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"American Experience" The Duel (2000)

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Conflict and No Resolution.

7/10
Author: Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
12 July 2015

Another fine episode in an admirable series, with reenactments and narration by Linda Hunt. It's also a dual narrative -- politics and personal honor. (Never the twain should meet, but they do, all the time.) Hamilton gets his own episode elsewhere in the series. He was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, a staging area for slavery, and proved so ambitious a clerk that his patrons sent him to Columbia University. He dropped out in order to join the Revolutionary Army. His sense of devotion to duty and responsibility brought him to the attention of George Washington who more or less adopted him and made him the first Secretary of the Treasury.

He was a man of fierce principle. He hated slavery and believed that if people were totally free the result would be a war of all against all, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes, whom Hamilton almost certainly read. To counter this brutal nature, a strong central government was called for. He fought for the federal government all his life, sometimes rudely, sometimes with guile.

Aaron Burr was in many ways the opposite. Born into a stern New England family, he shrugged off its Protestantism and learned to live the good life -- fine food, fine wine, fine women. Burr had a great deal of charm and knew how to insinuate powerful people into his debt. If Hamilton was a man of government, Burr was a man of politics.

They clashed over the years in ways minor and major. Since there were no strongly organized political parties, personalities played a large part in politics. Today, one party might insult the other, but in 1790, the insults were taken as offenses to personal honor.

Hamilton disliked Burr as an opportunist and his disparaging comments appeared in the press. This led finally to a duel in what is now Weehawken, New Jersey, on the banks of the Hudson. You can still reach the site but nothing much is made of its being there. Hamilton may (or may not) have fired his pistol into the air, but Burr shot his opponent in the gut and he died 36 agonizing hours later.

Curiously, it was the end of both men because Burr was now seen as a murderer. He left and tried to invade Mexico, believe it or not. He was charged with treason and finally fled to Europe.

The story of the ritual duel is almost as interesting as the story of the two clashing personalities. They were always the result of offenses to personal honor. Challenges flew back and forth at the time but very few actually resulted in duels, and the few that did were infrequently lethal. They were especially popular in the South and among military officers. Between 1798 and the Civil War, the US Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did in combat at sea, including naval hero Stephen Decatur. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate Southern States, had to be extremely careful in posting his officers, being certain that those between whom challenges were pending, weren't too close together. The Western shoot out that we see in the movies was a westward extension of the Southern chivalric code of honor. There seems to be a strong element of the culture of honor among street gangs.

For what it's worth, dueling had been illegal for some time in the states and in Europe but it continued at least through the end of the 19th century. What finally killed it was not the law but public opinion,.

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