Duel Alternatives: Exploring Mediation in Burr vs. Hamilton
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
After the feedback I received on my last pop-culture blog, "Exploring Mediation in Netflix's Tiger King," I figured I'd make celebrity/famous feuds into a series.
With the premiere of "Hamilton" on Disney+ coming out July 3, I was inspired to explore mediation as an alternative for Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton (and by the way, the 216th anniversary of their duel is approaching on July 11). My family and I never got the opportunity to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's opus in person when it was here at the Kennedy Center so I'm really excited to see it from the safety of our home - thank you #disney for making this part of the holiday weekend!
Ok, here we go! These are the three things I was curious about as it relates to their conflict:
Why did they dislike each other?
How did the conflict get so bad that it ended in a duel?
Could their relationship have been restored through mediation?
Let's start with their background. Hamilton was already very popular in New York State politics when Burr arrived on the scene. Their rivalry began when Burr ran for the U.S. Senate against Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler in 1791 and won. I understand Hamilton may have been annoyed and disappointed for his wife's father, but is this enough to start a conflict? After all, this election happened thirteen years before their relationship met its fatal end in the duel. There must be more that happened. (There was.)
Fast-forward nine years. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were running mates and both vying for president. (Back in 1800, citizens voted as to who would be president between two candidates on a ticket. The loser became VP.) There was an electoral college voting error and Jefferson and Burr both *tied* for President. Oops. This called for a run-off election in the House. Hamilton actively campaigned against Burr based his grudge from those earlier years. Since Hamilton was a popular guy and people listened to him, he was successful in ensuring Burr would not be President. Burr took the #2 spot as Vice President reluctantly. He resented Hamilton's interference. It is also reported that Jefferson didn't really like Burr much either so when the election rules changed in 1804, Mr. Jefferson informed Mr. Burr that he would never be on his ticket as his VP when he ran again for President. #burn
Feeling marginalized and disrespected by both Hamilton and Jefferson, Burr decides to run for Governor of New York AND as an independent candidate for President in 1804. Well, Hamilton wasn't having any of it. His grudge continued. Hamilton used his political influence to torpedo Burr's chances at either role -- and it worked. Burr lost badly at both.
At this point, one starts to wonder why these two fellas can't get together for a pint at their favorite tavern and talk this out, but that didn't happen. Avoidance can be somewhat typical in a conflict, but it doesn't work in the long run. A healthy alternative would have been to start the mediation process and settle the beef once and for all instead of continuing political sabotage. In mediation, Hamilton could talk about his allegiance to his wife, Eliza, and Burr could talk about how hurt he was that Hamilton prevented him from pursuing his political aspirations. Alas, that's not what happened. At all.
The final conflict leading to the duel is remarkably similar to something that happens now in modern times. If you think about this from a social media perspective, you'll see what I mean. Imagine this next scenario in 2020: Hamilton attends a dinner party at another popular celeb's house (Dr. Charles D. Cooper) and Burr wasn't invited. Pictures of Hamilton and all of Burr's rivals are plastered all over Facebook, TMZ, Hollywood Reporter, etc., showing them having a good time. The party host, Dr. Cooper, is enjoying the limelight and uses the opportunity to do one of his favorite things: stir the pot with the media. He writes a "journalist" and encourages him to publish remarks that he "heard Hamilton make" while he was at the party. The story goes viral. Hamilton allegedly said things like "Aaron Burr is a dangerous man" and Dr. Cooper told the media that he alluded to a "more despicable opinion" of Burr but... well, Dr. Cooper claims there was more Hamilton said but he didn't want to say too much. The public eats it up. Sounds eerily familiar, right?
This was it for Burr; he had enough. In June 1804, Burr confronts the conflict via a letter where he asks Hamilton for an explanation. Hamilton responded. In the next letter, Burr demanded that Hamilton publicly deny he said anything bad about him and apologize. Progress right? Wrong. As a mediator, I know how much meaning and tone can be lost in a text or an email. This should have been handled in a conversation with a trained neutral. I guess it is no surprise that Hamilton refused. It is hard to get to the root of an issue via written word, plus he felt that correcting the media's account would damage his own political career.
What to do now? Well, in the very-1800s-version of settling a conflict, they decide to duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton was opposed to the practice after losing his son Phillip in the same spot in a duel three years earlier, but he goes along with the plan. Neither of them considered mediation as an alternative (umm, a much better choice)!
On an early July morning on a secluded ledge above the Hudson River, the two men drew straws. Hamilton won the draw and picked the side from which he wanted to shoot. [There is still a lot of controversy about the guns, spectacles, who shot first, etc., but one thing is certain: Hamilton missed.] The duel happened, shots were fired, and Hamilton died 36 hours later from his wounds. Arrest warrants were issued for Burr whom many viewed as a murderer. Though he was never tried for Hamilton’s death and he was accused/acquitted of treason in a separate incident, he spent the rest of his days outside the public eye under a veil of mistrust.
Aside from the fact that they were both former Revolutionary War heroes, this is a terrible and pathetic end to an entirely preventable conflict that left one dead and one a villain.
The outcome of this infamous conflict could have been very different. A neutral, third-party mediator could've helped them facilitate discussions about the issues they had with one another and find a path forward in peace, don't you think? Consider this too: while duels are no longer fashionable (nor legal), lawsuits have taken their place today. If more people viewed litigation as dangerously similarly to a duel, I believe that mediation would always be a logical first choice (if not the only choice). In a lawsuit, there are often two losers -- the same as in a duel. The next time you're tempted to engage in a figurative duel, please do me a favor and at least try mediation instead. You may change your legacy -- and your children's legacy -- for years to come!
Best wishes to you and your family this summer. Stay safe and be well! - Erin
About the Author:
Erin Fisher is a certified mediator and founder of Atlantic Mediation Services, a serial entrepreneur, and federal consultant. She was recently named to the Leadership Council of the National Small Business Association. She received an executive certification in negotiation and conflict resolution from the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza School of Business and her undergraduate degree in communication from West Virginia University. Erin was inspired by her own experiences in family mediation and works with private clients to identify and reconcile competing interests related to property distribution, custody plans, and visitation. Relying on nearly two decades supporting the Department of State, Erin works with clients to establish peace in the workplace. She traveled extensively overseas and provided conflict resolution and mediation services related to contracts, employee dynamics, change management, and more by remaining open-minded, neutral, and unbiased to differences.