Alexander Hamilton v. Aaron Burr
The Most Famous Duel in American History
July 11, 1804
Weehawken, New Jersey
Narrator 1 Vocab: Second
Narrator 2 Principal
William (Burr’s Second)
Judge (Hamilton’s Second)
Scene 1:Town Gossip
TEACHER: The most important part of this play is cooperation from the audience and from those actors who are not currently speaking. Anything that students do on the side like talking will be distracting to the actors whose turn it is. When it is your turn to speak, make sure you are loud. Scene one of this play begins on a busy New York City. Will the actors for scene one please come forward? Narator 1 and 2, you should stand off to the side, and when it is your turn to speak, step to the front of the stage. Paperboy, you stand on stage left selling papers. David, Patrick, Mary and Samuel will all join in a juicy conversation on the street one at a time.
Narrator 1: It is a bright summer morning. The sun has just come over the horizon to reveal a bustling New York City street. The year is 1804. The almanac is calling for rain this week, and the air is thick with humidity. Women carrying baskets, men pushing carts, and children playing tag amongst them expose a typical busy scene in the fast growing city.
Narrator 2: People are walking all over the street, each of them seeming to have an urgent purpose. A boy on the corner selling newspapers is chanting headlines as an occasional citizen slows for a quick purchase of the daily news.
Paperboy: Papers here! Get your papers! Lewis wins! Get your papers!
David: (Walk past news paper boy, purchase a paper, and open it up to read)
Looks like Burr lost in a landslide to Lewis!
Patrick: (meeting David and others gathering on the street)
That scoundrel! I voted for Burr! It seems only right that he be elected our next governor. It is a pretty big slap in the face that he is the Vice President of our country, and not only does Jefferson not want him for a running mate in his second term, but the great State of New York does not even want him as Governor!
Mary: (eavesdropping on the conversation, deciding to chime in)
Can you blame Jefferson for not wanting him as Vice Pres? He nearly took his presidency away from him!
David: Either way I am sure that Burr cannot be happy with these results. I did not vote for him because he seems to have quite a temper. How can you trust a man with a temper like that?
Mary: I’ll bet that sneaky rat Hamilton had something to do with this!
Patrick: What do you mean by that Mary?
David: Surely you don’t mean Alexander Hamilton?
Mary: No, I mean Alex all right. He and Burr have been bitter rivals for decades!
Patrick: Well, I knew that Hamilton had an influence on the last Presidential Election in 1800, but I can’t imagine that he would interfere with this one too! What does he care?
Mary: He cares plenty! He is the leading Constitutional attorney in this city and New York is his home state. Just like the Presidential race in 1800 when Burr and Jefferson tied in the Electoral College, Hamilton did everything he could do to keep Burr out on an influential office. He preferred Jefferson over Burr for President, so I am sure he preferred Lewis over Burr for Governor!
Samuel: (entering the conversation)
Lady, you do not know what you are talking about. I can’t believe you two fools are listening to these babblings. Hamilton hates Burr, but Lewis won this race fare and square.
David: (holding up the paper)
Well, one thing is for sure, I don’t know who leaked the details, whether it was Hamilton or not, but this paper has been filled with slanderous comments about Burr all month! He must have a lot of enemies because the papers have been filled with stories that could keep anyone out of office.
Patrick: Well if it was Hamilton, and I’ll assume it was, why would he publish that stuff? Why do these two men hate each other so much?
Samuel: It all started back in 1791 when Aaron Burr was elected to the US Senate. He ran a really dirty campaign against Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, who had been a fine Senator for years! Hamilton who was the current Secretary of Treasury swore that he would ruin Burr for destroying Senator Schuyler’s career.
Mary: Alex is sneaky, that is for sure! But Burr is not his only enemy. Right after that controversial Presidential election in 1800, a document was leaked to the press that Hamilton had written that criticized Adams all over the place!
Patrick: Was it Burr who leaked it?
Mary: I think so. And so do most people. Politics are warped and I don’t blame Hamilton for hating Burr. He has his reasons.
David: Well, Burr certainly has his reasons too.
Samuel: They are both hot heads with egos bigger than the Hudson!
Paperboy: Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying. Ego’s run in Hamilton’s family. His own son got himself to a duel three years ago and it cost him his life! Word has it, he challenged a man who had insulted his father.
Mary: A duel? Aren’t those illegal?
Patrick: Not in New Jersey… isn’t that where it went down?
Paperboy: It sure is… that is where everyone goes to settle disputes of honor. Rumor has it that they stood there staring at each other for a solid minute after their second’s yelled “present”. What a bunch of cowards. (The paperboy should yell “present” loudly as if saying “fire”!)
