History’s Most Famous Duel

famous duel

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr act out a fatal altercation. Mark Schneider provides the details.

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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Joining us again this week is Mark Schneider. Mark, thanks for being with us.

Mark Schneider: Thanks for having me.

Harmony: Mark, last week we were talking about the roots of the American duel, and how it finds its tradition in the Code Duello. So, speaking of a fatal duel that I think a lot of Americans are probably aware of, is the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. How do we see the Code Duello play out in this altercation between these two men?

Mark: The most famous duel in history, it was called. But it was called by an American that. Other countries would perhaps disagree. But this duel of July 11 1804 in New Jersey, fought between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton – Alexander Hamilton, of course, famous from the American Revolution, as was Aaron Burr, but Aaron Burr at that moment was Vice President of the United States – well they followed many of the aspects of the Code Duello, in that they had their seconds, they had an arranged spot where this duel would be fought, and it’s not the first time a duel was fought in this part of New Jersey.

Unfortunately Alexander Hamilton’s eldest son was killed in a duel, three or four years prior to that. But they had all the proper people there, and it was followed with the strictest of the code of the duel. These two had a disagreement, Alexander Hamilton spoke ill of Aaron Burr, said that he was a dangerous man and he should not hold the reins of government. Aaron Burr demanded satisfaction.

Harmony: So this is the first ingredient of a duel, is the personal insult that’s delivered. This is the cause for a duel, is when your honor or your reputation are impugned.

Mark: Of those three types of duels that could be fought – the judicial duel, the duel of chivalry, and the duel of honor – this certainly falls under that of the duel of honor. So Aaron Burr felt insulted, and Alexander Hamilton, being a man of reputation, a man of government, a man who had proven himself to be a courageous man on the battlefield and in the stateroom, felt he had to defend himself.

So they went, and they met, and though the night before, Alexander Hamilton had stated that he did not want to participate in this duel, he felt he was obliged to. The duel was fought. It was said that they fired at the same time, and Aaron Burr shot and then killed Alexander Hamilton as a result of that duel.

Harmony: So in this case, they’re using pistols to duel with, because Burr has challenged Hamilton to the duel, this means that, according to the code, Hamilton gets to select the weapon that they used.

Mark: That is correct. And you bring up a great point about the use of pistol, or any weapon, for dueling. I mentioned earlier the use of a pool ball to fight a duel, but most of the weapons used are some sort of a sword, whether it be a rapier or a small sword, or a saber. Here in America, it was much more popular to use a pistol. People ask, well, “Why is that?”

Well, in Europe there were many fencing schools. Many gentlemen – who were predominantly the people who were fighting duels – are going to be trained in the use of a sword. So, two gentlemen fighting a duel, they’re both familiar with this weapon, they’re both well-trained, hopefully they’re both proficient in the use of this weapon. They’re able to fight one another on somewhat equal terms.

Here in America, a more republican way, as they say, of fighting, was the use of a pistol. A more equal, a more well-balanced way. Because all you really need to do is have some courage to hold that pistol upright, to cock the pistol to prepare to fire, and to pull the trigger and fire at your enemy. So here in America, the pistol became the preferred weapon of choice as people would fight one another, such as the Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr duel.

Harmony: What I read was that the use of a pistol actually made the chances of injuring your opponent pretty low, because the accuracy of a pistol at that range and the pressure required to fire a pistol would make it really difficult to actually make contact with a target.

Mark: Absolutely. A pistol is not a very accurate weapon at long distances, and the distance between the two antagonists is going to be agreed upon, also. There are some, 10 paces has been recorded before, 25 paces, even further, and even shorter distances are going to be used. Some are at point blank range, some are used with one pistol loaded and one pistol empty – a lot of different ways.

But the pistol is a smooth-bore weapon, meaning that there’s no grooves in it to give the ball more accuracy like a rifle would. So at these long distances, where somebody might have a shaky hand because, understandably so, they’re going to be a bit nervous as they are about to fight a duel. When they pull the trigger, any sort of push to one side or to the other is going to have the ball that’s coming out of the barrel go in one direction or the other.

