Why couldn’t Hamilton ever just let something go ? Everyone got it, he wasn’t going to vote for Burr. That was all he needed to say. He didn’t need to keep going on and on about how terrible of a president Burr would make, how he would drop any ideals he had the second it was advantageous. Yes, Burr was familiar with Hamilton’s incredible need to say anything and everything that was on his mind in the shortest amount of time possible, but even for him, this was excessive. It seemed almost like he was testing Burr’s boundaries, trying to get a rise out of him. But that would be ridiculous . This entire situation is ridiculous .
Burr watched as Hamilton threw insult after infuriating insult was at him. He read the editorials smearing his name, and heard repeated back to him what Hamilton would say in front of crowds. Burr was never a man to act rashly but enough was enough . He wrote to his former friend, expecting to just be able to vent his anger and get an apology. He didn’t even care if there was any meaning behind the words. That, it may suffice to say, was not what he got.
They argued for what seemed like time eternal via those letters, each one more infuriatingly venomous than the last. Why wouldn’t Alexander just apologize? Was whatever Burr had to say really that bad? In a moment of rage, Aaron challenged Hamilton to a duel. He didn’t even really want it to go ahead. What he really wanted was to just jolt Hamilton into apologizing already.
Why on earth did he have to accept?
The next day saw Burr regretting his life decisions. He rehearsed his speech to de-escalate the situation in his head on the boat ride over. He may hate conceding to Hamilton, but he was not going to risk not being around for his daughter on a petty honor strife. He would forfeit, he would make sure Van Ness never spoke a word of this terribly embarrassing affair to anyone, and he would go home. Maybe he could even get back to sleep before Theodosia awoke.
But Burr knew something was off the second he laid eyes on Alexander. The times he had seen the other man duel in the past, he had always been self-righteously angry, cracking his knuckles, or bouncing on the balls of his feet. He wasn’t like that this time. This time, he seemed grim, with his jaw set firmly, and dressed in dark attire. He was looking, to the world, like a man on a mission. With a sickening lurch in his heart, Burr realized that Alexander might just want to kill him. Maybe that’s why he had been so aggressive, so that he could use a fair duel as an excuse. That idea was only reinforced as he watched Hamilton stare out at the landscape, examine his gun, and, oh God, as he polished and put on his glasses.
As Van Ness began to stride towards Pendleton, Burr moved his hand, waving the seconds away. He then stepped just out of earshot, and motioned for Hamilton to come speak with him. It was a little unnerving, staring directly into the other man’s eyes. Neither of them had any height advantage to speak of, so they had always ended up staring right at each other. Burr had somehow completely forgotten all of the words he prepared, and fished around in his brain for something that might diffuse the apparent ticking time-bomb that was Hamilton. He liked honesty, so maybe Burr should try that for once.
“Listen, I know that the seconds usually do this but, I wanted to talk directly to you,” he began, “We may have our differences, but I don’t think that they are worth either of us losing our lives over. I do apologize for any wrongs I may have done you, so what do you say for us forgetting this entire matter and going home?”
Hamilton looked dismayed. More than dismayed, he looked disappointed, shattered, God, he was actually trembling. Could he want to shoot Burr that badly?
“No, no, please,” Alexander began. His voice was trembling as well. Aaron felt another off key. This was not like Hamilton. Long-winded rant about how awful Burr is? Yes. Breaking voice and shaking hands? No. “We have to duel. I assure you that I pose no threat. I have made my peace, and I will not fire. Well, not at you.”
Ah, there was the torrent of words Burr was so used to. Hamilton went on for another sentence or two before the words’ meaning really sank into his brain.
Interrupting Hamilton’s flow, “Wait, what do you mean you will not fire at me? And what do you mean you have made your peace? Do you expect me to just shoot and murder you in cold blood?”
“No, not murder . This is a fair duel, no prosecution possible. ‘Murder’ isn’t the correct term.”
Some things clicked in Aaron’s head. The over aggression, actually, the repeated over aggression, the immediate acceptance of the duel, the complete refusal to apologize, the grim air about him. To anyone looking at this from the outside, it would just look like good ole’ Alexander Hamilton, charging brazenly into a battle of pride, but this time taking it a little too far. That person wouldn’t have known him for thirty years, wouldn’t see the pleading in his eyes.
“No. No, Hamilton, I can’t do this. Whatever melancholy spin your mind is on currently, I assure you, dying won’t help. I cannot, I will not kill you.”
“You think this is some stroke of momentary madness that has come over me. Believe me, I have tried all other ways to try and fix whatever it is that has broken in my head, but have found no relief. I have thought through every option, and this one is the best. Before you say ‘Have you considered not dying?’ let me tell you I cannot. I can’t go on like this. I need to die. But there is no honor in dying by one’s own hand. My family, my children, Eliza would be disgraced if there was any implication that I did this on purpose.” He was actually crying now. Not making any sobbing sound, yet there were tears flowing down his face.
“Hamilton, no. I didn’t even want to shoot you when I thought that this would be a fair fight. How on earth could you expect me to do it now?”
“That’s simple. If you kill, me, your name goes down in history. You are remembered, your story gets told. No one remembers who comes in second place, even in a presidential race. No one likes me, so surely no one will blame you for this.Who knows,” he tried for a smile, “Jefferson and Adams may even give you a medal for valiant service to your country.”
Burr couldn’t believe what he was hearing. So what? Murder isn’t a great thing to be remembered for, anyway. Hamilton must have been taking his silence as need for further persuasion, and started talking again. “I told you, I’ve thought this through, and this is the best outcome for everybody. I’ve been planning this for a while, and I waited for you to react. And you know as well as anybody, I’m not good at waiting. So if you don’t kill me,” his voice finally broke, “I’ll have to do it myself.”
Aaron looked at Alexander. His friend, his enemy. It hit him that nothing had ever stopped him from doing anything before. It hit him that Alexander was telling the truth. If Aaron turned around and went home now, all he would be doing was forcing the other man into a few more days of life. Looking at the desperation in his dark eyes, he realized it might not even be a few days.
He took a deep breath. “Okay.”
Alexander tried to smile again, and took a shaky breath. He extended his hand to be shook. Aaron took it, pulled Alexander into a close hug, and whispered, “I am so sorry.”
He heard a muffled, “You have nothing to be sorry for, Aaron Burr, sir. It is I who should be apologizing to you.”
Aaron pulled away. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Till we meet again.”
They stalked back over the the various seconds and the now turned around doctor. Burr lifted his gun and heard the counting begin. For a fleeting moment, he considered that the entire conversation had been a charade to make Burr let his guard down, but all thought left his mind when he heard “-ten paces, fire!” and Hamilton aimed his pistol at the sky.