"Hamilton didn't want to shoot Burr. He fired into the air!" said Bob, a feisty 86-year-old, avid reader.
We were chatting about the biography Alexander Hamilton, which Bob and his colleagues had read and discussed at the Old St. Pat's Book Group in Chicago, Illinois. Old St. Pat's (St. Patrick's Catholic Church) was founded in 1846 and was the city's first English-speaking Catholic parish. The church itself is the oldest public building to survive the devastating Chicago fire of 1871.
Early this Sunday morning, my wife, Ellen, and I had the pleasure of visiting the group at Old St. Pat's to discuss our book, Dying to Be Happy, Discovering the Truth About Life. We heard some surprising stories from people who had encountered death by losing loved ones and some were actively fighting life-threatening illness themselves.
However, only Bob mentioned a shooting. I couldn't get the famous Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr duel out of my mind. I wanted to check the facts from their 1804 shootout. Especially since we've got tickets to see the musical stage play Hamilton this May, courtesy of our kids.
The duelers, Hamilton and Burr, were both Revolutionary War heroes so they knew how to use weapons, albeit they were rusty shooters. Formerly well-regulated militiamen. Turns out, Hamilton's son, Philip, was killed in a duel near the same location just three years earlier. The same weapons were used for the senior Hamilton's face-off with Burr.
Duels date back to Germanic tribes in the second century AD, and by medieval times were common throughout Europe. Germanic tribes spread this practice to Western Europe in the early Middle Ages.They were born of an era when most men wore swords on their hips. These codified battles were used as an alternative mechanism of justice to settle disputes. A judge could assign a time and place for a trial by battle if the accused testified his accuser was a liar. Later, duelers even had to put up dough to insure they would show up for the gunfight. Duels were fought for the slightest challenge to another man's honor, whether the verbal assault was real or imagined. By the time Burr and Hamilton met to settle their political war with weapons, duals were illegal in the U.S. They chose New Jersey for their confrontation because the state was more lenient about enforcing its anti-duel laws. The insult: Hamilton had allegedly called Burr "a dangerous man" and had expressed "a more despicable opinion" of him. That's it!
My quick research uncovered that most duels were settled by negotiation and rarely ended in a fatal decision. Hamilton had apparently told friends he intended not to shoot Burr and previously opposed duels based on his Christian principles. He had advised his own son, Phillip, to "throw away his shot" when facing his dueler. Perhaps Hamilton had read Jesus' words in scripture when a large, armed posse approached at night and prepared to arrest him. His apostle Peter said, "Lord, look there are two swords here." Jesus replied, "It is enough," as if to say, "I won't pick up the gauntlet." (Luke 22:38) Moments later, Peter cut off the ear of one guy in the mob only to watch Jesus heal the man and not resist arrest.
Ultimately, Hamilton did pick it up Burr's gauntlet and the two traveled from Manhattan, New York to New Jersey for their standoff. The eye-witness accounts by "seconds" for both men conflicted. Burr's handpicked observer said Hamilton missed. Hamilton's guy said he intentionally fired wide. But Hamilton did pause to put on his eye glasses. Did he want to be sure he missed? They stood a mere ten paces apart. (Having been held up at gunpoint, I can tell you ten paces is a bit too cozy for comfort.) The two men fired. Hamilton died in Manhattan some 31 hours later. Reportedly, his shooter had worn the equivalent to a bulletproof silk coat, "impenetrable to ball."
Burr escaped trial, though wanted for murder in two states. He was Vice President of the U.S. when he killed Hamilton, who had been America's first Secretary of the Treasury, under George Washington. Later, Burr hooked up with a U.S. general who was secretly being paid by Spain. He and his sinister colleague planned an invasion of Mexico to establish a separate government there. Burr was tried on charges of treason for planning to attack Spanish territory. He was acquitted. Burr even attempted to persuade Napoleon of France to participate in a conquest on Florida.
By the start of World War I, officials in Germany outlawed the code of dueling there but the insane Nazi party reinstated the practice in 1936 when they came to power. Imagine that, trial by firearm was still in vogue less than 100 years ago.
Comprehending this mind boggling approach to justice and so-called honor helps shed some light on America's relationship with guns, right from its founders to our present day.
I can't help but wonder what course our political debates and international wars would take if dueling were reinstated to resolve territorial disputes, partisan gridlock and global conflicts. Ridiculous right? However, it is important to remember, history says most duels were settled without a shot being fired. Rationale people tend to sober up when no one is standing between them and the enemy they're agitating.
True honor is refusing to pick up the gauntlet. "It is enough."