The duel that left Alexander Hamilton dead happened on this day, July 11, 1804. Aaron Burr killed Hamilton with a shot to the lower abdomen just above the right hip. Hamilton shot high into the air over Burr’s head, likely on purpose, although there is some debate among historians as to whether Hamilton intentionally aimed high. Regardless of Hamilton’s intentions, the best way to survive a duel is to not get into one in the first place. Hamilton died to protect his honor. While our modern sensibilities tend to think of honor as synonymous with integrity and good character, historically speaking, duels involved a very different type of honor.
The honor of the duel was tied to nobility. Only nobles had honor. Honor was given at birth. A person couldn’t earn honor, you could only lose it. The worst way for a noble to lose honor was to be considered a coward. The best way to show one’s self brave was to challenge the offending party to a duel and hope you didn’t die in the process. Make’s perfect sense, right?
It is ironic that Hamilton died as a participant in a system based on monarchical principles, when he had spent all of his life fighting against this noble/class based society. Hamilton’s death brought to light the senselessness that surrounded the duel and it’s list of rules that must be followed. The Code Duello laid out twenty-five rules for dueling. The Code involved the use of “Seconds”, usually friends of the dueling participants, to try to negotiate a resolution to the dispute. The Code also set out rules on when an apology could be accepted and when a duel must proceed. Many challenges to duel were just for show with no shots ever being fired. The Seconds would work things out. However, one could not back down from a duel without losing honor, case in point Hamilton and Burr. Thus, some duels ended in bloodshed and death. The Hamilton-Burr duel left many realizing that as an “enlightened” people duels were archaic forms of brutality that should be cast off just like the monarchical forms of government that had inspired them. The practice of dueling nevertheless lingered on throughout the Civil War and into the western frontier.
Hamilton was a brilliant man, yet he failed to see the sheer stupidity of throwing his life away in the class-based and unenlightened practice of dueling. It is a true loss that he was not able to continue to shape the Republic that he had worked so hard to establish.