Why Alexander Hamilton died. (1830)

A quarter of a century ago this country lost one of its greatest leaders. Alexander Hamilton died in agony after being shot in a duel by Colonel Aaron Burr. To us today, the idea of dueling might well seem foreign, perhaps barbaric. Surely there are more civilized ways to settle disputes? Surely one of these men—by all accounts wise and enlightened—should have reconsidered their actions? But they didn’t. And what are we to conclude from this? Perhaps these men were not as intelligent as history has remembered them? Anyone who has read a word penned by Hamilton knows this not to be the case. So what is it, then, that prompts such seemingly irrational actions from altogether rational beings? The answer lies in the document that declared this country independent. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.1 Notice that of the three sacrifices listed, only one is deemed sacred. Honor. Late 18th century men were obsessed with honor. And it is this obsession with honor and the culture it created that dictated the seemingly “irrational” actions of this nation’s founders.

Why is it that these men were so obsessed with honor? Part of it stems from the enlightened values they all shared. Hamilton, Washington, Madison—none of these folks were unique in being students of history. They knew the past well. And when you know the past well, you develop a greater sense of your place within the context of human history. You begin to see yourself less as a temporary being relegated to this moment in time, and instead as a figure who will be looked upon for generations to come. Hence why the founding generation was so concerned with posterity. Yes, part of their concern was to “secure the blessings of liberty”2 for future generations. But on a personal, individual level, these men were all deeply concerned with how they would be remembered. 

This is evident in the various actions of every Founding Father. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was meticulous in his documenting of events and conversations, often writing them down on scraps of paper he had around.3 And Jefferson was hardly unique in his endeavor to record every moment. Madison, Hamilton, or even the lesser known William Maclay all hoped that there version of recorded events would be remembered by future generations—and perhaps more importantly, that it would reflect what honorable men they were.  

Though chiefly concerned with posterity, the actions of the framers also reveals a profound concern with how the people of the day viewed them. Take for example Washington’s attire at his inauguration. Washington was under an immense amount of pressure as everything he did set a precedent that would reverberate for decades—even centuries to come. At inauguration he wore a simple brown suit, striving for, “simplicity of dress, and every thing which can tend to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation.”4 Bear in mind that this obsession with how he was perceived was hardly unfounded. People were watching. 

Understanding just how important a person’s honor and reputation were, we can begin to appreciate what prompted those seemingly irrational actions. Naturally, this honor culture pervaded politics as well as anywhere else. Honor was the currency of the political realm. A person’s reputation ultimately impacted their success. Thus, it was imperative politicians defend their reputation at all costs. Furthermore, it provided an incentive to malign the reputation of an adversary. Dueling was but one example of the many weapons at a politicians disposal, if not the most egregious.

Gossip was also one of these weapons, and one a bit tamer and more localized than other options. Like many of the weapons of honor, it was bound by certain rules. “Gossip should not be written,” was the first of these rules.5 One must also, “avoid gossiping without proof (…), never reveal [a] source without permission (…), [and] show no malice when gossiping.”6 A politicians social network helped disseminate information to specific targets. The trouble is, “One man’s truth was another man’s slander.”7

Pamphlets and newspaper were another means of distribution that reached a broader audience than gossip. Defense pamphlets in particular could be used in retaliation to a perceived slander. They, “removed gossip from the shadows and exposed it as malicious lies.”8 Newspapers reached the broadest audience, and were frequently used by John Adams during his spat with Hamilton. 

Much like the other political weapons wielded in this century, dueling was bound by certain rules. These rules (such as the required negotiations with a second) are why many challenges ended long before the dueling ground, and why Hamilton never expected gunplay between him and Burr.9 Like every other weapon listed above, duels were a means of defending ones honor and reputation. “[T]hey were intricate games of dare and counterdare, ritualized displays of bravery, military prowess, and—above all—willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s honor.”10 Though duels may be the most dangerous and outrageous outgrowth of honor culture, they were also perceived to be the most effective means of displaying ones honor.

It is worth also noting the role that fear played in these disputes of honor. Though on the one hand a duel could be perceived as displaying one’s courage, it could also be perceived as doing precisely the opposite. Hamilton was willing to die, but as a melodic Washington is rumored to have said, “Dying is easy, Young Man, living is harder.”11 In some sense, Hamilton’s refusal to back away from a duel despite the inherent danger shows how terrified he was of how the populace and posterity would perceive him. The idea that they might think him a coward is simply something he could not live with. Perhaps, as Gouverneur Morris suggested at Hamilton’s funeral, the true bravery would have been to back down from the duel.12

It is easy today to look back at these honor disputes and still struggle to understand them. But then again, that is true when looking back at any period in time. The worst thing we can do is give up and simply deem these men crazy. Rather, we should seek to understand what there motivations were. In this case, it was the culture of honor that led them to protect their reputation, even when doing so might cost them their life. Because for them, nothing was more sacred than their honor.


End Notes

  1. Declaration of Independence.
  2. US Constitution. Preamble.
  3. Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor (New Have: Yale University Press, 2001), p64.
  4. Et al. 43.
  5. Et al. 69.
  6. Et al. 72-73.
  7. Et al. 75.
  8. Et al. 100.
  9. Et al. 177.
  10. Et al. 167.
  11. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical. (Performed by Christopher Jackson and Lin-Manuel Miranda), Track: “Right Hand Man”.
  12. Class Notes. November 2nd, 2017.

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