On July 11, 1804, General Alexander Hamilton and Colonel and Vice President Aaron Burr fought their now-famous duel. On July 12, Hamilton died from his wound, and on July 14, he was buried in an elaborate funeral that cast most of Manhattan into paroxysms of public grief. Burr, meanwhile, fled to South Carolina to avoid facing murder charges that had been filed against him in New York and New Jersey.
Word of the duel spread throughout the country as swiftly as the limited communications of the day permitted. Regardless of their political beliefs, Americans were shocked that two of the country’s most prominent statesmen had resorted to pistols to settle their differences. Ministers denounced dueling from their pulpits in fiery sermons. Newspapers published both tributes to Hamilton, and condemnations for how he died. The editorial tone varied by region. In the Democratic Republican southern states, where dueling remained more respectable between gentlemen and Hamilton’s economic policies had made him deeply unpopular, the notices were less strident.
But in New England, still firmly Federalist, Hamilton’s death was seen as an enormous loss not only to his family and friends, but to the country as well. This small, black-bordered announcement from the Salem (MA) Gazette was published on July 17, and its message couldn’t have been more clear.
Posthumously Hamilton is described as "the most honourable and most beloved citizen of America.” Perhaps that could have been said then of President George Washington (or today in the age of Hamilton: An American Musical), but for Hamilton in 1804, it was an…exaggeration.
The duel itself has been refigured as cold-blooded, all-caps murder. It’s as if Burr had waylaid an unsuspecting and entirely innocent Hamilton, instead of the two men arranging to face one another with loaded pistols in their hands. The tragic result, of course, would have been the same, but there’s a definite editorial spin at work.
General Hamilton is described by his military title. Colonel Burr has lost his, nor is there any mention of him being the sitting vice president. The Gazette’s Massachusetts readership would also have been aware that Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, one of New England’s most famous theologians and revivalist preachers. To them the vengeful Biblical quotation from Genesis 9:6 calling for Burr’s blood must have been especially satisfying.
Still, I can’t help but wonder: how would this notice have been written if Burr had been the one who died, and Hamilton the survivor?
Thanks to Donna Seger for sharing this notice.
My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.