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Two centuries before Lindiwe Zulu, lived (and duelled) Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

Two centuries before Lindiwe Zulu, lived (and duelled) Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

The challenge issued by Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu to a political opponent last week in Parliament to come out the corridor and slug it out encourages J. BROOKS SPECTOR to look back at America’s most famous duel between political rivals – Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s face-off in 1804.

The recent ructions at the South African Parliament may have reached their climax – so far at least – when Minister for Small Business Lindiwe Zulu challenged EFF MP Godrich Gardee to step outside the Parliamentary chamber and duke it out in the hallway the way two seasoned street fighters should do. Well, okay, a few days after this incident, and following more than a bit of furious criticism of her actions, Zulu has now apologised for her invitation to Gardee for an extemporaneous pugilistic exhibition. Her argument was that it was purely a consequence of her strong emotions in defence of her party, saying, “We can tolerate the heckling in the House, but this disrespect, the undermining, the patronising, those things clubbed together – may I just say I am also a human being.”

Well, okay, nobody’s perfect.

A few months back, in late August, when it first became clear that the EFF’s entry into Parliament was going to turn debates there into a horse of a very different colour as people started to see “red” everywhere; this writer did a historical look-back at the street brawling traditions of other Parliaments around the world. There are, in fact, lots of them, and so with Zulu’s invitation to Gardee, it can be argued, South Africa has simply joined the world in yet one more way.

But Zulu’s call to mix it up out there in the corridors of power reminded this writer of yet another political fight – a duel fought on 11 July 1804 between two major political heavyweights in America’s early years. On that occasion, United States’ sitting Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton carried out a duel that left Hamilton mortally wounded – and Burr still the country’s vice president, but charged for murder in two states.

Here’s how it came about. On that fateful summer day in 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on a popular duelling site in Weehawken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City, as the final round of their increasingly bitter, generation-long, political and personal battle.

Hamilton had been a dashing young war hero in the Revolutionary War, including service as an aide to General George Washington. After independence, he became the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. (His image was immortalised on the $10 bill.) He was largely responsible for putting the nation’s finances on a secure enough footing that US Treasury bonds would have been listed as investment grade by Moody’s, if Moody’s had been around at that time.

By the time the country was less than a decade into its constitutional government, two opposing political parties had come into being, despite a warning by George Washington, the country’s first president, to be fearful of “factions”, as parties were being called. The Federalists were in favour of strong central government and the Democratic-Republicans were more disposed to a looser, more decentralised, less concentrated political centre.

Like John Adams, the country’s second president, Hamilton had been an ardent Federalist and fierce political partisan. Meanwhile, in conjunction with politicians (and then presidents) Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, Burr was an equally strong Democratic-Republican. (That party later dropped the Republican bit and became the Democratic Party that still exists.) Burr was actually one of the creators of his party as a modern political institution – right down to the vigorous process of rigorously organising and recruiting voters (and all those consequent rewards to voters) in state of New York.

The two politicians’ first major head-butting came as far back as 1791, when Burr had successfully captured a United States Senate seat out from under the nose of Philip Schuyler, a politician who just happened to be Hamilton’s father-in-law. Hamilton, the country’s treasury secretary at the time, had been banking on Schuyler’s support once he entered the Senate. But, when Schuyler was beaten in the election (in the state legislature, where senators were selected at that time), Hamilton became enraged at Burr’s success. These were two hot-tempered, street-wise politicos who could carry a grudge with the best of them.

Nine years later, political activist that he was, Burr published a highly critical book about President John Adams and his Federalist Party. Curiously, Hamilton had apparently been the pamphlet’s author and he had been planning to distribute it privately as part of an intra-party battle within the Federalists. Not surprisingly, Burr’s much wider publication of Hamilton’s screed was enormously embarrassing to its author who was, after all, a member of the same party as Adams. Ah, intraparty squabbles.

Then, in the 1800 presidential election, Burr and Thomas Jefferson had initially ended in a tie vote in the Electoral College. (The two men had ostensibly been a slate for vice president – Burr – and president – Jefferson – but due to a quirk in the initial wording of the Constitution, the voting was not for a slate but for individual candidates.) After some furious lobbying over who would ultimately be selected – including, perhaps inevitably, Hamilton’s efforts to block Burr from being selected – Jefferson became president, and Burr the vice president. Naturally those machinations did not help things in the “National Burr-Hamilton Mutual Friendship and Admiration Society” department.

