It’s appropriate that while this song begins with Burr sounding like a murderous villain in a Batman movie, it ends more akin to something from a soundtrack to a screwball comedy. As serious as the consequences were, the lead up to Burr and Hamilton’s duel had more elements of farce than tragedy.
The musical places Burr and Hamilton’s fatal duel right after the election of 1800. In fact, the men avoided a duel then when Hamilton issued an apology to Burr. It wasn’t really much of an apology. Hamilton admitted that while he accused Burr of being corrupt and unprincipled and trying to steal the presidency from Jefferson, Hamilton himself had no “personal knowledge” of Burr’s actions to do so. (In essence he was saying, I think he’s a liar and a cheat, but I don’t know he’s a liar and a cheat.)
But the two foes were destined to clash again after Burr ran for governor of New York and lost badly. The convoluted way this came about makes it seem that fate was gunning for Hamilton as much as Burr was.
Hamilton had pledged to stay neutral in the governor’s race , a pledge he maintained in public. He was apparently not as neutral at a dinner with an old friend in Albany — another guest at the dinner Charles Cooper wrote a friend that Hamilton had called Burr “a dangerous man and one who was not to be trusted.” The letter may have been intercepted and copied and somehow the pro-Burr editor of the New York Evening Post believed it was a published document and printed an editorial quoting it in order to refute it. That prompted Philip Schuyler to write to the paper defending his son-in-law’s honor arguing Hamilton would never have said such a thing since he pledged to stay neutral. In turn, that prompted Charles Cooper to feel he was now being called a liar and he defended himself with a public letter printed in the Albany Register arguing that if anything he had been conservative in what he had written and that he could have reported “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” Months later someone sent a copy of that article to Burr, who immediately wrote to Hamilton demanding “the prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.” (In other words, he was asking Hamilton, “Tell me what you said that was even worse the saying I’m a dangerous man who can’t be trusted.”)
This is where Hamilton got way too cute for his own good and we can sympathize when Burr’s character in the song sighs, “Sweet Jesus,” on reading the response. Here is his reply in it’s entirety.
I have maturely reflected on the subject of your letter of the 18th Instant, and the more I have reflected, the more I have become convinced that I could not without manifest impropriety make the avowal or disavowal which you seem to think necessary.
The clause pointed out by Mr. Van Ness is in these terms: “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” To endeavor to discover the meaning of this declaration, I was obliged to seek in the antecedent part of the letter for the opinion to which it referred, as having been already disclosed. I found it in these words: “Genl. Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of Government.” The language of Dr. Cooper plainly implies that he considered this opinion of you, which he attributes to me, as a despicable one; but he affirms that I have expressed some other still more despicable; without, however, mentioning to whom, when or where. ‘Tis evident that the phrase “still more despicable” admits of infinite shades from very light to very dark. How am I to judge of the degree intended. Or how should I annex any precise idea to language so vague?
Between Gentlemen despicable and still more despicable are not worth the pains of a distinction. When, therefore, you do not interrogate me as to the opinion which is specifically ascribed to me, I mist conclude that you view it as within the limits to which the animadversions of political opponents, upon each other, may justifiably extend; and consequently as not warranting the idea of it which Dr. Cooper appears to entertain. If so, what precise inference could you draw as a guide for your future conduct, were I to acknowledge that I had expressed an opinion of you, still more despicable than the one which is particularized? How could you be sure that even this opinion had exceeded the bounds which you would yourself deem admissible between political opponents?
But I forbear further comment on the embarrassment to which the requisition you have made naturally leads. The occasion forbids a more ample illustration, though nothing would be more easy than to pursue it.
Repeating that I can not reconcile it with propriety to make the acknowledgment or denial you desire, I will add that I deem it inadmissible on principle, to consent to be interrogated as to the justness of the inferences which may be drawn by others, from whatever I may have said of a political opponent in the course of a fifteen years competition. If there were no other objection to it, this is sufficient, that it would tend to expose my sincerity and delicacy to injurious imputations from every person who may at any time have conceived that import of my expressions differently from what I may then have intended, or may afterwards recollect.
I stand ready to avow or disavow promptly and explicitly any precise or definite opinion which I may be charged with having declared to any gentleman. More than this can not fitly be expected from me; and especially it can not reasonably be expected that I shall enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted. I trust upon more reflection you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstances and must abide the consequences.
The publication of Dr. Cooper was never seen by me ‘till after the receipt of your letter.
Sir, I have the honor to be
Your Obdt. St
In short Hamilton is saying, “How am I supposed to know what this Cooper guy thinks is more despicable than being dangerous and not to be trusted. If you don’t mind that I said that, I’m not going to explain myself or apologize to you for something else Cooper says I said.”
Understandably, Burr did not appreciate the condescending elementary school lesson, replying, “The question is not whether he has understood the meaning of the word or has used it according to syntax and with grammatical accuracy, but whether you have authorized this application either directly or by uttering expression or opinion derogatory to my honor.”
Burr’s second in the duel met with Hamilton and all but begged him to end the conflict with a simple statement that he couldn’t remember saying anything else that night that would merit Cooper’s allegation. Instead of taking this reasonable course, Hamilton replied, “I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given.” In turn, Burr stopped replying and had his second write instead to set duel arrangements.
And through it all, as the exchange led them closer to their fatal encounter, they signed each letter “I have the honor to be Your Obedient Servant.”