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Burr Returns To The Scene

July 2024
2min read

When Aaron Burr was in his early seventies and had but a few years more to live, he returned to the site of his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton. The occasion stirred him to an outpouring of feelings, dramatically recounted in the following excerpt from the noted historian James Parton’s biography The Life and Times of Aaron Burr , published in 1857.

There was one remarkable occasion on which he [Burr] spoke of the duel seriously and eloquently. It was when, for the only time in his life, he revisited the ground where it was fought. He went there to oblige a young friend, who wished to see a spot so famous. Leaving their boat at the foot of the heights of Weehawken, just where Burr had left his boat on that fatal morning a quarter of a century before, they climbed over the same rocks, and soon reached the ground. Except that the rocks were covered with names, and that the ground was more overgrown with trees, the place had not changed in all those years: nor has it yet. It had changed owners, however, and belonged to a son of Rufus King, Burr’s colleague in the Senate, and Hamilton’s friend and ally. In the boat Burr had been somewhat thoughtful and silent, but seemed to enjoy the bright day and pleasant shores, as he always enjoyed bright and pleasant things. On reaching the scene, he placed his companion on the spot where Hamilton had stood, and went to the place where he had stood himself, and proceeded to narrate the incidents of the occasion.

The conversation turned to the causes of the duel. As he talked, the old fire seemed to be rekindled within him; his eye blazed; his voice rose. He recounted the long catalogue of wrongs he had received from Hamilton, and told how he had forborne and forborne, and forgiven and forgiven, and even stooped to remonstrate—until he had no choice except to slink out of sight a wretch degraded and despised or meet the calumniator on the field and silence him. He dwelt much on the meanness of Hamilton. He charged him with being malevolent and cowardly—a man who would slander a rival, and not stand to it unless he was cornered. “When he stood up to fire,” said Burr, “he caught my eye, and quailed under it; he looked like a convicted felon.” It was not true, he continued, that Hamilton did not fire at him; Hamilton fired first; he heard the ball whistle among the branches, and saw the severed twig above his head. He spoke of what Hamilton wrote on the evening before the duel with infinite contempt. “It reads,” said he, “like the confessions of a penitent monk.” These isolated expressions, my informant says, convey no idea whatever of the fiery impressiveness with which he spoke. He justified all he had done; nay, applauded it.

He was moved to the depths of his soul: the pent-up feelings of twenty-five years burst into speech. His companion, who had known him intimately many years, and had never seen him roused before, was almost awe-struck at this strange outburst of emotion, and the startling force of many of his expressions. He remembers wondering that he should ever have thought Burr small of stature, for, during this scene, the loftiness of his demeanor was such, that his very form seemed to rise and expand. It was long before he regained his usual composure. All the way home he still spoke of the olden time, and seemed to renew his youth, and live over again his former life.

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