The Day After: The Burr – Hamilton Duel

Oh Burr, oh Burr, what has thou done,
Thou has shooted dead great Hamilton!
You hid behind a bunch of thistle,
And shooted him dead with a great hoss pistol!

It’s been said that this anonymous poem addressed to Aaron Burr was left on Burr’s doorstep in 1804, while other reports say that Burr never saw it until many years later.  Whichever, Burr really didn’t hide “behind a bunch of thistle.”

Burr Hamilton Duel

Maybe whoever wrote it thought one of the seconds was Burr. The day after the duel, Alexander Hamilton died at 2 p.m. and Aaron Burr, who was the sitting Vice-President at the time, became the villain in the whole affair for quite a long time.  In some people’s eyes, he still is.  Burr did finish out his term as Vice President and although indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey, was later acquitted.

In yesterday’s Hudson County (where Weehawken is) edition on, an article by Agustin C. Torres asks:, “Is it time for an Aaron Burr bust to join Hamilton’s?.”

Mr. Torres writes: “Historically, Burr is looked upon as the bad guy but he led a fascinating, almost adventurous, life abroad. While Burr was publicly vilified, President John Adams was always among those who defended him. Gore Vidal’s 1973 book, Burr, is a good summer read …”

It should be noted that the actual title of that book is Burr: A Novel, so that you know Vidal is offering up a fictionalized account of Burr’s life, although Vidal did state that he painstakingly researched the characters and portrayed them realistically. However, the hypothesis in the book that the “slander” committed by Hamilton against Burr was in suggesting that Burr had slept with his own daughter, Theodosia, is just that — a supposition that can’t be proved or disproved. It is a good book to read, but only if you are able to put aside any preconceived notions you may have about the historical characters, and at the same time be able to appreciate that you are reading one author’s interpretation. By the by, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton hated each other long before the duel.

I actually read this book many years ago, although it is not the only thing I’ve read on the topic. What I’ve never quite been able to grasp is how they could indict Burr for murder when Hamilton’s death was the outcome of a duel, illegal or not, that both men agreed to participate in. Certainly, Hamilton was not assassinated as HistoryBuff09 seems to think:

“… suggesting we need to add the bust to the memorial is, um, misguided. Why not put Lee Harvey Oswald next to the Kennedy Memorial …”

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2 Responses

  1. Oliver Pereira says:

    “What I’ve never quite been able to grasp is how they could indict Burr for murder when Hamilton’s death was the outcome of a duel, illegal or not, that both men agreed to participate in.”

    I’m not an expert on law, let alone 19th-century American law, but from an ethical point of view, the categorisation of Mr. Hamilton’s death as murder would follow from the premise that every person has a right to life which cannot be voluntarily surrendered. This premise is not universally subscribed to, but it is a commonly held position. It is sometimes put forward as an aspect of the “inalienability” of the right to life. It would follow that even if a person consents to be killed, that consent cannot be considered legally valid. The idea that some forms of consent have no legal validity crops up in other legal contexts, too, of course.

    I have recently been reading from a fascinating book called “Inalienable Rights: The Limits of Consent in Medicine and the Law” by Terrance C. McConnell (published by Oxford University Press US, 2000). I can’t say that I agree with all of the author’s views, but he explains things very well, and sets out his arguments with admirable clarity, so it is easy to pinpoint where points of disagreement arise.

    The author makes some “observations about the legal system of the United States” on page 82:

    “In the U.S. legal system, the mere fact that a person consents does not justify killing that person. If I asked you to kill me and you accommodate my request, that will not prevent you from being charged legally for my death. Nor will it help you if there were 50 witnesses who testify that I did indeed request that you kill me. Nor will your legal position be any better if there are a bevy of psychiatrists willing to testify that I was fully competent at the time I made the request of you, and that my request was not coerced or made under duress. In our legal system, consent does not justify killing. And this seems morally plausible too.”

    And if a person cannot waive their right to life even by explicitly asking a person to kill them, then they certainly can’t do so by taking part in a duel, where presumably they don’t actually want to be killed!

    • Reely says:

      I thoroughly appreciate the viewpoint and I can even agree with the wisdom of it, especially in a case where someone, sane or not, asks another to murder him. But in this case, in my view, they were attempting to murder each other, so to be fair, Hamilton should have been charged with attempted murder, posthumously. LOL.

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