Hamilton’s deep personal as well as political animosity toward Burr was also luxuriantly documented in his many letters to friends and fellow politicians. In one written in 1801, Hamilton had exploded, “Nothing has given me so much chagrin as the Intelligence that the Federal party were thinking seriously of supporting Mr. Burr for president. I should consider the execution of the plan as devoting the country and signing their own death warrant. Mr. Burr will probably make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and will break them the first moment it may serve his purpose.” In another letter, he labelled Burr a “a profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme.” Then he charged Burr had corruptly worked on behalf of a private land development company while he was a senator; all before getting in some serious digs about Burr’s military record – including charges that he had finagled his way out of military service, feigning illness.

But it was the 1804 New York governor’s race that pushed the two men’s political sniping right over the edge into real violence. Burr ran as an independent, turning his back on the party he had helped consolidate and organise. Meanwhile, Hamilton lobbied his own party members not to support Burr when it was clear the Federalists could not win that election. In the election, the Democratic-Republican candidate, Morgan Lewis, trounced Burr.

A few months after that election, a prominent New York Democratic-Republican, Dr Charles Cooper, attended a dinner party where Hamilton spoke vehemently against Burr. After the event, Cooper then wrote to Philip Schuyler (that would-have-been-governor Burr had beaten years before), referring to a particularly “despicable opinion” Hamilton expressed about Burr. Ever alert to some really juicy political stuff, one newspaper, The Albany Register, published Cooper’s letter.

With these derogatory opinions about him now being publicly aired, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel to defend his honour. Hamilton at first thought to dodge Burr’s challenge but he eventually realised that since his “honour” would be permanently sullied if he didn’t accept Burr’s challenge, especially since Burr’s claims about Hamilton’s bad-mouthing him were, effectively, true statements. Hamilton decided that if he ignored Burr’s challenge, his own political career would be finished as a result of seeming to be a coward.

And so, early in the morning of 11 July 1804, Burr and Hamilton left New York City in separate boats, crossing the Hudson River, to reach Weehawken Heights in New Jersey. The spot was a popular duelling ground close to the scenic Palisades cliffs. They were in New Jersey rather than New York because although duelling was illegal in both states, New Jersey was far less diligent in prosecuting offenders. (This very same site had been used for at least 18 documented duels between 1700 and 1845.)

To give all involved in the duel preparations a bit of plausible deniability over a duel if the sheriff asked, the pistols to be used were carried to the site in a closed box so that the rowers of the boats could say truthfully that they had seen no weapons. Moreover, once they reached the agreed-upon site for the duel, they took their positions with their backs to the two protagonists so that they could say they, personally, had seen no duel.

Watch: Alexander Hamilton – Aaron Burr: Duel Site – a YouTube tour of the actual duel site

The two men were not strangers to the duelling arena. Moreover, Hamilton’s own son, Philip, had been killed in a duel in 1801 as well, a circumstance that seems to have weighed heavily upon Hamilton’s frame of mind as he faced his upcoming confrontation with Burr. After going through the usual formalities, the two men – Burr and Hamilton – took the requisite number of steps from each other; turned to face the other; and each fired a single shot from a .56 calibre duelling pistol. Hamilton missed with his shot, but Burr’s found its target, fatally wounding Hamilton, who then died the very next day in New York City. It remains unclear whether Hamilton deliberately fired to miss his antagonist, but Burr quite clearly aimed and fired with great accuracy.

After Hamilton had died, Burr was charged with two counts of murder – in both New Jersey and New York – even though he was still the country’s vice president. Ultimately, he was not convicted on either charge – and he went back to Washington to resume his duties as vice president, until his term of office ended in March 1805. Becoming something of a lost soul politically, Burr eventually ended up being charged (although not convicted) with treason as the result of a complicated, murky plot to carve a personal empire out of the unsettled lands of the Mississippi Valley and beyond – much of which had already become part of the US following the US’ Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, which, in reality was almost a one-third of today’s lower 48’s.

After this incident, Burr eventually lived an erratic, peripatetic life for three more decades, eventually becoming an increasingly lonely, nearly forgotten man. Hamilton, of course, had died all those years before. In 1808, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham met Burr in London and Bentham judged Burr to be “little better than a murderer.” For his part, Burr eventually told friends, “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

Given the tensions in South Africa’s contemporary political circumstances, perhaps it is probably an excellent thing that duelling is now illegal in South Africa as well, especially as the political system continues to gain heat in and out of the country’s Parliament. Of course there are all those provincial and national party conventions where the participants seems to have been liberally supplied with weapons – so far at least, hopefully, just for show. But Hamilton and Burr’s antagonism may be read as a cautionary tale about what happens when antagonisms transcend the political universe and become deeply and fatally personal. DM

Photo: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

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