American Beat: The Hamilton-Burr Feud Continues

So, Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton again on Sunday. But this time, it was all Hamilton's fault.

That's the only conclusion I could draw after watching Sunday's 200th anniversary reenactment of the famous duel between the two founding fathers--the one that sent Hamilton into the grave and into a Pantheon typically reserved for guys like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and (just you wait) Reagan, while Burr was sent into the dustbin of history with other infamous Americans like Benedict Arnold and John Wilkes Booth.

I had gone to Weehawken, New Jersey, to cover the reenactment of the duel and suddenly found myself in the middle of a new one. You'd think after 200 years, descendents of Burr and Hamilton would get along, but some wounds go pretty deep (especially ones caused by a little musket ball that ripped through your ancestor's liver and spleen). Apparently, the hostility between the Burrs and the Hamiltons has not mellowed with time. A woman from the Weehawken Historical Society told me that both families had even demanded changes in the script for the duel reenactment.

"The Burr people were pushing the idea that Burr was wronged, but this was violence by two consenting adults," said Ron Chernow, author of the biography, "Alexander Hamilton," which came out in April and has since been drawing raves and straining muscles everywhere. "What did he [Burr] do of lasting value to the nation? " added the author. "Hamilton was a giant." (Chernow should know, so is his 600-page book.)

It didn't take long for the Burrs to antagonize the Hamiltons.

"Honestly, when I started this, I really had no ill will towards the Burr family," said Doug Hamilton, the great, great, great, great, great grandson of the former Treasury Secretary, who participated in the reenactment. "But the Burr people wanted to bring Hamilton down. At one forum, a Burr person said, 'Well, we all know that Hamilton was gay.' I mean, what is that? They said their guy wasn't at fault. Obviously, this whole thing is about making their guy look good. It's gotten really intense."

Could it be that one of America's greatest hate stories was about to enter its third century? And, more important, with those puffy shirts and swept-back hair, could Hamilton really have been gay? To find out more, I hopped aboard a boat tour sponsored by the Aaron Burr Association. No one accused Hamilton of homosexuality, but the knives were out.

"Alexander Hamilton spent fifteen years insulting Burr, blocking his political ambitions, and, finally, demeaning his character," said Antonio Burr, a distant cousin of the rogue founding father. "Aaron Burr didn't want the duel." He didn't? Then why had he suggested it? And why was he target practicing for two weeks?

"OK, yes, he was target practicing, but look, he'd had enough," Burr said. "If Hamilton had backed away from one single comment, this duel would not have happened."

Talk about re-writing history! There's a reason why Burr remains such a hated figure. Just look at the reprobate's resume: 1776: George Washington hates him so much that he banishes him from his staff. 1800: He runs as Thomas Jefferson's vice president, but then tries to get the House of Representatives to make him president when the two of them tie the electoral vote (not even Joe Lieberman would have done that). 1804: He shoots Hamilton. 1807: He conspires to break off a chunk of the Louisiana Purchase and declare himself the ruler. 1865: He kills Abraham Lincoln. 1939: He invades Poland. 1972: He breaks into Democratic Party headquarters and then covers it up. 2004: He pulls aside a senator from Vermont and tells him, "Go f--- yourself." See? This is a bad man.

And Hamilton was no angel, either. When Burr was running for New York governor in 1804, Hamilton not only went around telling everyone that Burr could not be trusted with the reins of power, but he also said that he knew something "still more despicable" about him. When Burr heard that, he hit the roof, firing off a letter demanding that Hamilton apologize or meet on the field of honor. Hamilton's response made it clear where this dialogue was headed. "Between gentlemen , 'despicable' and 'still more despicable' are not worth the pains of a distinction," he wrote, reserving the right to continue to tell people that he found Burr despicable. "What [would you do] were I to acknowledge that I had expressed an opinion of you still more despicable than the one which is particularized?"

What followed was a blistering exchange of letters that led nowhere--except toward the complete exhaustion of William Van Ness, Burr's friend who raced between Burr's New Jersey mansion and Hamilton's law office in lower Manhattan. (Both men demanded that their increasingly angry letters absolutely, positively had to be there overnight.)

And, judging from the reenactment of the duel this weekend, exchanges between descendants of the two men have become almost as acrimonious.

While I'd never been to one of these staged, Masterpiece Theater-like costume dramas before, I found myself immediately hooked. I mean, this one seemed accurate to even the smallest detail: To get to the dueling ground--not the actual dueling ground, of course, that's long gone--we rode a shuttle bus past a big Bud Light ad, past the access ramps for the Lincoln Tunnel, past the tract housing, past a long line of traffic, past the security guards on overtime, past the New Jersey governor struggling mightily to avoid reporters questioning his ethics and even past the pen of angry press photographers disappointed that they didn't get to cover the original duel. I mean, I felt like I was actually reliving the events of 1804.

I took a seat on the Hamiltons' side, surrounded by descendents in bright red T-shirts reading, "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." Meanwhile, the Burr supporters were unrecognizable from the common rabble. The crowd hissed when Burr's name was first evoked, while Hamilton's got a big cheer.

Next, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey spoke. I had planned to quote the governor's eloquent remarks about the vicissitudes of history, but then I realized, "Why is this man even talking? We're hear to see two men fire fake pistols at each other and pretend we understand history."

After more ponderous speeches, Burr and Hamilton finally faced each other. Now, according to historians, Hamilton fired first, intentionally missing Burr, who then paused and fired the fatal shot. Burr's family disputes this, of course, but they also dispute everything from the Louisiana Purchase conspiracy to the well-documented fact that Burr was a bed-wetter. But at the reenactment, both men fired at the same time--and there was no indication that Hamilton intentionally missed Burr. Hamilton fell over and Burr rushed from the stage. Perhaps Doug Hamilton had actually been shot! Maybe the families' violent past had been repeated!

But then the smoke cleared. And Doug Hamilton was back on his feet, smiling and signing autographs.