The duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton took place 212 years ago today near Weehawken, New Jersey. The illustration above is one I remember from a schoolbook from when I was a kid; I remember losing myself in the scene. Like many dramatic historical renderings, it gets almost every historical detail wrong in favor of drama.
Years of feuding between the two men had come to this: an illegal duel to the death.
Both New York and New Jersey had outlawed dueling as a means of settling personal or professional differences, but New York actually prosecuted participants when they could be located. New Jersey did not actively prosecute. Witnesses were given every means of declaring plausible deniability, of declaring (should they be asked by any officials) that they had seen nothing and had not known what was going to happen, even though the event was all but announced in the papers: the pistols were delivered in one vessel in an unmarked box, the dueling parties were brought across the Hudson River from Manhattan in a second and a third vessel, and Hamilton and Burr’s “seconds” were instructed to keep their backs to the action, which is the reason why details about what happened—beyond two shots being fired and one of them landing in Hamilton—remain matters of conjecture two centuries later.
Hamilton had pledged to waste his first shot because he was morally opposed to dueling, so he fired above Burr’s head; Burr did not know about the pledge but he certainly knew that Hamilton had shot first and in his general direction, so he took aim at the former treasury secretary. Burr reported that Hamilton certainly had not acted as if he was about to waste any shot, as the former treasury secretary repeatedly inspected the sight on his weapon as lots were drawn and winners announced. Also, a wasted shot in a duel is usually wasted by firing down, into the ground. Hamilton fired into the air, which Burr could fairly interpret as a poor shot but a shot towards him that demanded a reply with his weapon. He fired at Hamilton.
Hamilton died the next day.
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The late Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published on this date in 1960. Until last year, when Go Set a Watchman was published, this was the only novel published by Harper Lee. (This was not the longest gap between publishing first and second novels; Henry Roth published Call It Sleep in 1934 and the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream a full 60 years later.) Harper Lee died in February at the age of 89.
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On this date in 1954, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in Brown v. Board of Education was announced, Robert B. Patterson and several other white supremacists founded the first chapter of the White Citizens’ Councils in Indianola, Mississippi. Officially, the councils no longer exist, and also officially, Patterson’s organization became the Council of Conservative Citizens, which still exists. Unofficially, the councils existed long before July 11, 1954, and, also unofficially, they still do.
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E. B. White was born on this date in 1899. Yul Brynner was born in 1920 on this date.
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Harold Bloom is 86 today. Tab Hunter is 85. Giorgio Armani is 82. Bill Boggs is 70. Bruce McGill is 66. Leon Spinks is 63. Sela Ward is 60. Richie Sambora is 57. Suzanne Vega is 57. Lil Kim is 41.
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