Duel to be Re-enacted on 200th Anniversary

The Jersey Journal
By Tom Hester, Newhouse News Service
July 10, 2004

 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 face Hamilton.

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 ago."

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.

Lethal rivalry

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 carrying Burr.

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.

Why Weehawken?

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."