from pastelegram.org, June 2011 – April 2014
I imagine a white building, columned, Neoclassical, the type of structure where, in milder climates, oratory might have been heard outdoors by sandaled delegates. Then I see a dusty courtyard, the ground stained with a wide, thin cake of drying human blood. Not a soul present; perhaps a wind through curtains. Spotless sky, bare trees’ cathedral branches. The promise has been betrayed. The traitor now is King.
Instead the setting is New Jersey, a mosquito-infected wood on the banks of the Hudson. The man dying on the ground in horrible fits is a bastard of endless ambition, architect of the national mercantilist system, a banker in a patriot’s tricorn hat. The traitor is pale, his weapon cooling on the ground where it fell from his trembling hand. He has taken precise aim at his own destiny and blown it full of heavy lead.
Burr won the duel, but he did not live to write the history. He survived as a shriveled lawyer haunting the bar at Chambers Street, publicly stained by the honor killing and by a never-proven conspiracy of treason, privately ridiculed for his attempts to single-handedly abolish slavery and grant women the right to vote. A tyrant without a country, they called him behind his back. He was afforded no legacy; his only child, Theodosia, died at sea before her thirtieth birthday.
The author of that particular episode in the history books was not present at the duel. He painted Hamilton as the man of promise cut down too soon and Burr as the tragic hero whose hubris leads him to infamy and crime. An easy story to tell, it slides off the tongue. It might just as easily been the other way around. Hamilton was considered the better shot.
Burr had another story to tell: Jefferson was the real traitor, Madison too. Throw in Monroe, Jay, Adams, hell, even the General, they were traitors all of them. They had been brothers; they had secured a promised land together. Burr had stood in the center of their circle, had only noticed too late that they were crowding around him not to hear him better but to pull him off his dais and stick the knife in his back.
(Already by this point the only one listening was Theodosia, whom he had raised, preposterously, to be President herself someday, to make good the tarnished family name among the founders of a new kind of society, built on the will of the people.)
But the blood on the ground was Hamilton’s, not his own. He looked down at his hand, the instrument of murder. Mightier than even he had imagined. The night he killed, he dreamed a winged woman flew him over the crest of the Appalachians, told him, “All this will be yours.”
But it would be Jefferson’s instead, from one ocean to another. Jefferson, who saw his two most powerful adversaries both destroyed that morning at the foot of the Palisades—the only two men who might conceivably stand in the way of a quarter-century dynasty of Virginia planters. Jefferson, who’d seen no action in the War, whose closest acquaintanceship with blood came from the novels he collected and from the slave cabins at Monticello.
Jefferson had read widely on Caesar and Brutus, Caligula and Claudius. Burr left the study of the classics to Theodosia. He was a man of action; he studied law, arms, and politics. At nights, even in old age, he studied maps of the trans-Appalachian West. He imagined scenes in the great Western deserts, pistols at dawn, the righteous victor carried off a hero.
But he refused to learn what Jefferson had understood all along—it didn’t matter who was right, that victory came to he who waited, arrayed his enemies against each other, and allowed the people to follow their twisted will to their own flawed conclusions. Such as: Burr is a traitor.
The boatmen wrap Hamilton, still breathing, in a sort of canvas shroud. It is large enough that it might have fit Burr’s much taller frame. “You’ll want to be makin’ yourself scarce,” one of them says to Burr. Burr turns, still in shock, to his second, who nods.
Why also the General, who was dead seven years already on the morning of the duel? Because, Burr tells Theodosia, he too had turned against the promise of the Revolution, of a new kind of society, a beacon to the world. The General wanted nothing more than to return to population to a state of rest, of indolence and satisfaction with the new government, of peaceful productivity. He shook hands with the enemy, as sure as Benedict Arnold. The America he begat you can perceive now everywhere: men suffocating on deferred dreams, women not allowed to dream at all. Or Jefferson’s America, every man a tyrant on his own square acres, and his neighbor powerless to stop him…
“It ought to have been you, father,” Theodosia says.
“No, it ought to have been you.” But his daughter is dead. He’s talking to a ghost. Sitting on the near shore of the Hudson, an old man of no consequence, talking to the wind as carriages rumble by on the high road above.
So long as he’s entertaining ghosts, he lets Hamilton address him. “What about my America?”
“Some other debacle, I’m sure. I could see it clearly at the time, but it’s been so long now. At least that crisis was averted. My only legacy.”
Hamilton smiles, turns his pistol over in his hands. “Your legacy is more than you think. A nation of assassins.”
Burr rises, and a pistol appears in his hand. “Take it back.” Hamilton refuses; they take paces and draw. Burr misfires. Hamilton hits him in the left eye. A white light, and his right side goes weak, his lips numb. Hamilton disappears.
I see a gallows, or a brick wall with a blindfold and a cigarette, where the traitor, defiant to the end, is allowed a few last, brave words to condemn his executioner before the trapdoor is opened, before the order to fire is given. Instead he is alone when it happens, muttering to himself on a dock on the filthy fringes of Manhattan island.
An artery ruptures in Burr’s brain, rendering him unable to speak, walk, feed or clean himself. He lives two more years as an invalid, tormented by memories which may have been only youthful dreams—a great city named for him in the trans-Appalachian west; Theodosia ascendant in the capital; a crowd waiting for him on the other side of the Hudson to cheer his victory, to name him King.
This article is part of " At the Weehawken Dueling Ground, July 11, 1804,” by Andrew Douglas Underwood. Other parts of this project include:
At the Weehawken Dueling Ground, July 11, 1804 by Andrew Douglas Underwood
The Duel - Source Archive by Andrew Douglas Underwood
The Duel: An Interview with Andrew Douglas Underwood
On Archives and Absence by Laura A.L. Wellen
and our editor’s statement