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My Friend Hamilton Who I Shot

6594 words - 26 pages

A Historiographical Discussion of the Duel Between Aaron Burr and
The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton holds a significant relevance in
American history and should be examined within the context of early American culture and
politics. The recent historiography of the incident provides us with a complex, evolving web of
conflicting interpretations. Since the day of this tragic duel, contemporaries and historians have
puzzled over why these two prominent American statesmen confronted each other on the Plains
of Weehawken. What circumstances or events could have motivated two of the most brilliant
political minds in America to endanger their lives and reputations by taking aim at each other on
that dismal day?
The recent historiography of the event can be divided into two schools which I shall
denote as the “contextual” school and the “psycho-historical” school. These differing “schools”
demonstrate the complexity of history and the extent to which a variety of factors, including bias
and changing frames of reference can influence interpretive study and conclusions. It is the
object of this discussion, therefore, to examine the heretofore mentioned interpretations, and to
critically analyze the differing ideas concerning the Burr-Hamilton duel.
The most succinct version of the event, as told by Joseph J. Ellis reads
On the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were rowed across the
Hudson River in separate boats to a secluded spot near Weehawken, New Jersey. There, in
accord with the customs of the code duello, they exchanged pistol shots at ten paces. Hamilton
was struck on his right side and died the following day. Though unhurt, Burr found that his

reputation suffered an equally fatal wound. In this, the most famous duel in American history,
both participants were casualties.1
Almost every American is familiar with this most famous—and deadly—of American
duels. Hamilton was celebrated and hailed as a martyr, and Burr was labeled a murderer and
went on to undertake many strange adventures in the American west, eventually tried for treason
for his purported conspiratorial intentions. Before engaging further in this discussion, one must
first differentiate between what I have denoted as “contextual” history and “psycho-historical”
history. I contend that “contextual” theses are steeped in disciplined research based on
contemporary and secondary sources. Anthony Brundage wrote that “psycho-historical”
arguments “attempt to apply to historical study the methods and insights developed by Sigmund
Freud and other psychological theorists during the past hundred years or so.”2 This idea of
highlighting and differentiating between “contextual” and “psycho-historical” studies provides
this discussion with a centrality that will allow a further understanding the forthcoming analysis.
J. Lee and Conalee Levine-Schneidman argued “it was not Burr who was...

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