The Hamilton-Burr Duel (1976)

 

 

 

Director:     Lee Albright.

Starring:     John Aglialoro (Alexander Hamilton),  H. John Henry (Aaron Burr),  Harry Kunesch (Nathanial Pendleton),  Rik Viola (William Van Ness), Roberta Lewin (Eliza Hamilton),  John Swartwout (Dr. David Hosack),  Douglas Simms (Cyrus Sessine), Brian Henry (Hamilton's Son),  Patricia Logan (Theodosia Burr). 

July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr initiates and carries out duel with Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Alexander Hamilton, his second and the doctor are rowed over from Manhattan, New York City, to Weehawken, New Jersey.

"Like most social behavior, dueling evolved a strict Code entitling a gentleman to demand satisfaction for an injury touching his honor."

The gentlemen walk up the Palisades to the dueling place.  Aaron Burr is there already and he says good morning general, and Hamilton replies, good morning, colonel.  The duelers take off their coats.  Nathanial Pendleton acts as second for Alexander Hamilton and William Van Ness acts as second for Aaron Burr.  Pendleton then walks off ten paces.

Flashback.  Richmond Hill, Staten Island, New York, June 17th.  Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia Burr are playing croquet on their lawn.  A fellow comes riding up to the house and Burr says hello to the man, William.   William tells Burr that he recently read an article from the Albany Register by Dr. Charles D. Cooper published a couple of months ago.  Cooper and Hamilton attended the same dinner party and the two spoke.  During the conversation Hamilton referred to Burr as:  "dangerous; not to be trusted; despicable". 

The words are harsh and Burr says he will pursue the matter.  He tells William to stop by tomorrow morning.

Back to the present.  The case with the dueling pistols is opened. 

Flashback.  William Van Ness comes to the house of Hamilton and presents him a note from Burr written on June 18.  The note is about the insult in print.  He says Van Ness will point out to Hamilton the particular phrase.  The letter goes on:  "You must perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt explanation."  Hamilton asks what does Burr want him to do?  Burr wants Hamilton to either deny he made the statement or affirm that he did make the statement.  Hamilton says the matter will require some grave consideration and then says good day to Van Ness.   

"The Grange", Manhattan, New York, June 23.  At his home and in the garden Hamilton talks with Pendleton.  Hamilton explains that there has already been an exchange of three letters between Burr and himself.  In his first reply to Burr, Hamilton asked Burr to be more specific about his complaint.  Burr wrote back saying in hostile and offensive language that Hamilton's letter was merely "evasive".  Hamilton's wife Eliza comes over to her husband and realizes that Pendleton is here.  She invites him to stay for dinner and Hamilton himself says he must. 

Back to the present.  Burr takes a pistol from the case after Hamilton selected first..  Pendleton now explains the rules of dueling.  He asks if both men understand the rule and they say they do. 

Flashback.  Richmond Hill, June 26th.  Burr has received another reply from Hamilton, but tells Van Ness that Hamilton continues to evade the question of did he or did he not say the words printed in the article.  In the letter Hamilton also says that Burr is hostile and offensive in his letters to him.  Burr comments:  "It is sad William  how the man adds insult to injury."  He adds that he won't tolerate any more of Hamilton's insults to his honor.  Burr says he is reluctant to meet Hamilton on this "field of honor" but "this thing must have an end." 

Dr. David Hosack's office.  Manhattan.  June 29th.  The doctor asks Hamilton:  "Did it have to come to this?"   Hamilton replies:  "I'm afraid so, Dr. Hosack."  The place for the duel will be on the Jersey side of the Hudson River at the Heights of Weehawk.  The date will be July 11, 1804.  Hosack says that Hamilton doesn't have to participate "in such a savage custom".  Hamilton replies that he is morally and religiously opposed to dueling, but he has to do it, otherwise he would be thought to lack courage, and this would negatively affect his dealings with the public.  The doctor comments:  "Mankind certainly holds a distorted view of honor."  Nevertheless, the good doctor says he will be in attendance at the duel. 

Back to the present.  Both men stand ready.  Hamilton delays a moment to put on his glasses.  Pendleton continues:  "Are both parties ready?"  Yes.

Flashback.  Richmond Hill, July 10th.  Hamilton is out riding.  He is not sure he made the right decision on the matter of dueling.  At night he tucks his son into bed.  He tells his son that they will say the prayer and then he will bid his son good night. 

Back to the present.  Both men point their weapons at each other.  They fire their weapons and Hamilton goes down.  Burr starts to go over to Hamilton, but Van Ness stops him.  Burr has to get out of there because dueling is illegal and he is now a wanted man. 

"Hamilton died of his wound thirty-two hours after the duel.  A conflict between two gentlemen had been resolved.  The Code was satisfied!"

 

Very short film, but entertaining while it lasted.  It must have been made for the classroom as there are questions about the film that students can answer.  The film is obviously anti-dueling.  The Code of Dueling was becoming antiquated and banned legally.  But informally, the Code still had a lot of power with gentlemen thinking they have to duel or be thought a coward.  Hamilton himself says that he is morally and religiously opposed to dueling.  But to be thought a coward  -- that was too high a punishment Hamilton was willing to pay.  Nowadays, people don't duel; they duel legally in the courtroom with the lawyers as their spokespersons.  The students should think about there still being a Code that still exists to this day.   A man may oppose fighting personally, but may feel he is trapped by his peers' opinions that he might be a coward.  So they fight.  The situation is much worse in some minority communities where a disagreement often is consider a "dis" (short for disparage) and can lead to the death of the one who dissed or the one who got dissed or both. So, it's not so surprising that in an era when dueling was still very much alive, that Hamilton agreed to the duel.  By the way, some sources say that Hamilton fired his shot into the branches of a tree way over the head of Burr, hoping that Burr would think that enough to satisfy his honor.  Apparently, it wasn't.

Burr was very much a hated man after that.  He later got involved in trying to create his own country on land considered to be future states of the United States. 

It would have been good to have a written statement at the start of the film about why Hamilton and Burr disliked each other so much.  But it was only a short film. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

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