Dueling and the Grammar of Politics

Lyon Griswold

Depiction of 1798 congressional brawl between Matthew Lyon (VT) and Roger Griswold (CT) with Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton (NJ) looking on, amused (Library of Congress)

Timeline of Politics in the Early Republic

1789 // George Washington inaugurated president and the First Federal Congress opens session in New York.

1790 // Alexander Hamilton secures approve for his debt assumption plan and the nation’s capital moves temporarily to Philadelphia as part of a compromise with Southerners.

1796 // Washington ends his second term in office and John Adams wins the first openly contested presidential election.

1798-1800 // The Quasi War with France and the Alien & Sedition crisis helps to consolidate the growing partisan divide between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans.

1801 // Thomas Jefferson is inaugurated president in the nation’s newly relocated capital in Washington, DC, following a tied electoral vote with his own Republican vice presidential nominee Aaron Burr

1804 // Vice President Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel in New Jersey following Burr’s defeat in the gubernatorial election in New York.

1807 // Former vice president Aaron Burr is acquitted in a treason trial presided over by Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, despite intense lobbying for conviction by President Thomas Jefferson.

Ten Things You Don’t Know About Dueling

According to Joanne Freeman

Burr-Hamilton dueling pistols, Courtesy of NY Historical Assoc.

  1. Alexander Hamilton was involved in nearly a dozen “interviews” or duels and died in one in 1804 despite a lifelong opposition to the practice on sincere moral and religious grounds.
  2. The primary motivation for Hamilton’s decision to participate in the 1804 duel with Aaron Burr was a desire to maintain his “ability to be in the future useful” or in other words, to maintain his political viability.
  3. Duels in the early republic were mainly “demonstrations of manner” and not “marksmanship” or rituals of violence aimed at maiming or killing.
  4. Killing was actually rare in American duels of the period and sometimes brought shame to the gentleman killers. This helps explain why Aaron Burr’s reputation was permanently altered by his interview with Hamilton in 1804.
  5. Though dueling was a southern-dominated custom, it was not uncommon in the North, especially in Hamilton’s and Burr’s state of New York.
  6. Dueling was an important facet of early American political life and concern for “reputation” was “an axiom of political interaction in the early republic.” Honor was “more than a vague sense of self-worth” but rather established the “ability to prove oneself a deserving political leader.”
  7. To understand why Alexander Hamilton wrote his letter condemning fellow Federalist John Adams during the 1800 election, you must understand the elaborate rituals of the Code Duello.
  8. Much of the Code Duello, first written in 1777, involved establishing seemingly paradoxical practices that would protect all participants from legal jeopardy, offer a pathway toward conflict resolution short of violence, and ultimately provide a sense of equality as gentlemen.
  9. Among other colorful details, the honor code of the period involved a subtle understanding of the language of insults (“Rascal”, “Scoundrel”, “Puppy”) and the appropriate responses to them.
  10. There was a “grammar” to American political combat that would evolve away from the hierarchical nature of honor toward the more pugnacious and egalitarian style of partisanship during the nineteenth-century.

Primary Sources

Origins of “Hamilton” the musical (via White House 2009)