Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Descendants to recreate Burr duel


With pistols at 10 paces, descendants of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will settle an old score this weekend.

But this time, it isn't personal.

Douglas Hamilton, a fifth-great-grandson of Hamilton, and Antonio Burr, a descendant of Burr's cousin, will re-enact the July, 11, 1804, duel that left Hamilton mortally wounded and a sitting vice president's reputation in the gutter.

There's no bad blood. On Hamilton's deathbed, he said he bore no ill will toward Aaron Burr, said Douglas Hamilton, an IBM salesman from Columbus, Ohio. The re-enactment offers a chance to explore both men, and afterward "we can go have a beer together."

The bicentennial event, the first re-enactment of the duel in 40 years, comes on the heels of Ron Chernow's best-selling biography Alexander Hamilton, a study that has burnished the founding father's image as a financial and political visionary and reconnected him to accomplishments that stand to this day.

More than 1,000 people are expected to attend Sunday morning's re-enactment near the Hudson River, about 400m west of the actual duel site, which no longer exists. Sixty descendants of Hamilton will attend, as will 40 members of the Aaron Burr Association. Chernow and Thomas Fleming, the author of Duel, are among the scheduled speakers at a symposium afterward.

Al Berg of the Weehawken Historical Commission, the event's organizer, said there is renewed interest in both men and a willingness to question whether Burr really was a villain and Hamilton was blameless. The event will give equal weight to both as it explores the men's collision course.

"Scholarship is showing it takes two to tango," Berg said Friday, standing near a monument of Hamilton that overlooks the river. "This was a the result of a rivalry. They both played a role in coming to Weehawken."

At the time of the duel, Hamilton and Burr were New York lawyers, longtime rivals running out of political steam but feeding bitter grudges.

Hamilton was a signer of the Constitution and the nation's first treasury secretary under George Washington. He is credited with steering the young nation toward an industrial economy and formulating its financial system.

Burr was elected to the Senate in 1791 and later became a virtually powerless vice president under Thomas Jefferson. When Burr ran for governor of New York in early 1804, Hamilton denounced him as untrustworthy. Burr lost.

The bad blood got worse when Burr later complained to Hamilton about a newspaper article that reported Hamilton had expressed a "despicable opinion" of him.

Dissatisfied with Hamilton's explanation, Burr challenged him to the duel. The pair, joined by a doctor and their seconds, secretly squared off below the Weehawken cliffs. Shot by Burr, Hamilton was helped back into his rowboat and returned to New York, where he died the next day.

Burr fled to the South. He was indicted on murder charges in New York and New Jersey but was never tried, and finished his term as vice president in 1805. Three years later, he was accused of trying to conquer part of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and tried on treason charges but acquitted.

For the re-enactment, Douglas Hamilton and Antonio Burr will don period costumes, arrive at the riverbank by rowboat with their entourages, as their ancestors had, then pace off. The men will fire replicas of the .54-caliber dueling pistols, then Douglas Hamilton will feign the historic hip wound and go down on one knee.

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