Sunday, July 11, 2004

A duel in Weehawken 

Solomon points out that two hundred years ago today, July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. The History Channel's web site has the story. Remember it from school?
Affairs of honor were commonplace in America at the time, and the complex rules governing them usually led to an honorable resolution before any actual firing of weapons. In fact, the outspoken Hamilton had been involved in several affairs of honor in his life, and he had resolved most of them peaceably. No such recourse was found with Burr, however, and on July 11, 1804, the enemies met at 7 a.m. at the dueling grounds near Weehawken, New Jersey. It was the same spot where Hamilton's son had died defending his father's honor two years before.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. According to Hamilton's "second"--his assistant and witness in the duel--Hamilton decided the duel was morally wrong and deliberately fired into the air. Burr's second claimed that Hamilton fired at Burr and missed. What happened next is agreed upon: Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged next to his spine. Hamilton was taken back to New York, and he died the next afternoon.

Few affairs of honor actually resulted in deaths, and the nation was outraged by the killing of a man as eminent as Alexander Hamilton. Charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, Burr, still vice president, returned to Washington, D.C., where he finished his term immune from prosecution.

Burr had challenged Hamilton to a duel after the latter had savaged the character of the former in a hotly contested election campaign. While the "affair of honor" resulted in the death of one of America's greatest founding fathers and discredited Burr to the end of his days, you can't help but wonder if the existence of the practice of dueling wasn't a useful means of alternative dispute resolution.

In any case, it won't take a big chunk out of your day to read the whole thing.


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