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Joanne Freeman on
Burr's first letter to Hamilton

Joanne Freeman Q: What is Burr's goal when he sends the first letter?

A: Part of the reason why the duel happens when it does, of course -- part of it -- is because the 1804 election is so heated and Hamilton's so active. But also, it's because something ends up in a newspaper. And Burr says after the duel that Hamilton had a peculiar way of saying things improper and offensive that you could not quite grab a hold of. So Hamilton was murmuring all the time, but there was never any evidence Burr could grab onto, to defend himself. Well, after the 1804 election, a letter gets published in the newspaper which actually says that Mr. Hamilton said Burr was unfit for the reigns of office. A friend actually puts into Burr's hand this newspaper clipping. He says look at what's in writing about you. And partly because once other people are coming to you and saying you have been dishonored, and partly because now, finally, he has a piece of evidence, it makes sense at that moment. He's out of the inner circle of the republicans. He's now lost this election. Things are looking pretty grim. He feels somehow dishonored because he's lost this election. And on top of that, Hamilton has been very publicly attacking him again and again and again. It makes sense at that moment for him to actually take action and initiate an affair of honor. His political supporters say that if he had not acted at that moment, he would have been deemed not acceptable as a leader. He would have been seen as someone who was too cowardly to defend himself in any way, who just stepped back and allowed people to step all over him. So, in many ways, in a sense, he was compelled to act at that moment to defend his reputation.

Q: What does Hamilton think when he reads this letter? A: When Hamilton receives Burr's letter, alarm bells had to go off. Because basically Burr's letter is absolutely to model of the ritualistic first letter you send when your private character has been attacked and you're initiating an affair of honor. It has all the little points that you're supposed to put in that kind of a letter. So he knows, okay, now we're on the edge of an affair of honor here. And what that means is at that moment, now every word must be considered, now every action must be considered, because now a wrong move means the dueling ground. So he knows whatever he does next has to be well thought through. And he takes several days before he acts, to think through what his next step is going to be.

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