Samuel: (pushing boy aside)
What do you know boy! Get out of here…. You wouldn’t fire a gun at a man. Most of those dogs just challenge each other to see if the other will even show up. It takes a lot of guts to level your pistol at someone 15 yards away!
Mary: Its all a bunch of nonsense to me.
David: I think I remember reading in this paper a while back about Hamilton himself being in a duel. Sometimes they print records of these things after they happen.
Patrick: Wouldn’t surprise me.
David: (paging through the paper)
Ah Hah… Here it is! Right here, see? (Pointing and showing) Hamilton was in a duel just a few months back! It says here that it wasn’t his first!
Paperboy: Like father, like son!
David: (reading) Hamilton has been a principal in 10 shotless duels in his political career!
Patrick: I guess you have to make a lot of people mad at you in order to become as powerful as he is.
Samuel: Probably so. But I know for a fact that Burr and John Church dueled a while back.
Patrick: Isn’t John Church, Hamilton’s brother-in-law?
David: I think you are right!
Patrick: Did they shoot at each other?
Samuel: They did not. I hear that Burr is a terrible shot anyway.
(Looking at his watch) Well, I must be on my way or I will have my own honor dispute on my hands with my boss.
Mary: (curtsy) I must make it to the market before 8! Fare well.
Paperboy: (walking away) Get your papers here! Papers! Lewis defeats Burr! Get your Papers!
(All characters walk in different directions and join back in the city scene)
TEACHER: The next scene opens at the House of Aaron Burr. As you can see there is a curtain dividing what is supposed to be Burr’s house and Hamilton’s house. The two seconds, Judge and William should pass the letters back and forth behind the curtain when they are “delivering”. When lines are being spoken at one house, the other actors are to be frozen and silent.
Scene 2: Exchange of Words
Burr: I cannot believe that I lost to that rat of a man, Lewis.
William: We should put together a public statement
Burr: More than ever, I hate Hamilton. He cost me that race! He and Jefferson together! I am ruined! First the Presidency, then the Vice Presidency, and now this! How dare they!
William: You need to do something to regain your honor. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Burr: Why don’t I challenge Hamilton to a duel?
William: Dueling is a very dangerous matter. Too risky.
Burr: I have nothing left. I cannot loose any more. I can only gain from such an endeavor.
William: Ok fine, but this is not reason enough for a duel. According to Code Duello, you must be provoked in order to issue a challenge.
Burr: Provoke? I can provoke! Give me my pen!
(William hands Burr a pen while Burr scribbles a note and hands it to William who delivers it to Judge from behind the curtain)
House of Alexander Hamilton
Judge: (entering room from curtain with a letter in hand)
This just arrived for you, Sir.
Hamilton: Thank you Judge. (Pretend to read the letter)
Narrator 3: Hamilton’s eyes light up when he realizes whom the letter is from. Basically the letter accuses Hamilton of speaking badly about Burr to Doctor Charles D. Cooper. Hamilton and Burr had accused each other of slander before. But this time was different. Alex could feel it. Burr was desperately attacking Hamilton’s honor in an attempt to salvage his reputation. He was so vulnerable, Alex could taste it.
Hamilton: Do you believe this man? What nerve!
Judge: What does he bother to write you?
Hamilton: No matter, fetch me a pen!
Judge: (hands Hamilton a pen, waits for Hamilton to write, takes the delivers it to William from behind the curtain)
House of Aaron Burr
William: Aaron, another letter has arrived for you. It has the seal of Alexander Hamilton.
Burr: Hand it here!
Narrator 4: Hamilton’s letter is essentially lecturing Burr. It seems as though he does not want a fight, but he does not want to seem cowardly. So he defines to Burr what the word despicable means. He ends the letter by basically stating that if a duel is what Burr wants, than a duel is what he will get. It is basically the worst possible letter Hamilton could have written. He knows it will offend Burr. Is he suicidal?
Burr: That dog! I’ll show him! William, hand me that pen!
(William hands Burr a pen, waits for his reply, and then delivers the letter)
House of Hamilton
Judge: Alex, another letter!
Hamilton: Hamilton reads out loud: “THE QUESTION IS NOT WHETHER OR NOT DR. COOPER USED THE WORD “DISPICABLE” WITH GRAMMATICAL ACCURACY. THE QUESTION IS WHETHER OR NOT YOU HAVE SAID THESE THINGS?! I DEMAND AN ANSWER!”
Narrator 3: Well, now Hamilton is rightfully offended. And things begin to spiral out of control. Now both men feel as though they cannot turn back.
Narrator 4: Hamilton wrote a final letter offering to settle, but refusing to apologize. Angry and insulted Burr retorted with an ultimatum.
Narrator 3: Burr insisted that Hamilton make a public apology for everything he had ever done to offend him or anyone affiliated to him.
