Monument, symposium honor 200th Bicentennial of duel lures scholars, officials

The re-enactment of the famed 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr was just the beginning of a day dedicated to honoring the legacy of the two men and exploring the political and social climate that forged their bloody argument.

Soon after the completion of the re-enactment in Lincoln Harbor (see story at top), participants and spectators reconvened atop the Palisade in Weehawken’s scenic Hamilton Park to dedicate two new plaques – one in honor of “America’s most famous duel,” and another acknowledging the other numerous “Affairs of Honor” that took place near the location.

Eighteen known duels took place on the Weehawken Dueling Grounds, seven of which ended fatally. Among the more prominent figures who had participated in the contests were New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, Commodore Oliver Perry, and of course Hamilton and Burr. Incidentally, Hamilton’s son Philip had been mortally wounded there three years earlier – using the same pistols that brought about his father’s own demise.

Since 200 years of development have obscured the exact location of the Dueling Grounds, the monument rests on top of the cliff overlooking the Hudson where Hamilton Avenue Meets Boulevard East in Weehawken. The monument itself has endured a tumultuous history, with various acts of vandalism over the years demanding numerous renovations.

Sunday’s dedication

Sunday’s dedication was hosted by Al Berg of the Weehawken Historical Commission, with Mayor Richard Turner of Weehawken on hand as well as members of the Hamilton family, the Aaron Burr Association, the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, and the Alexander Hamilton Historical Society.

In addition to the re-enactment, other recent events have brought attention to the Alexander Hamilton Historical Society as they fight to keep their namesake’s image on the $10 bill.

Scott Lindsay, president of the Hamilton Society, is working to “re-energize public interest in Hamilton through publicity, educational programs and public outreach.” Lindsay and his associates are doing their best to fight H.R. 4528, an initiative launched by Senators Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), to put Ronald Reagan on the $10.

Phillip Schulyer Hamilton, the fourth great-grandson of Alexander, spoke of the family’s contribution throughout or nation’s growth, from Civil War efforts to descendant’s Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II.

Duncan Bruce, vice president of the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, honored Alexander Hamilton as the society’s “most illustrious member.” Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-8th District), who represents Paterson, which was founded by Hamilton, took the opportunity to generate support for his bill “resolving to maintain Hamilton’s stature and acknowledge his contributions.” The somewhat partial crowd voiced enthusiastic approval.

Stuart Fisk Johnson, president of the Aaron Burr Association, was on hand to declare that he and his members “have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Weehawken” over recent months.

The Aaron Burr Association, with one-third of its members residing in New Jersey, met at the Sheraton in Weehawken during the week leading up to the event.

Immediately following the dedication, the crowd scurried along to Weehawken High School, where an in-depth and intensely informative symposium was under way. Lauren Sherman, co-chair of the 200th Anniversary Commemoration Committee of the Weehawken Historical Commission, presented the event.

Symposium

Thomas Fleming, author of Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America, led of the program with an illustrated presentation detailing the politics behind the duel. Joanne B. Freeman, professor of history at Yale University and author of the book Affairs of Honor and the essay “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr- Hamilton Duel,” went on to detail the societal influences behind the dueling traditions of the day.

Fleming and Freeman joined Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, in a panel discussion moderated by Carol Berkin, professor of history at Baruch College.

Audience members, including numerous Weehawken residents, openly participated in the discussion, which was carried live via satellite on C-SPAN. The C-SPAN broadcast may be seen by logging onto duel2004.weehawkenhistory.org.

Perhaps the most profound comment of the day came from an unidentified Weehawken policeman who was directing people from Hamilton Park to Weehawken High.

Along the route was Burr Place, a dead-end street off Liberty Place in Weehawken.

“Go figure,” said the policeman. “The loser of the duel gets this beautiful park with a gorgeous view, and the winner gets a dead-end street a block away.”

History sure has a cruel way of playing itself out.

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