* Anonymous newspaper essays (with pseudonyms, e.g. “Publius”, “Caius”, etc.)
- A favorite political weapon for Hamilton and Madison . . .
* Writing a pamphlet (a very lengthy essay designed to defend your point of view
and/or honor, or to attack someone else’s point of view and / or honor, or both)
- Another VERY favorite political weapon of Hamilton . . .
* “Whispering Campaigns” (employing newspaper publishers, and other influential
people to “negatively campaign” on your behalf, while you “stay above the fray”)
- A political weapon that Jefferson particularly favored . . .
* “Political Gossip” (Gathering and recording information on political enemies)
- Jefferson's very favorite political weapon; his tailored his dinner parties in
such a way to extract the maximum amount of gossip possible against his
* The Duel (“Affairs of Honor”; the ultimate weapon to defend your honor; most
arranged duels did not take place, they were settled beforehand in private)
Since political parties were in their infancy (starting in 1791), the lack of organization and rules led to many "Affairs of Honor" among the political elite. Shifting coalitions, friendships, connections, unknown loyalties existed: it was very much like a “War Without Uniforms”. Character and reputation counted for much more than merit and skill in winning public office and having political influence over others.
There were “Rules of Behavior” that were clearly defined: for example, there were
“Words to Avoid”. These words were escalation words that crossed the line of
honor; examples included "Dangerous", "Despicable", “Liar”, “Coward”, “Scoundrel”, and “Puppy”; imagine being called a “Puppy” in front of others in that era. Using these “Words to Avoid” meant, in our vernacular, that someone is “Triple Dog Daring” someone to an "Affair of Honor".
“In 1795, after the Jay Treaty was negotiated, Hamilton was trying to explain the advantages of the treaty to an “Anti-Jay Treaty” mob. Eventually, he became so frustrated with the crowd, that he told them “you have no Constitutional right to express an opinion on the Jay Treaty!” (in other words, he told the mob that they had no right to be a mob!). Soon, Hamilton was hit on the head with a rock, and he left the building, and went to the street. In the street, Hamilton (a Federalist) got involved in a confrontational conversation with a Republican, and Hamilton was quickly dismissed as a “fool; then, this same gentleman challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton accepted, and moved on down the street. Hamilton continued to be harassed by the crowd, and eventually threatened to take on everybody “one by one”. A challenger emerged from the crowd, and challenged Hamilton to a duel in 30 minutes. Hamilton said, “I can’t, I have a previous duel arranged: I will settle my business with you as soon as I take care of this other gentleman”.
Political duels were often deliberately provoked, most commonly by the loser of a political election. Political duels were basically “counter-elections”; it was a way for the loser of an election to “save face” and continue to have integrity and influence in the future. It was an effort, despite losing an election, to show that the individual was going to be a relevant factor, in that his character and reputation were above reproach.
Both Burr and Hamilton were desperate to prove that they were “players” in the national / New York political arena by 1804. Hamilton was a former Secretary of the Treasury, and for 18 months, one of the 2nd-in-Command for the National Army under Washington during John Adams' Presidency. Burr was the out-going Vice-President for Jefferson, and had just finished last in the election for governor in New York.
Contrary to what most think, they both engaged in a reasoned course of logic given the rules of conduct and their particular circumstances in that era. That being said, why did this “Affair of Honor” get to the point that Hamilton was killed by Burr, since the vast majority of arranged duels were settled behind the scenes long before the parties reached the Field of Honor.
One day, in the early summer of 1804, an acquaintance of Burr claimed that he had
proof that Hamilton has said “something more despicable” about Burr; Burr had been at political odds with Hamilton for over a decade, and Burr saw this as a chance to re-claim his political fortunes by challenging Hamilton to a duel.
Burr had to have a “specific insult” to go by, but instead, he accused Hamilton of a “general insult” that may or may not have been made. This clouded the otherwise clear “Rules of Behavior” that governed the ritual before a duel. Hamilton received a letter from Burr, accusing him of saying “something more despicable” about Burr. Hamilton was torn between dueling and avoiding the duel. However, upon closer inspection, Hamilton couldn’t “lose face” by apologizing for a “general insult” that he knew Burr couldn’t prove, so he sent Burr a rather insulting letter that basically stated that “Burr was not a gentleman”, and that Burr really didn't know what the word despicable actually meant.
The main variable that actually guided Hamilton's decision-making at this point was guilt; about 3 years earlier, Hamilton's oldest son (Philip) was killed in a duel. What caused Hamilton's guilt was that he advised his son to take the duel to its conclusion; once Burr challenged Hamilton to an "Affair of Honor", Hamilton was determined to follow the very advice that he gave his son. A series of letters were exchanged, and the situation escalated quickly; a date was set for a duel: 11 July, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey (dueling was illegal in New York); ironically, it was the same location where his son was killed in his duel.
On 10 July, 1804, Hamilton wrote a final statement to be issued in case he was killed by Burr. In effect, Hamilton ensured that even if he was killed, he would prevail against Burr. Hamilton’s Final Statement included:
a) Various reasons why he didn’t want to duel (family, debt, religious beliefs,
desire to live, etc.)
b) Why he had to duel Burr (he thought his opinions of Burr were true)
c) He didn’t want to “become useless in a moment of crisis”
(he still had political aspirations, at least in the state of New York)
d) He planned on “firing into the air” to avoid injuring / killing Burr
(President Jefferson used portions of the letter, especially the last part, to further
destroy Burr's honor and political future after the duel)
Relevant US History Blog Entry: Alexander Hamilton, 1796 - 1804
The American Experience (PBS): The Duel