to be Re-enacted on 200th Anniversary
By Tom Hester, Newhouse News Service
The news outraged a young America, a country still less than
three decades old.
Early on a Wednesday morning at a secluded spot on the Weehawken
waterfront, the vice president of the United States and a respected
founding father faced each other in an illegal pistol duel. They stood
no more than 10 yards apart.
When it was over, Alexander Hamilton, 47, a shaper of the U.S.
Constitution and the first U.S. treasurer, had been mortally wounded.
The shooter, Aaron Burr, 48, was in his last year of his term as vice
president under President Thomas Jefferson. Fearing a murder
indictment, he immediately slipped out of town.
The duel of July 11, 1804, is still etched in American history. On
its 200th anniversary tomorrow, the Weehawken Historical Commission
will commemorate the historic day with a series of events - including
a re-enactment by two men named Hamilton and Burr.
Douglas Hamilton, a fifth great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton,
will take one for the family tree. There are no direct descendants of
Aaron Burr. So Antonio Burr, a descendant of Aaron Burr's cousin, will
The modern-day Hamilton and Burr grew up thousands of miles from
each other and have never met. They will be united by the event two
centuries ago that forever links their names.
The Weehawken Historical Commission went to great lengths to find a
gentleman close to Alexander Hamilton's age; all the way to Columbus,
Ohio, where they found Hamilton working as an IBM sales
representative. Having never participated in a re-enactment before
Hamilton, he made sure to ask what the rest of his family thought of
the idea before committing himself to the role.
"We know how it is going to end," said Hamilton, 53, an
IBM sales representative from Columbus, Ohio. "Some people in the
family questioned re-enacting somebody in the family getting shot, but
I have received assurance the re-enactment will be done with taste. We
are not there to commemorate somebody getting shot, we are
commemorating Hamilton and Burr's contributions to America 200 years
Hamilton himself expressed a great admiration for his ancestor,
speaking of the brilliance Hamilton showed in helping set a young
America on its path to greatness. "He set us on the path from a
confederation of states to a very strong federal government. He took
the country from the worst credit rating in the world to the
best." Hamilton expressed sympathy for Hamilton's detractors,
noting that they may just be ignorant of the great changes he made.
Burr, 51, of New York, is a forensic psychologist who practices in
Hoboken and frequently appears as an expert witness in the Hudson
County courts. He said his branch of the Burr family immigrated to
Chile in the mid-19th century to profit in the lumber industry. He was
born in Washington D.C., where his father was a diplomat, and was
raised in Chile. At age 20, he returned to the United States as a
student and decided to stay.
"As a child, I learned I was a descendant of an old American
family that dated back to the Revolution and that we were connected to
this event of great historical importance," he said.
For the re-enactment at Lincoln Harbor Park, Hamilton and Burr will
don period dress of frock coats, pantaloons and half boots. They will
use replicas of the single-shot dueling pistols used in the real thing
200 years ago. As the sound of gunfire rings out, Hamilton will
stagger, but unlike his ancestor, he will not fall.
"We felt we didn't want to show blood, guts and gore,"
said Lauren Sherman of Weehawken, co-chair of the bicentennial.
Sherman said the event already has received attention from history
groups across the nation, and other descendants of Hamilton and Burr
are expected to attend.
During the re-enactment, the background of the two combatants and
the political climate that led to their duel will be described, based
on the testimony of the "seconds" who witnessed the event.
Then, two long rowboats will appear on the Hudson River: the first
Hamilton was a prominent New York attorney at the time of the duel.
In the 1780s, he was a driving force for the ratification of the
U.S. Constitution. He was an aide and close friend of George
Washington during the Revolution, taking part in the battles of
Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth. As president, Washington appointed
Hamilton the nation's first treasury secretary and later acting
commander of the Army.
Douglas Hamilton said he has visited the duel site and cherishes a
medal Washington presented to Alexander Hamilton after the Revolution.
Burr was born in Newark and entered the College of New Jersey (now
Princeton University) at age 13. Like Hamilton, Burr was a lieutenant
colonel during the Revolution and served with distinction at the
Battle of Monmouth. He was also an attorney in New York. A master at
politics, Burr served as a New York Assembly member and state attorney
general before winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1791.
The men were longtime political rivals. Burr wrongly blamed
Hamilton for his unsuccessful bid for governor of New York earlier in
the year, and after reading in a newspaper that Hamilton had offered a
"despicable opinion" about him during the campaign, Burr
challenged him to the murderous duel.
The two met in secret at a ledge at the base of the Weehawken
Palisades, accessible only from the river and hidden from sight by
trees. Each fired a shot from a .56-caliber dueling pistol. Hamilton
was felled by an oversized lead ball that entered his right side,
ripped through his liver and diaphragm, and lodged in his spine. He
died the following day in New York.
Unscathed in the duel, Burr feared a murder indictment. He slipped
out of New York by boat to Perth Amboy, with his valet, obtained
horses in Cranbury and headed south, moving along New Jersey back
roads to avoid authorities. But he never faced prosecution and later
returned to Washington, where he completed his term in March 1805.
Burr later plotted to conquer part of the United States' newly
purchased Louisiana Territory and crown himself emperor. He was
arrested in Louisiana in 1807, taken to Richmond and tried for
treason. Acquitted on a technicality, Burr fled to Europe but later
returned to New York to practice law. He died in 1836 on Staten Island
at age 80.
While this duel gained fame two centuries ago, the act of dueling
was not unusual then. At least 17 duels were held on the Weehawken
waterfront from 1799 to 1845. Weehawken was a popular dueling spot
because of its proximity to New York, which had outlawed duels, and
its secluded "dueling grounds." Duels were also illegal in
New Jersey, but they continued in the state until at least 1845.
"The reason people know about this particular duel is that the
duelists were so famous," said Ron Chernow, author of the current
best-selling book "Alexander Hamilton."
"In fact, duels were very commonplace at the time. That really
is the significance," he said. "Duels tended to occur among
politicians, military men and people who fancied themselves as
aristocrats. They often occurred in circumstances where today people
would bring a libel suit."