government. The fact that words could have such a profound effect on them reveals that the government they had built had always been only as strong as the individuals who led it. A still nascent invention, it could only subsist if reputations remained firm, and so it was that an attack at reputation could inspire such a vicious response.
Their final confrontation was the only example of U.S. bloodshed between political compatriots before the outbreak of the Civil War. History has judged Hamilton the victim of the duel, seeing Burr as too ambitious and politically dangerous. And yet what they both have in common is that they risked their lives for fear of losing their place as bastions of the Revolutionary generation.
This first chapter is the only one of Founding Brothers not placed in chronological order. The author deliberately chose to insert this story first in order to “capture the reader’s attention.” In many ways, he offers this explanation as an apology, but it is also a bit disingenuous. The truth is that the chapter also provides insight into his overall thesis and methodology.
The Founding Fathers desperately feared that a breakdown in the federal government would result in civil war. Much of their anxiety and passion was driven by this all-too-present danger. As indicated in the Preface, these men were not certain that their Union would survive, and so did they have to safeguard their creation closely to ensure its success. Hamilton and Burr’s confrontation is a manifestation of this fear of breakdown.
For one, Hamilton was willing to fight to defend the spirit of '76 against a secessionist plot. He was willing to confront an opponent - an opponent he was not planning to actually oppose - partly to uphold his honor, but mostly to defend his political ideals. Honor is a significant motif in this chapter, as is the separation between the private and public lives of the Revolutionary generation. Unlike in our day, the press at the time kept a respectful distance from personal lives. And indeed, Hamilton had attacked Burr publicly for decades; what was different about this final insult was that it addressed the man's personal character. It was one thing to attack a person's politics, but far worse to attack his personality.
Their conflict also draws attention to how well these Founding Brothers tended to know one another. Hamilton and Burr had worked together on the battlefield and in the early legislation halls, all of which is true of most of the figures Ellis speaks about. As is often the case, their closeness meant that Burr's eventual betrayals stung all the worse. Because they had fought so hard to found the Union, Hamilton considered it particularly offensive that Burr would work to dismantle it. In Hamilton’s mind, Burr was dangerous to the new government. Ellis describes Burr as “self serving” and “manipulative,” but also as a political genius. Many of the Founding Brothers Ellis will later discuss were not so extreme as Burr, but as the political parties split, a person's opponent became less able to distinguish extremity from simple difference of opinion. The harsh tones of betrayal would be used by many others, even in situations less violent than this one.
So what Ellis accomplishes by placing this chapter first is more than opening with an exciting physical story. He also introduces the crucial themes of his book: the importance of compromise, the centrality of the specific relationships in the early Union, and the strict expectations that these Founding Fathers had for one another. Because they knew one another so well and were so well aware of the importance of reputation, their squabbles reflected extremely high stakes. By starting with a violent clash, Ellis establishes the stakes for which these men had learned to debate one another. No other stories end in violent death, but the reader now understands that Ellis views these relationships as fiery and passionate. The line between private and public is often difficult to discern among political figures whose lives and ideals were so closely intertwined. This idea will be most specifically expounded on in Ellis's version of the Jefferson/Adams relationship.
Finally, Ellis's research in this chapter reveals his desire to uncover factual truth. While he is willing to speculate to explore the circumstances of the duel, he uses much physical detail to craft his theory. In attempting to balance myth with reality, Ellis will continue to seek a truth that pays heed to our legends while trying to understand the messy reality created by actual men.