Resources for Thinking Clearly -- By: Anonymous
RAR 12:1 (Winter 2003) p. 167
Resources for Thinking Clearly
The Duel: Hamilton Vs. Burr, Carl Byer and David Mrazek, writers, Carl Byer, producer, PBS Home Video (2000), Running Time: 60 minutes
It is often argued that the two- party political system of the United States is part and parcel of Constitution orthodoxy. Many still fear that if this arrangement were otherwise we would soon be paralyzed as a government. In this case the truth is much more interesting. In the infancy of the nation not only was there not a two-party system, but political positions were often argued and held with great passion—a passion that sometimes became inflammatory beyond anything seen in recent decades. The most noteworthy illustration of this is the famous duel between two founding fathers of the republic, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It is hard for moderns to imagine a political debate, such as that between Al Gore and George W. Bush, escalating into a duel to the death by gunshot, yet this is precisely what did happen on July 11, 1804.
Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury who had created our system of federal finance and thus spared the struggling young nation from bankruptcy, was nothing short of a genius. He was an illegitimate child born to a woman of ill repute in the West Indies. He was sent to the colonies to study, and eventually rose to become a framer of the Constitution while still quite young. George Washington considered him indispensable in the early years of his presidency.
Aaron Burr, who in 1804 was Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president, had come within an eyelash of becoming the third president himself. Only after thirty-five deadlocked votes had been taken in the House of Representatives was Jefferson
RAR 12:1 (Winter 2003) p. 168
finally declared president over Burr. Burr, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, came from an esteemed family and was a masterful politician, though not Hamilton’s equal in terms of sheer genius. The charismatic and suave Burr seemed continually thwarted by Hamilton, who moved in similar circles of power. For this reason, the duel was all but inevitable as history played itself out in the careers of these two famous men.
On the fateful morning of a July summer day in 1804 Burr and Hamilton met to settle their dispute the way men defended their honor in such times. From a distance of twenty paces they stood ready to shoot. At the appropriate count of three each could fire one shot. There is debate as to Hamilton’s shot. Some say he intentionally fired so as to miss Burr. This much is sure: Burr had an easy target in front of him and chose to fire directly at Hamilton, who died several days later. The sad fact is that Burr may have lived to see another day ...
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