J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

“O Burr, O Burr, what hast thou done?”

This is the 210th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton, one day after his duel with Aaron Burr.

In his biography of Burr, James Parton described the winner of that duel reminiscing this way:
He conversed with equal freedom of the duel with Hamilton. He never blamed himself for his conduct in that affair. Despising the out-cry made about the duel, he would indulge, sometimes, in a kind of defiant affectation respecting it. “My friend Hamilton—whom I shot,” he would say, with amazing nonchalance. Usually, however, he alluded to his antagonist with respect, styling him “General Hamilton,” and doing partial justice to his merits. “Was Hamilton a gentleman?” asked a foreigner once in Burr’s hearing. Burr resented the question, and replied with hauteur: “Sir, I met him.”

He told an anecdote relating to the duel, of which the following is the purport. On a journey, while stopping at a tavern to bait his horses, he strolled into the village, and saw a traveling exhibition of wax-works. To amuse an idle moment, he entered. Among the figures were two representing Hamilton and himself in the act of firing. The figures were vilely executed, and the exhibition was made the more ridiculous by some doggerel which the ambitious exhibitor had scrawled underneath. With some difficulty he made it out, as follows:
“O Burr, O Burr, what hast thou done?
Thou hast shooted dead great Hamilton.
You hid behind a bunch of thistle,
And shooted him dead with a great hoss pistol.”
He told this story just as any one would have told it, and laughed at the lines as heartily as any of his auditors.

He was surprised, one day, to receive the following epistle, which is here transcribed from the original: “Aaron Burr: Sir, Please to meet me with the weapon you chuse on the 15 of may where you murdered my father at 1 o’clock with your second. 8 May 1819. J. A. Hamilton.” To which he wrote a reply like this: “Boy, I never injured you: nor wished to injure your father. A. Burr.” On reflection, however, he thought it best not to notice the communication, and tore up his reply. He was afterward informed that the letter was a forgery.
Evidently part of being a gentleman for Burr was what to take notice of and how. Because he saw Hamilton as a fellow gentleman, he was willing to meet him on the dueling field. The “vilely executed” wax figures in a rinkydink tavern didn’t bother him since they were so obviously low-class. And when it came to what he thought was a note from Hamilton’s son, he eventually decided that the wise and genteel course was to act as if it never existed.

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