Archive for November 25, 2011

Vice President Aaron Burr vs. Former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton: the duel that shook the nation!

Posted in Uncategorized on November 25, 2011 by sheriffali

After the Congressional Supercommittee failed to reconcile its differences on budget reduction this week, many disappointed citizens may have the urge to reminisce on America’s Golden Days. But those looking back should be mindful of how far they let their gaze drift. At some points in US politics, the sword, or pistol, was mightier than the pen.

Nowadays, challenging someone to a duel sounds like a line from the latest Three Musketeers remake, but dueling used to play a part in American society – and Congress. According to a New York Times article from 1859, “all of the Congressional challenges that have been sent … do not exceed twenty-five in number, and not half so many as have been fought by members of the British Parliament.” The article continues in response to British criticism of “the state of civilization” inAmerica and gives a rational-sounding recount of dueling politicians until that point in time.


The first recorded duel involving a member of Congress was in 1777, all of a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Army Officer Jackland McIntosh and Congressman Button Gwinnett (who actually signed the Declaration of Independence) squared off, and Gwinnett lost more than his honor. “The dispute was of a personal nature,” so the New York Times was hesitant to call it “a Congressional encounter, as it did not grow out of any act of either party connected with politics.”

At the time, such an “affair of honor” was increasingly commonplace inAmerica, after the practice was brought over by European nobles. Unlike their Atlantic counterparts, though, lower-class Americans elected to engage in gentlemen warfare. According to the PBS website, two servants of the same master, “Edward Doty and Edward Lester, of theMassachusettscolony, fought the first recorded American duel in 1621, just a year after the Pilgrims arrived atPlymouth.”


Dueling was a practice enjoyed all the way to the top of the society. Before becoming the seventh president and winding up on the 20 dollar bill, Andrew Jackson earned quite the name for himself as a skilled duelist, until an unfortunate encounter with Charles Dickinson (theTennesseehorse breeder, not the British novelist). At the time of the duel,Jacksonhad already served as aTennesseesenator and was practicing law, according to the History Channel website. What began as a bet on a horse race ended in Jackson and Dickinson crossing the border intoKentuckyin 1806 and exchanging fire.

As the duel began,Jacksontook a bullet in the chest next to his heart, but put pressure on the wound long enough to shoot back. His pistol misfired, and in a breach of etiquette,Jacksoncocked his pistol a second time and shotDickinsondead.Jackson’s fighting faux pas was a slight to his honor, but not enough to prevent him from later becoming president.


Not all politicians were so lucky. In 1804, a political duel shook the nation. Over a series of campaigns, Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton engaged in a series of personal attacks. To settle the matter once and for all, Burr challengedHamiltonto a duel. They set the location outside ofWashington, where dueling was illegal, and met in the early morning hours nearWeehawken,New Jersey. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, according to the History Channel website. Some sayHamiltondeclared the duel immoral and merely fired into the air. Others say he took a shot at Burr and missed. What then ensued is irrefutable: Burr fired back, the bullet going throughHamilton’s stomach and lodging itself next to his spine. Within a day,Hamiltonwas dead.

The country was outraged to lose a man as notable as Hamilton, one ofAmerica’s Founding Fathers. Even though Burr was charged with murder inNew YorkandNew Jersey, his immunity as vice president prevented a conviction. By the time he finished his term, he had lost so much political standing that he devised a scheme to annex theLouisianaTerritoryand establish an independent government. When he marched a militia towardNew Orleansin 1806, though, he was charged with treason. He was later acquitted, but the public labeled him a traitor, and he left forEurope, never to return to American politics. In Burr’s case, political grievances caused the country a great hardship. If current Congressmen don’t take heed of history, they might find themselves making a similar mistake.