Inside the Capitol

Saturday, July 10, 2004

200th Anniversary of Hamilton-Burr Duel

SANTA FE – Only hours after Sen. John Edwards joined the Democratic presidential ticket, the president of the United States was belittling him, his fellow North Carolina senator was trashing him and some critics went so far as to note that he is a former trial lawyer.
Is politics dirtier than ever? It may seem so. Had New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici been tabbed as a vice-presidential running mate by George Bush, Sr. back in 1988, as he should have been, it is hard to imagine that New Mexico’s other senator, Jeff Bingaman, would have been as nasty toward him as Sen. Elizabeth Dole was to her colleague.
But although mass media, today, makes political campaigning look awfully negative, today’s candidates are wimps compared to our founding fathers. They had noble ideas about democracy and freedom and all that, but it was routine for them to accuse each other of bribery, treason and that all-time favorite, fathering illegitimate children, especially by slaves.
Even out here in the West, while we were busy taming the frontier, politics still was dead serious. The famous Gunfight at OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1882, becomes more understandable when you know that it took place in a Republican town in a Democratic county in a Republican territory. It was a political battle. Now that’s taking politics seriously.
This week marks the 200th anniversary of the most famous duel in American history. It was commemorated last Sunday in Weehawken, New Jersey with a reenactment of the celebrated duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The duel has gained some notoriety recently in books idolizing Hamilton.
The two principals in this bloody affair were studies in contrast and similarities, according to historian Dave Clary of Roswell. Hamilton was possessed of a lightning-bright intelligence, and the arrogance that goes with someone who knows he is dealing with inferiors – which was everyone he came across. You know the type.
Burr was a thoroughly modern politician – consumed by ambition, highly intelligent in a crafty sort of way, and unencumbered by any sort of ethical or moral scruples. The occasion for their duel was thoroughly political. Burr had run for president in 1800, but lost to Jefferson when the disputed outcome was decided in the House of Representatives, thanks in no small part to Hamilton, who disliked Jefferson but despised Burr even more.
Burr then became Jefferson’s vice president, which is the way it worked before the 12th Amendment. Second place in the Electoral College gained you the vice president’s slot. After Burr lost the 1804 governor’s race in New York because of Hamilton’s opposition, Burr challenged him to a duel.
Pistol duels plagued Western society beginning in the 17th century, when good pistols were invented, until the 19th century. Before that, they used swords. Duels were almost universally illegal but that didn’t stop them from being fairly common.
The one saving grace was that typically, in sword or gun fights , both parties usually ended up still standing and shaking hands, with their honor satisfied. At worst, one participant might be scratched. But such was not the case this time. Hamilton missed, whether deliberately or not, but Burr shot straight and Hamilton died the next day.
Vice-President Burr had to flee to avoid a murder warrant in New Jersey. He ended up in the South, where he continued his political machinations until he was tried for treason over a silly plot to raise a private army to conquer territory from Spain and establish a new country with himself as king.
Perhaps fitting in that case, he was betrayed by his chief co-conspirator, Gen. James Wilkinson, an even worse scalawag than Burr was.
The Hamilton-Burr duel was the last of its kind, unless you count the OK Corral. But political dirty tricks continued. They even included our revered President Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t above his own sneaky maneuvers.


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