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My Friend Hamilton - Who I Shot - a Historiographical Discussion of the Duel Between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

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"My Friend Hamilton--Whom I Shot"

A Historiographical Discussion of the Duel Between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

Steven C. Smith

Phi Alpha Theta

Ohio Regional Conference

Ohio Northern University

3 April 2004

The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton holds a significant relevance in

American history and should be examined within the context of early American culture and

politics. The recent historiography of the incident provides us with a complex, evolving web of

conflicting interpretations. Since the day of this tragic duel, contemporaries and historians have

puzzled over why these two prominent American statesmen confronted each other on the Plains

of Weehawken. What circumstances or events could have motivated two of the most brilliant

political minds in America to endanger their lives and reputations by taking aim at each other on

that dismal day?

The recent historiography of the event can be divided into two schools which I shall

denote as the "contextual" school and the "psycho-historical" school. These differing "schools"

demonstrate the complexity of history and the extent to which a variety of factors, including bias

and changing frames of reference can influence interpretive study and conclusions. It is the

object of this discussion, therefore, to examine the heretofore mentioned interpretations, and to

critically analyze the differing ideas concerning the Burr-Hamilton duel.

The most succinct version of the event, as told by Joseph J. Ellis reads

On the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were rowed across the

Hudson River in separate boats to a secluded spot near Weehawken, New Jersey. There, in

accord with the customs of the code duello, they exchanged pistol shots at ten paces. Hamilton

was struck on his right side and died the following day. Though unhurt, Burr found that his

Smith 2

reputation suffered an equally fatal wound. In this, the most famous duel in American history,

both participants were casualties.1

Almost every American is familiar with this most famous--and deadly--of American

duels. Hamilton was celebrated and hailed as a martyr, and Burr was labeled a murderer and

went on to undertake many strange adventures in the American west, eventually tried for treason

for his purported conspiratorial intentions. Before engaging further in this discussion, one must

first differentiate between what I have denoted as "contextual" history and "psycho-historical"

history. I contend that "contextual" theses are steeped in disciplined research based on

contemporary and secondary sources. Anthony Brundage wrote that "psycho-historical"

arguments "attempt to apply to historical study the methods and insights developed by Sigmund

Freud and other psychological theorists during the past hundred years or so."2 This idea of

highlighting and differentiating between "contextual" and "psycho-historical" studies provides

this discussion with a centrality that will allow a further understanding the forthcoming analysis.

J. Lee and Conalee Levine-Schneidman argued "it was not Burr who was the instrument,

but rather Hamilton himself--or rather Hamilton's distorted perception of Burr as his evil self"

that promulgated the duel.3 This article entitled "Suicide or Murder? The Burr-Hamilton Duel,"

published in a 1980 edition of the Journal of Psychohistory, represents the first example of

"psycho-history" to be discussed in this paper. The authors presented Aaron Burr as introverted

and self-absorbed, a man forever compared to the saintliness of his namesake. His father was a

reverend and President of the College of New Jersey and his mother was the daughter of

Jonathan Edwards. Therefore, the Schneidmans argued, Burr had quite the reputation to uphold,

1 Joseph J. Ellis, "The Duel," in Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, (New York, NY:

Vintage Books, 2000), 20.

2 Ibid., 11.

3 J. Lee and Conalee Levine-Schneidman, "Suicide or Murder? The Burr-Hamilton Duel." Journal of

Psychohistory 8, no. 2 (1980), 160.

Smith 3

writing that "throughout Burr's life, the saintliness of his family was thrust upon him. His

cousin, Timothy Dwight, constantly upbraided him for not following the light of their mutual

grandfather. [Therefore] the conflict raged within Burr."4

The Schneidmans argued Hamilton felt Burr to be his "vile self," for they argued that

"Hamilton had no ill-will toward Burr. It was himself that Hamilton hated."5 Thus, it was the

authors' conclusion that Hamilton wished himself

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