So your courage and what little accuracy there is in a pistol is going to decide the factor, so you are correct. Some agreements in the duel might be one shot only, some agreements will be when the other person is hit, whether they’re killed or not, and other duels are going to be to the death. It will be agreed ahead of time. You might load that pistol, or your second might load that pistol over, and over, and over again until someone is killed as a result.

Harmony: Or they apologize, right? It’s like you get a chance to shoot and then ask the other guy if he’s sorry yet, and then you shoot again?

Mark: Absolutely, there is always an opportunity for the person to apologize, to simply end the duel.

Harmony: Now you mentioned that a duel is something that is fought before witnesses, but at the time that we’re talking about with the Burr-Hamilton duel, it’s actually illegal.

Mark: The duel of honor, almost always throughout history, has been illegal. How was it arranged? It would have to, again, be done under a code of honor. That your friends are going to do this because they are in fact your friends, and they have an honor code that they won’t reveal this to anybody, they won’t bring the authorities in to stop the duel.

Now you usually will bring with you not only witnesses, but you’ll bring a physician, or doctor to look after the person who is wounded. You’re still a gentleman, hopefully, and you still, if the duel is not fought to the death, would like the other person to receive whatever medical attention they can possibly get, so you bring a physician there.

You might bring other witnesses who are not acting as seconds. So all of the people who are brought, we would hope, or they would hope, those fighting the duel, would respect that honor code and respect this code of dueling, that they’re not going to bring the authorities to stop the duel.

Harmony: What are some of the more unusual duels you’ve heard of?

Mark: Some of the oddest duels in history that I came across in preparing for this talk this morning was one in particular fought between two doctors. They had a disagreement, and instead of fighting with pistols or with swords, they used two pills, one was filled with poison, and one would not cause any harm at all. Without knowing which was which, one would take the poison pill and would die, and the other would be unharmed as a result, to settle their disagreement.

Another was fought in France, between two gentlemen who fought in balloons, actually went up 2,000 feet in the air, and fought with blunderbusses, which is like a shotgun. One person fired and, believe it or not, missed, and the other person fired and knocked the other person’s balloon out of the sky, killing him and his second as a result.

But the oddest duel I have ever come across is one fought in 1400 France. It was fought between a man and a dog. It appears that one individual went out into the woods with another nobleman, a chevalier, and they seem to have come into some sort of disagreement. One person was murdered. There were no witnesses at all except for this dog, this greyhound.

So the person who killed the other person, thinking no one had witnessed it, went back into town. But everyone noticed that every time this greyhound saw the murderer, he would bark at him and try to attack him. So everybody thought that that was a bit odd, because this dog always seemed to be quite pleasant as a result to everyone else.

So it soon came to the attention of one of the nobles in the region, and the noble thought well, perhaps there is some foul play. So the only way to settle this will be a duel. Seems ridiculous, but they fought a duel. To make it fair, some have said that the accused murderer was buried up to his waist to be on more equal terms to fight against this dog.

Well the duel began, and the murderer had a shield and a wooden stick to fight against the dog and the dog just had his teeth. So when the duel began, the dog went straight for his throat and the person, the murderer, demanded pardon and apologized and immediately admitted that he had murdered this individual.

So as a result, the dog won the duel, the murderer was hanged as a result of his punishment, and I think it’s the only time in history where a dog and a man fought a duel and the dog, of course, was the victor.

Harmony: What do you think it is about dueling that captures our imagination?

Mark: I think it’s the mystique. I think that it’s something that’s upholding a person’s honor. It’s something that shows an individual believes so much in honor, in their reputation, in the fact that they are righteous in whatever disagreement they might have, that they are willing to go to the end, to their death even, to defend this honor.

Harmony: Mark, thank you for being with us today.

Mark: Absolutely.

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