Narrator 4: Clearly, if Hamilton wanted to hold onto his reputation and remain a public figure, these were terms that he could never agree to.
Narrator 3: And Burr knew this.
Narrator 4: Now the code of honor required that Hamilton and Burr meet, as gentleman, on the dueling ground. Failure by either man to appear would mean public humiliation and political ruin.
Narrator 3: The two seconds met in secret to make the arrangements.
TEACEHR: For the third and final scene, Burr, William and Stewart will enter on a row boat from the door-side of the room. You will stand in single file line as Stewart pretends to row the boat. Hamilton, Judge and Dr. Hosack will arrive int eh same fashion with Dr. Hosack rowing.
Scene 3: The Duel
Narrator 1: On the early morning of July 11th, the two rivals met on the shores in Weehawken, NJ. The air was thick with mist, and there was an eerie feeling lurking amongst the trees. Both men had prepared letters for their loved ones in case they were fatally wounded. But neither man really expected to be.
Narrator 2: We will never really know what either man’s intentions were. One man would never live to tell the tale. And there is no way to be sure whether the survivor was telling the truth of the account. There were several witnesses to the scene, and from what historians have been able to piece together, it went something like this…
(William, Burr and Stewart arrive on the shore and begin to clear out the brush)
Burr: When are they arriving?
William: They should be here any minute.
Stewart: William, can I have a sip of that? (Pointing to the canteen on William’s hip)
William: No, I thought I told you not to look in this direction! You have strict orders to not see any of this. Now go over there and don’t bother us again.
Stewart: Alright, alright. (Walking away) Hey, here they come!
(Hamilton, Judge and Dr. Hosack arrive on the shore. Dr. Hosack stays behind and faces away from the scene. Hamilton stands on the opposite side as Burr and the two seconds meet in the middle)
William: Did you bring the pistols?
Judge: Sure did, they are right here. (Pull them out of each pocket and display them)
William: Are they the ones we agreed on?
Judge: Sure are, see for your self.
William: (Inspecting the pistols) So we will draw for the positions, and for which of us gets to yell, “present”?
Judge: Well since your Principal challenged mine, it is mine who should get to choose position and I should get to yell.
Hamilton: (interrupting) No, Judge, it is ok. Draw for it.
TEACHER: Now Judge and William play rock paper scissors. Judge throws a rock and William throws scissors. Ready? Rock, paper scissors, shoot!
Judge: Hey Alex, what position do you choose?
Hamilton: This high ground here should be sufficient. (Pointing)
Burr: And I’ll go here. (Walking to the opposite side)
TEACHER: Now the two seconds will draw again. This time, it is to see which of them gets to yell “present”! William throws a rock and Judge throws paper. Ready? Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!
Judge: Yes! Ill make the call.
(Each second walks back to their principals, hands them the pistols, and helps them with final preparations)
Judge: (Walk to the middle and then YELL with hand in the air) Men ready?
Judge: PRESENT! (Yelling)
(Both Burr and Hamilton level their pistols at each other and pause for 5 seconds, just staring at each other)
Hamilton: (Hamilton aims high in the air and yells) BANG!
Burr: (Almost instantly, Burr looks behind him as if hearing a bullet wiz by his year. Then, he aims at Hamilton and yells) BANG!
Hamilton: (Hamilton falls to the ground)
Burr: (Burr steps toward him, but William pulls him away)
(William, Stewart and Burr escape to the rowboats and row away)
Judge: (running to Hamilton’s side) Doc! We need you!
Dr. Hosack: Alex, are you alright? Here, stay down.
Hamilton: (struggling) Doc, I think I have been fatally hit.
Judge: Let’s get him out of here!
(Judge and Dr. Hosack carry Hamilton away)
Narrator 1: Aaron Burr rowed away and returned to New York City as the sun rose high in the sky. He supposedly went out to breakfast in Manhattan upon his return.
Narrator 2: Alexander Hamilton was shot in the abdomen. The bullet traveled through his liver and became lodged in his spine. He was hurried to a friend’s house where he experienced excruciating pain and bled heavily before passing away the next day. Scientists believe that even modern medicine might not have been able to save Hamilton. Burr wasn’t a bad shot after all.
Narrator 3: When word got out to the papers about Hamilton’s death, the entire country mourned. Although he would never live to see it happen, his death ironically did what he could never do in his life. It ruined the reputation of Aaron Burr.
Narrator 4: People across the country cried out that Burr was a cold-blooded murderer. Even though he had not done anything illegal, killing his rival dug him deeper into political ruin, if that was even possible.
Narrator 3: A trial was held. But the witnesses could not provide enough evidence to convict Burr. His case was thrown out. Burr lived on, but he never successfully rejoined the political circle ever again.