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After 200 Years the Hamiltons Make Up with the Burrs

With a pistol’s pop and a puff of smoke, an Aaron Burr impersonator “mortally wounded” an Alexander Hamilton impersonator last week along the Hudson River waterfront in Weehawken, New Jersey. Before them were two dozen television cameras and press photographers, flanked by a thousand spectators, many policemen, several big league historians, two Congressmen, and the Governor of New Jersey. Not to mention more than a hundred descendants of the original duelists.

Flags waved, music played, and people congratulated themselves that American politics, once besotted with tears and blood, is now contested with ballots and the occasional lawsuit. Afterwards, Hamilton family members, clad in red t-shirts emblazoned with their ancestor’s iconic $10 bill portrait, ate sandwiches and smiled, while the Burrs dispersed, greater in number but less organized.

The event was the two hundredth anniversary of the infamous July 11, 1804 duel between Aaron Burr, then Vice President of the United States, and his archrival, former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. That day, before a mere handful of witnesses, Burr fired the unluckiest pistol shot in American history. Hamilton’s body and Burr’s reputation died the following day, making a wreckage of their legacies and temporarily shredding the pretensions of political civility displayed by leaders of the early American republic.

For almost two centuries, neither family spoke a word to the other, and the tiny town of Weehawken, whose most-visited site is the western entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, anxiously grappled with its history as a favored spot for political bloodsport.

The presence of the governor, the media, and the crowd was the day’s highlight for Weehawken officialdom; for the Burr and Hamilton families, however, the voluntary participation of their period-dressed kin in the shooting was hoped to be “a sign of progress” in ending a long and silent blood feud, according to one Burr descendant. Stressing that this was no celebration, but a respectful commemoration, the Burr family—all nephews and nieces of Aaron, who left no (legitimate) direct descendants—was particularly grateful to Douglas Hamilton for taking a blank shot on behalf of his ancestor.

Douglas, 53, a fifth-great-grandson of Alexander’s, is an I.B.M. salesman from Columbus, Ohio. A self-described “history junkie,” it was at a Hamilton symposium at the New-York Historical Society in January that he first met members of the Aaron Burr Association. “There had never been a meeting between the family members before,” said Burr Association president Stuart Fisk Johnson, who played the doctor’s role during the re-enactment. From behind spectacles and a ruffled collar, he recalled, “there’s no Hamilton organization, so when I met Douglas and we had a handshake, it was a first step, even if it was a bit awkward.” As they chatted, Johnson pointed out to Hamilton that their families shared common ancestry through the eighteenth century Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards. That two grown men drew comfort from such a fact is evidence of how important blood lines are among the genealogically anointed.

Facing off against Hamilton was a Burr cousin, Antonio Burr, 51, a Chilean-born Manhattan psychologist. Resplendent in a blue frock coat, he was optimistic about a future revival of Burr’s reputation, just as Hamilton’s profile has enjoyed a boost from Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography.

Yet in spite of the book’s popularity, it was the Hamiltons who needed the most coaxing before participating in this staged spectacle. “Some Hamiltons felt uncomfortable with me doing a re-enactment at all,” Douglas said. Some relatives boycotted the event, deriding it as “tacky.” Among Douglas and his family, it was important that Alexander’s dignity remain intact, even at the cost of historical accuracy. “Some didn’t want me to fall backwards after being shot, which is what actually happened,” he said, “they thought that would be undignified, and I wanted to do this a bit more classy, so I decided I’d fall to my knee instead.”

Members of both families stressed, as if coached, that they bear no ill will toward their rivals—“it was 200 years ago,” was a common refrain. While that may be true for younger generations, among grandparents whose own grandparents heard firsthand accounts of the other family’s treachery, a fighting spirit echoed loud and clear.

“Hamilton provoked it,” declared Ginny Regg Adock, a grandmotherly Burr descendant, shortly after being interviewed by a New York television station, “he was just Burr bashing, and sure, they say to us ‘Well, you killed Hamilton,’ but that was because Hamilton called [Burr] all kinds of names.” Barbara Lent Coe, another Burr standing beside her, nodded and said, “that’s exactly why I always stood up for him…I was taught that being a Burr was something to be proud of.”

World War II veteran Allan Burr Malachy, who traveled to the anniversary event from Arizona, took a longer, less defensive, view: “Look, Hamilton was challenged to duels twelve times...the guy had problems.” In the same breath, he smiled, “but the Hamiltons we’ve met here are just lovely people…. I saw one this morning at the hotel who said ‘Good morning, Burr,’ and I said, ‘Good morning, Hamilton.’” “I think we can end this controversy here today,” he predicted.

Similar sentiments prevailed among graying Hamiltons. “There’s no animosity,” according to Carol Varmer of Chattanooga, Tennessee, “but when I grew up, we’d joke, ‘if you see a Burr, shoot him!’” As she spoke, she pointed her finger as if to make a pistol. She fired it in Antonio’s direction. Pat Scroggs of Lancaster, South Carolina, a fellow Hamilton, stood beside her as both women, wearing the red Hamilton family t-shirts, shared a hearty laugh.

Both families seemed satisfied once the smoke cleared. Camera crews on a feeding frenzy surrounded both duelists; Antonio Burr, with a cell phone at his ear, stood back-to-back with Douglas Hamilton, doling out quotes for evening newscasts. The pistols were replicas, the shots were blank, and the Burrs and Hamiltons soon retired to the same Sheraton hotel in Weehawken, a half mile away. On Saturday, the Burrs had crashed the Hamiltons’ hospitality suite, just to say hello, and the families walked together to the duel the next morning.

But once the stage was set, as at a wedding, there were sides to take. One side filled with red Hamilton t-shirts, the other with white Burr Association name tags. A police officer stationed nearby mumbled to his sergeant, “these guys are really Hatfields and McCoys.” The outcome of the “Interview at Weehawken” has been known for two centuries, but once pistols were drawn, there wasn’t a Hamilton in the crowd who didn’t hope that maybe this time it would be different.