Written by J.M Wasko
On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton found himself in Weehawken, NJ, looking straight down the barrel of a dueling pistol aimed at him by Aaron Burr. This historic moment was frozen in time by artist Kim Crowley in a pair of statues that depicts the moment before shots were fired on that fateful day. As part of the New-York Historical Society’s Summer of Hamilton, a Museum-wide celebration of Hamilton’s life and remarkable achievements, Crowley’s dueling statues and other special Hamilton artifacts are peppered throughout the galleries for visitors to discover and enjoy.
Did you know that during Hamilton’s time, it was quite common for gentlemen and politicians to start a fight over honor, a value that was very important to them? These arguments, which did not always end with a deadly duel, were called affairs of honor. Hamilton himself had been in no less than 10 other affairs of honor before he was challenged by Burr.
Since affairs of honor were so widespread in the past and unfamiliar to us in the present, we decided to tell our visitors all about this peculiar gentlemanly tradition in a special family tour, Hamilton’s Dueling Death, on July 10, 2016—just one day shy of the duel’s 212th anniversary! We also held a special live reenactment of the duel performed by American Historical Theatre.
Although not infrequent, duels were actually illegal in New York and New Jersey at the time Hamilton and Burr squared off. In fact, there were consequences for those who assisted or took part in duels. Many Founding Fathers—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin included—hated them.
It might seem like a duel would be a quick way to settle an argument, but an affair of honor between two people could go on for months. A large part of settling an affair of honor was writing letters. For Hamilton and Burr, it took just a couple of weeks of negotiations before their disagreements led Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel, but Alexander Hamilton once entered an affair of honor with James Monroe that went on for more than five months. Monroe eventually did challenge Hamilton to a duel, but since Hamilton never sent an acceptance letter, the whole thing just faded away.
If you’re interested in learning more about the life and dueling death of Alexander Hamilton, stop by the New-York Historical Society on August 7 for a repeat of Hamilton’s Dueling Death Tour, followed by two special encore performances of the Hamilton-Burr duel by American Historical Theatre. While you’re here, don’t forget to pick up a Summer of Hamilton Family Guide. The guide will take families on an adventure through the galleries, and everyone who completes the activities will receive a special Hamilton prize from the Museum Store!