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The American Experience: The Duel

David McCullough , Series Host: Hello and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.

One summer morning in the early years of the American republic, two of the most famous men of the time stood in a clearing in Weehawken, New Jersey, facing each other with loaded dueling pistols.

It's a little hard for us to imagine -- the stilted, deadly ritual of the scene, the highly mannered decorum of the two protagonists, like theater, not reality. But very real it was.

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were in the prime of life, both men of exceptional ability and blazing ambition. Both had served bravely in the Revolutionary War. Both were New Yorkers, sophisticated, accustomed to lavish living, distinguished in the law and in politics; just as both were accomplished intriguers, devoted fathers, notorious philanders, and not incapable of doing in a political opponent, if they thought that necessary.

But where Aaron Burr was highly intelligent, Alexander Hamilton was brilliant. Indeed the imprint of Hamilton's genius on the emerging nation can hardly be overstated. George Washington had considered him the outstanding member of his cabinet, more brilliant even than Jefferson. Burr was the more gifted charmer of the two and Burr's distinguished lineage stood in marked contrast to Hamilton's illegitimate birth. Burr was also the better politician, who, had it not been for Hamilton, could well have been president, instead of Jefferson. But then that's part of the story that brought them to Weehawken that fateful morning

The Duel by Carl Byker.

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