Segment from Hamilton

The Duel

The duel between Hamilton and rival Aaron Burr is a big part of the musical, but as Yale historian Joanne Freeman explains, few actually died from dueling. In fact, in most cases, no one even shoots.

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BRIAN: In the years following Hamilton’s resignation as Secretary of Treasury in 1796, Hamilton remained very much a public figure. George Washington appointed him Major General of the Army for a period. He was also an outspoken critic of Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and John Adams. On top of that, he faced a personal scandal, publicly admitting to an extramarital affair in order to dispel accusations of financial misconduct.

RISA: But 1804 marked one of the best known aspects of Hamilton’s life– its violent end. Vice President Aaron Burr fatally shot Hamilton in a duel. This deadly dispute has come to represent the archetypal American duel. It’s appeared in everything from a 1990s commercial for milk, to an episode of the comedy show Drunk History. Naturally, dueling is a big part of the musical Hamilton. There’s one song in particular, “Ten Duel Commandments,” that can help us better understand the bizarre ritual.

ENSEMBLE: Number three.

CHARLES LEE: Have your seconds meet face to face.

AARON BURR: Negotiate a peace–

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: Or negotiate a time and place.

AARON BURR: This is commonplace, ‘specially ‘tween recruits.

ENSEMBLE: Most disputes die and no one shoots.

ED: What? Did I hear that right? No one even shoots?

BRIAN: That’s right, Ed. I reached out to Yale historian Joanne Freeman to help me understand that line. She’s written about both Hamilton and the history of duels. Freeman says Hamilton and Burr’s deadly showdown is a poor guide to understanding duels.

JOANNE FREEMAN: It’s extremely logical to assume that if you have two men facing each other on a field with guns pointed at each other, this is something that’s about killing. But in fact, the point of a duel was to prove that you were willing to die for your honor. And you could conceivably prove that through ritualistic negotiations before you got on the dueling ground. And there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of honor disputes that were settled that way. But if something couldn’t get settled that way, then you would end up going to the dueling ground. But again, nobody getting shot, or the shin wound, they were very popular.

I mean, the optimal outcome for an actual duel on a dueling ground is for both guys to shoot, for it to at least seem that they’re shooting towards each other. Maybe they’re not accurate shots. Maybe they’re deliberately thinking, well, a shin wound–

BRIAN: And does that happen? I mean, what percentage of the duels end with both people saying, oh, good shot, fellow. Sorry you missed me.

JOANNE FREEMAN: As far as duels between politicians go, the majority of them.

BRIAN: Really.

JOANNE FREEMAN: And they shake hands and they leave. And that’s for a good reason, because if you’re the person who kills someone, you’re really vulnerable to being charged as being a bloodthirsty murderer, or– Ask Aaron Burr, right? You open yourself up–

BRIAN: Right. It doesn’t work out so well for the person who lives.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. Most of the time, they say, you know, shots will be exchanged. And then the person who’s offended will be asked, is honor satisfied? Normally, after exchanging shots once, you pretty much are ready to say “honor satisfied.” And you shake hands, and you go away, and everyone’s honor is satisfied, and everyone’s happy.

BRIAN: I would have been ready far before we got to the dueling ground, Joanne, so you don’t need to convince me. I guess that Hamilton is kind of an example of that, even though he ends up dying in a duel. Is it true that he was involved in multiple challenges? Or that dance leading up to the duel that you just talked about?

JOANNE FREEMAN: He was actually involved in 10 of those honor disputes.

BRIAN: Double digits!

JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, he made it up into the double digits before 1804, before the final Burr duel– which is a lot. I mean, many people were involved in some sort of negotiated honor dispute that we might not know about. And actually, one of Hamilton’s disputes was with James Monroe, for example. But as far as 10, I can’t say that’s a record, but boy, that’s high up there. That’s a lot.

BRIAN: So Joanne, why did Hamilton and Burr duel? What were they fighting about?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Hamilton just really didn’t like Burr, and declared it in the 1790s, his quote, religious duty to defeat Burr’s career. So he just did not like him, did not trust him, and was out to get him. But in 1804, what actually caused the duel was Burr, who sort of flamed out as vice president under Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson didn’t like him. He was not invited back for term number two. And Burr ran for governor of New York. Burr did not win. Hamilton probably didn’t cause that, but something ended up in a newspaper that repeated something Hamilton had said about Burr at a dinner party, and that’s what Burr seized upon.

