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The Blood of Hamilton and Burr

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

By FRANCIS X. CLINES Published: June 13, 2004


Modern New Yorkers can smile at the notion of having to journey to New Jersey in order to defend one's honor. But that's the way life and death was two centuries ago when dueling was forbidden in Gotham but tolerated in this rustic outpost just across the Hudson. Dozens of alpha males rowed across with pistols and attendants, with at least six of them succumbing in lethal grudge matches at the water's edge.

Weehawken became famous for one of those riverfront showdowns — the duel in which Aaron Burr mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton, leaving the loser with barely enough life to make it back across the river and die closer to home in Greenwich Village. The animus endured across two centuries of one-sided commemorations lauding Hamilton as a victim of Burr's villainy.

But not this year. With the 200th anniversary of the July 11 duel approaching, a grand buzz about history and reconciliation is under way. Weehawken, now a flinty hamlet aswirl in the serpentine clutches of Lincoln Tunnel traffic, is preparing for a more evenhanded re-enactment. Descendants of Alexander Hamilton have always been invited to take part, one of them standing in for the unlucky former Treasury secretary. But in a grand break with tradition, family descendants from the Aaron Burr Association have been graciously invited to take part, too. In fact, one of them will play the part of his deadeye forebear.

This balanced tableau was negotiated by the Weehawken Historical Commission and facilitated by recent scholarship underlining mutual provocations in the years of political and personal hostility between Hamilton and Burr. "We're in the middle ground, the dueling ground, and felt we could get both sides to work together," said Lauren Sherman, a member of the commission.

Memory counts for a lot in Weehawken, where venerable old clifftop houses have long stared across the river at Manhattan's skyscrapered rise. The commission Web site exhibits unbiased charm in referring to Hamilton as a "slain politico" rather than, say, fallen founding father. "I very much favor ending the taboo on the Burr people," said Edward Fleckenstein, the reigning local historian, who has seen some bitter anniversaries across his 80-plus years.

"This time, nobody will fall to the ground," Mr. Fleckenstein said, revealing the ultimate grace note. That's right, not even virtual death. Everyone wins next month when Weehawken takes aim at bad blood.

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