NARR: Hamilton not only fired off such attacks, he was a target of them. NARR: When a politician was targeted by such attacks, his political survival depended on mounting an effective counterattack. And if your character was attacked, you would select among these different tools; the right audience, the right tone, the right amount of proof that was necessary for you to counteract whatever damage you were afraid was being done.
So you might write for the newspapers, a certain audience. You might write a pamphlet, a different audience. You might cane someone in the street, a very different audience. You might undertake some sort of a gossip campaign. Or the ultimate end of the spectrum, you might end up fighting a duel. NARR: To respond to the frenzy of character assassination, American politicians began turning to the political duel. Many of the great men of the day had their own set of dueling pistols custom made. These "affairs of honor" had far more to do with playing politics than with actually shooting anyone.
You were counting on the fact that you were gonna have a chance to prove that you were willing to die to defend your character! So the code of honor really is being manipulated as a political tool among national politicians in this period, to a really extraordinary degree. NARR: The more combative a politician, the more likely he was to be involved in duels. And no one was as combative as Alexander Hamilton.
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He was involved in eleven affairs of honor. Hamilton himself described what happened the first time he went to visit a young woman named Mariah Reynolds.. Reynolds and was shown upstairs. At the head of the stairs she met me and conducted me into the bedroom. After this I had frequent meetings with her. Reynolds husband, James, learned that Hamilton was sleeping with his wife, he blackmailed Hamilton.
Hamilton paid a huge sum of money to buy his silence - and more visits to his wife. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife.
This confession is not made without a blush. But that's what he's done as a private man. As a public man in office he's never been dishonest and he's trustworthy. So what he's done should have no bearing on his public career because in public office he's fine. Whatever he does outside of office, well, may be unfortunate, but it has no impact on you, and you can continue trusting me as a public servant. To restore his honor, Hamilton challenged a man who had attacked his character — Virginia Senator James Monroe — to a duel.
It really was a case in which one man would step forward and say I'm willing to die to defend my name and the other man would have to step forward and say, I will meet you. And that, as a matter of fact, that was a phrase that they would use. Ritualistic phrase. I will meet you as a gentleman.
In fact, once tempers cooled, the vast majority of affairs of honor were resolved before ever reaching the dueling ground. Such was the case with Hamilton and Monroe. Jefferson chose Burr to run as his vice president. But due to the bizarre rules that governed presidential elections at that time, Burr unexpectedly tied Jefferson for president. Now, Aaron Burr had to make a very hard decision.
He had, was faced with a very difficult choice. Should he go to Washington and, politic with the Federalist Party, and, throw Jefferson out of office? Should he deny, any interest whatsoever in becoming president - after all he had received as many votes as Jefferson, from the Electoral College so theoretically or legally he was entitled to be president.
So Burr was in a terrifically difficult position - and he made the choice of remaining silent. NARR: Burr had made his choice. Now Hamilton had to make one. He is by far not so dangerous a man and he has pretensions to character. The vote was deadlocked and it remained deadlocked through five days and thirty-five ballots. But because he had nearly taken the presidency away, Jefferson treated him as a mortal enemy and completely cut him off. Suddenly and surprisingly powerless, Burr spent most of his time at his home outside New York.
Though he had supported Jefferson, the two men had very different visions of America. Now Hamilton saw much of what he had worked for swept away. Worse was to come.
Philip was killed. Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me. Outraged, Hamilton returned to the political fight.
He rode across the state, telling any Federalist who would listen that they should vote for the devil himself before they voted for Burr. Burr lost the Federalist nomination. Desperate, he ran for governor anyway, as an independent.
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In response, both the Federalists and the Jeffersonians began printing malicious gossip about Burr. On the day that the polls opened, the paper published a list of twenty prostitutes, who said that Aaron Burr was their favorite customer.
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It was the dirtiest political campaign I think probably in the history of the country in terms of personal political attacks. NARR: Burr finished last and his reputation was completely destroyed. We know from his letters to his daughter, that he holed up at his estate, Richmond Hill, and saw nobody, he was isolated. NARR: To restore his reputation, Burr needed to make a dramatic public stand in defense of his honor. And nothing could be as dramatic as challenging Alexander Hamilton, who had been attacking him for fifteen years, to a duel.
But the fact of the matter is, that they were very deliberately provoked, and very often in this period, they were provoked after elections by either the person who lost the election, or one of his friends as a way of making up for the damage to their reputation in having lost. NARR: According to the code of honor, Burr could not challenge Hamilton without concrete evidence that Hamilton had attacked his character.
Then a friend gave Burr a newspaper, which contained a letter from a Doctor Cooper. You must perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Because basically Burr's letter is absolutely the model of the ritualistic first letter you send when your private character has been attacked and you're initiating an affair of honor.
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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. NARR: Hamilton was in a difficult spot. He wanted to resolve the affair short of a duel, as he had done in the past.
But he could not bring himself to apologize to Burr. He sent a carefully crafted reply. How am I to judge of the degree intended? I trust, on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequences. Number two, let's talk about the meaning of the word despicable. So, it sort of seems to equivocate. And then because Hamilton doesn't want to fight, but he doesn't want to seem cowardly, he ends with this sort of a blustering statement that if things don't work out, he's ready to face the consequences.
So, he's already said well, if you want a duel, I'm there. So, it's the worst possible letter that he could have written.