BRIAN: It sounds like there were some words that just instantly led to duels. Can you share some of those words with us? I understand dueling may still be around. I want to know these.

JOANNE FREEMAN: OK, well then, here is what you need to know. There actually were pretty much five automatic, you better not say this about someone because you’re going to end up probably fighting a duel, or at least almost fighting a duel. Two of them are logical, and those would be “liar” and “coward.” So those are pretty serious. And particularly “coward,” because it suggests you’re not willing to fight. So if you’re called a coward, which Hamilton is–

BRIAN: The only way you can refute that is fighting, right?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Precisely. So you’re really stuck with that one. But the other three words are great, because they’re really of that moment. So the other three words are “rascal,” which just does not quite have the oomph of “liar” and “coward.” “Scoundrel” is another one. And my personal favorite– “puppy.”

BRIAN: Could you tell me what that even means in this context?

JOANNE FREEMAN: I think the assumption there is, it’s belittling a man, like he’s a little plaything.

BRIAN: Not grown up.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. You know, it’s sort of his masculinity, and his– are getting swatted at. So Hamilton at one point is called an “insolent puppy.”

BRIAN: There’s something I’ve never understood, and you’re the perfect person to ask. Dueling was actually illegal in a number of states, right?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, it’s really in a sense the ultimate irony that the lawmakers are the guys breaking the laws constantly.

BRIAN: Well, come on. I can think of other examples of that, Joanne.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, but they’re so much more blatant.

BRIAN: Yes, I agree.

JOANNE FREEMAN: It is true that dueling, I think in most, if not all states was illegal. And the fact of the matter is, most of the time there were no legal charges brought. Most of the time, everyone says, wow, that’s unfortunate, and it ends. So, yes, it’s illegal, and yes, the lawmakers are doing this all the time. But it was sort of assumed, you know, if you were a gentleman and a leader, you kind of have that right. People who were lower in society who dueled were arrested. You can’t claim, well, of course this is something a gentleman does, because people would say, well, you’re not quite a gentleman, are you? That’s what people say in the late 1790s in New York– the jails are full of duelists. Well, those are not elite politicians in jails.

BRIAN: So the law is against it, so why do these politicians keep doing it?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, pretty much their authority– their political authority, their moral authority, their personal authority– relies on their reputation in a way that we probably don’t fully understand today. For a leader, if you didn’t to do that– like for example, if Burr had not stepped forward to defend himself in 1804, his supporters already were suggesting, well maybe we shouldn’t really be behind this guy. Maybe this guy really isn’t a leader. So there’s a practical component and it’s totally bound up with a personal component.

BRIAN: Joanne, you have spent decades living in this world, but if you put on your 21st century hat for a moment, what do you, Joanne Freeman, actually make of this kind of behavior?

JOANNE FREEMAN: On the one hand, I think, wow, this is, on a certain level, ridiculous and extreme, and it sure says a lot about the masculinity and the manhood. You know, that’s what these guys are really trying to do, is prove that they’re men. And on a certain level that just looks a little silly.

But on the other hand, given that as a historian, I like to understand the feelings behind why people do things– what motivates them on a personal level– that I empathize. As much as I think their behavior is ridiculous, I can– hopefully this is true of anyone I’m writing about– empathize with their need to do this ridiculous, potentially deadly thing.

Because if they’re– and this is part of what got me interested in dueling in the first place. If these people are making a decision to do this totally irrational, potentially deadly thing, boy, there must be a really strong impulse and urge and reason to do it.

BRIAN: Right. And it seems to me that you also recognize just how important honor is, and how different that makes the world they lived in from the world we lived in.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. I mean, one of the big realizations I had when I was first working in graduate school, and then beyond, was noticing the importance of honor– personal honor, reputation– noticing that there were all of these rules and rituals associated with it, and then realizing that the politics of the period was shaped in part by that, so that there were things that people would or wouldn’t say in Congress that were related to the idea of honor. It was like there’s a thread that was helping to shape politics in this period that had just been invisible before, and it’s there and it’s having an influence in ways that it’s easy to overlook, but I think in ways that are important.


ED: Joanne Freeman is a historian at Yale University, and author of Affairs of Honor– National Politics in The New Republic.