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Reflections on A Duel

Burr and Hamilton's Day at Court by Other Means

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 11, 2001.

Today is the anniversary, the 197th, of the duel between Alexander Hamilton, who did not survive, and Aaron Burr. Burr was, at the time, the sitting Vice President of the United States and therefore President of the Senate. Hamilton was a former Secretary of the Treasury. They both lived well beyond their means and were constantly in various degrees of debt. The occasion for the duel are still unclear, although it was Burr who demanded that Hamilton either retract or back down, and Hamilton more or less tried to beg off without actually doing so. Both men were popular with the ladies, and were competitors on many fronts. Both were lawyers who lived in New York. There are those who think that Hamilton implied to a third party that Burr had had relations with his own daughter. Certainly the well born Burr thought somewhat ill of the Caribbean bastard Hamilton who had attached himself to Washington like a leech. In the event, it is most probable that it was a lifetime of competition that had been looking for an excuse for a fight.

Dueling was commonly but not exclusively outlawed in the United States. It was a custom that went way back, and was not unlike the theory of tournament combat from the Middle Ages: god or gods would decide the winner, whose views or stated opinion which prompted the contest were now seen as correct. But its existence and the contests against it reflected the various mentalities that arrived from Europe. The cliches associated with dueling involve terms like Honor, which is commonly interpreted to mean male vanity. Also, it concerns Dignity, which is now seen as class snobbery. Most people do not understand the difference between Honor and Dignity, which is unfortunate because they are almost opposites and almost legal terms. Honor is a concept in the ascendant where there is no law, or no respect for law or authority. Dignity, from the Latin dignitas and often associated with its fellow term gravitas, was a quality the Romans sought in their leaders. What they saw it as was a sort of cold objectivity and adherence to principle unblemished by personal advancement. He who possessed these qualities had a calm bearing noted by all. Gravitas was simply the impression of serious demeanor with a whiff of intellectual power and heft.

These two qualities defined the North and South before the Civil War. The Dignified North thought people were born equal and had inner worth regardless of the opinions of others. The Honorable Celtic South ...had slaves.

A person consumed with Honor has no faith in the law to protect family and property and thinks he has to assert himself often and violently. This is an un-Christian view, as turning the other cheek is anathema. Honorable men are not necessarily brave. In duelling's last gasp in the Germany of the Kaisers, the event was solely engineered to produce the dueling scar across the cheek, a sort of cosmetic surgery much as the revolting tattooing signatures of today are supposed to testify to a violent, heroic life. A person concerned with dignity, however, does not necessarily cower when he refuses to join in combat: it is certainly beneath him and to launch into concerns with personal honor is to threaten the power of the state and the civilization it represents. This was very important to the Roman Senate, for example, and to Establishments in general.

These are not dead issues, by the by. In the inner city and rural South you frequently hear vocal concerns that someone's Honor is at stake because they've been disrespected. Again, it generally means male vanity. Even wealthy, educated teenagers machine gun each other today for slights; you need look no further than Columbine. Former President Clinton, for example, could be safely said to have gravitas but little dignitas. Former President Carter could be said to have had both, for all the good it did him. Current President Bush has neither, as yet.

But in 1803 a Vice President and a former Cabinet officer, both war heroes, violated the law and shot it out. Hamilton, who shot first despite his promise not to shoot at all, has become an icon of the Republican Party, although his views were for a single national bank and strong, very strong, Federal Government. Which is to say, many of his views are opposite of those professed by the business people who surround his statue on Wall St. I am implying that his followers are both deliberately incorrect in their view and/or hypocrites. Two hundred years ago, those were understood reasons for being called out to fight a Duel, for I have dissed people. If I were an honorable man, concerned with my reputation, I'd have to fight. If I were a dignified man, concerned with law and the state, I'd ignore the challenge. As is, I actually value the opinions of too few people to care one way or the other. That may be a sign we are civilized or that I'm a coward or just lazy. Eh. Whatever.