Aaron Burr & Alexander Hamilton: Colonial Hotheads

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Aaron Burr & Alexander Hamilton: Colonial Hotheads (http://historiesforkids.blogspot.com/)

This blog post should really be called “How not to overcome adversity”! Did you ever know someone who was intelligent and quick thinking; someone who seemed to have everything in the world going for them, but because of their temper and stubbornness, threw it all down the drain? Take a gander at a list of famous hotheads in history, and you’ll see quite a few familiar characters. You have to wonder about the thought processes of someone who would give it all up because of their petulant personality. Two examples of such dimwitted behavior were Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Aaron Burr was born into relative comfort in 1756. His father was Aaron Sr., the second president of Princeton University, and Aaron Jr. graduated from the University at the tender age of 16. He went on to study theology, but eventually changed to law.

In 1776, when the Revolutionary War came calling, Aaron left school to join the fight for independence. He saw action in many battles, and spent that infamous winter at Valley Forge. However, he and General Washington did not always see eye to eye. He wound up having to leave the military in 1779 due to poor health, and went on to become a successful attorney in New York; for a while sharing a practice with his soon- to- be nemesis, Alexander Hamilton.

Eventually, he went into the political arena, but was never really successful. He was often known to change opinions or political parties when it best suited his purposes. This did not please the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Thomas Jefferson. The Presidential election of 1800 brought all of this dirty laundry out into the open. When Burr and Jefferson were tied in the Electoral College after 35 ballots, Alexander Hamilton finally persuaded Federalists to support Jefferson because, as he said, “At least we know where he stands”. Coming in second to Jefferson, Burr went on to become Vice President, but was never trusted by his commander-in-chief, Thomas Jefferson.

Knowing the Republican Party would never support him in Jefferson’s reelection, Aaron began secretly negotiating with the Federalists to become the governor of New York in 1804. Alexander Hamilton found out his plan, and threw his support behind Burr’s opponent, Morgan Lewis, ensuring a landslide victory for Lewis.

Born under very different circumstances, Alexander Hamilton was born out of wed lock to a French Woman and a Scottish drunkard in 1757. He was, as John Adams so delicately put it, “A true bastard”. Despite these meager beginnings, Hamilton became a real life rags to riches “American Dream” story. After coming to America, he was educated, and fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War. He became Washington’s aide de camp, his most trusted advisor, during not only the Revolutionary War, but the Constitutional Convention.

He also became instrumental in the first presidential cabinet. His strong Federalist opinions, which he never kept to himself, were for a strong centralized government. He felt there was a real need to unite the nation, and lower its debt. Unfortunately, many of his policies were stopped cold in their tracks, courtesy of none other than Aaron Burr.

Due to his questionable beginnings; Hamilton felt the need to overcompensate, to always prove he was the better man. His reputation for being honest and forthright meant more to him than anything else. If Alexander Hamilton felt you weren’t being true to the red white and blue, he was the first to call you out on it!

Every time Burr changed either his political party, or was caught secretly negotiating deals, it increased Hamilton’s disdain and distrust of Burr. He thought Burr was a threat and capable of destroying the young republic.

In any election, Hamilton opposed Burr. Even when Burr was running against other well known foes of Hamilton’s as in the Election of 1800 when Burr ran against Thomas Jefferson for President.

Everything came to a head when Aaron Burr campaigned to win the New York Governor’s election in 1804. During the campaign, a letter was written in the Albany Register. The author, Dr. Charles Cooper recalled an episode the previous February when Hamilton questioned Burr’s qualifications to become governor. Whatever it was that Hamilton said about Burr was not specified in the letter. However, the letter ended with Cooper stating, “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed about Mr. Burr”. Burr felt the word “despicable” was slanderous and libel. He demanded an apology from Hamilton, even though Hamilton was never actually quoted in the article. What followed were several correspondences between Burr, Hamilton, and their representatives. Burr insisted on an apology, Hamilton denied he had anything to apologize for-- he was never actually quoted in the article!

Every successive letter caused each man to dig in his heels and become more and more stubborn. Neither one would back down. The situation escalated until finally, Burr challenged Hamilton to an “interview” to defend his honor. Interview was another word for duel. Why the coded verbiage? Dueling was against the law! Believe it or not, at that time, there was an entire series of terms and actions drawn up, so that anyone who was party to a duel could escape prosecution on technicalities. These technicalities included no one at the scene, doctors or even people who had given the hotheads a ride to the fight, could even look at the duelers as the shots were being fired. They had to turn away and look in the other direction. Only the “seconds” were allowed to actually be in the vicinity. Why? So anyone else involved, other than the chief participants, could honestly say they never saw a shot fired. Society had devised a series of “gentlemanly” loopholes!

Most “interviews” were resolved before they ever took place. Those that did take place usually ended with the participants receiving non- serious or flesh wounds due to the inaccuracy of the weaponry, or as was the practice, the choice to fire away from your opponent. Firing away from your opponent worked because you could technically say you fired your weapon. Your honor was saved, and no one got hurt.

On July 4, 1804, both Burr and Hamilton attended the Order of the Cincinnati. This was a private club for officers of the Revolutionary War. During their July 4th celebrations, Burr and Hamilton were actually seated next to each other. Burr was uncharacteristically quiet, and Hamilton had a great time. He even went so far as to sing military songs! No one could guess what was to come. While no one had any idea what Burr was planning for the “interview”, Hamilton made it quite clear he had no intention of firing to hit Burr. He planned on following the “gentleman’s code” for dueling. However, this was not to be. On July 11, 1804, on a bluff overlooking Weehawken, New Jersey, two heroes of the American Revolution, and political adversaries, met for an “interview”. One intended, as he had written in letters written before the meeting, to discharge his round into the air. The other, however, chose to take steady aim when he, according to the rules, was allowed a free shot. In an instant, Burr took aim and mortally wounded Hamilton just above the hipbone. Some thought that this proved that Burr’s intent was to inflict a “flesh wound”.

Whatever Burr’s intent, rumors and lies began to surround the duel almost as soon as the shots were fired. This is interesting, especially when everyone involved was supposedly either not there, or looking away, as it is stated in the “rules of conduct” for such activities.

The end result was that one of the authors of the Federalist Papers was hours from death. A man despised by many for his strong opinions would become a martyr for liberty. Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States would be accused by many as the new “Benedict Arnold”. Because of this, he would flee to South Carolina, only to eventually return to finish his term as vice president and fulfill the prophecy by attempting treasonous acts with Great Britain and France that were to eventually end his career.

These two political hotheads couldn’t find it within themselves to put aside petty differences for the good of their county. They let one word – despicable – ruin two promising careers.

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