Alexander Hamilton is one of my favorite Founders, but I'd never heard that he purposefully missed Aaron Burr when they dueled.

One of the stories that appears there was also covered in the Nov. 24, 1801, issue of the actual New York Post: the death of Hamilton's 20-year-old son, Philip, in a duel with a political rival, George Eacker. Upon Eacker's challenge, the program recounts, Philip "went for advice to his father, who told him dueling is honorable, but killing is immoral. Therefore young Hamilton should waste his shot."
Hamilton himself would die under eerily similar circumstances less than three years later. Vice President Burr was Hamilton's bitterest foe; in the disputed presidential election of 1800, Hamilton had intervened successfully on behalf of Jefferson, whom he regarded as the lesser of evils.

In 1804, when Burr was seeking the New York governorship, a letter appeared in the Albany Register describing Hamilton's "despicable opinion" of Burr. This prompted Burr to demand a duel. Hamilton didn't want to duel, so he "tried to placate Burr with an elaborate discussion about the 'infinite shades' of meaning of the word 'despicable,'" writes historian Joanne Freedman in the New-York Journal of American History. Burr found Hamilton's attempt at nuance "evasive, manipulative, and offensive," and the two men met, with pistols--the same ones that had been used in Philip Hamilton's duel--on July 11.

Hamilton followed the same fatal advice he had given his son, deliberately missing Burr on his first shot. Burr's shot mortally wounded Hamilton. The exhibit ends with "The Duel," which features the original pistols, Hamilton and Burr's correspondence prior to the duel, Hamilton's farewell letter to his wife, and Kim Crowley's life-size bronze statues of the men, commissioned especially for the exhibit, which depict them as they were the moment before they fired--10 paces apart, with Hamilton's gun pointed slightly off target.

Was he expecting Vice President Burr to miss on purpose as well? Was this a common practice at the time? I'll have to do some reading, but perhaps Clayton Cramer can enlighten us.

Mr. Cramer emails:

I don't know if intentionally missing was COMMON or not. I will tell you that there was a distinct difference between European notions of dueling, and American notions. European duels were, indeed, often attempts to establish one's character, including courage. Duels in Europe were often fought with swords, although pistols were not unknown. If the goal was to establish one's courage, then there was no need to actually kill the other person; just having them demonstrate a willingness to put themselves in harm's way was enough. Sad to say, if this had been COMMON in European duels, there would not have been the need for so many governments to outlaw dueling, and to make serious efforts to stop the practice.

It is hard to tell for sure, but European travelers visiting America had the impression that Americans took this matter a bit more seriously than just honor. Captain Frederick Maryatt of the Royal Navy (and a celebrated fiction writer of his time) visited America in 1837, and described the problems of slander and libel laws that were not adequately enforced, and what this did to encourage dueling:

"And where political animosities are carried to such a length as they are in this exciting climate, there is no time given for coolness and reflection. Indeed, for one American who would attempt to prevent a duel, there are ten who would urge the parties on to the conflict... The majority of the editors of the newspapers in America are constantly practicing with the pistol, that they may be ready when called upon, and are most of them very good shots.... But the worst feature in the American system of duelling is, that they do not go out, as we do in this country, to satisfy honour, but with the determination to kill." [Frederick Maryatt, edited by Jules Zanger, _Diary in America_ (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1839; reprinted Bloomington: Indiana Univesity Press, 1960), 195-6]

As you might expect, my book _Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform_ (Westport, Conn: Praeger Press, 1999) has a bit to say on this subject.



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