Question #3What was really at stake in the disagreement and duel between Aaron Burr and AlexanderHamilton? If Hamilton felt that the disparaging statements he had made about Burr were true,should he have lied in order to save his life? Was this merely a war over words? Did words havemore significance then than they do now? What role did newspapers play in the drama, and howis the media's role different or similar today?
In the eyes of two honor-bound individuals who have a large public presence, inboth their political and social lives, everything was at stake in the duel, which would
ultimately claim Hamilton’s life. Honor, in the days when the country was being founded,
was not something that could be, or was, easily dealt with. If someone (in this case,Hamilton) made disparaging remarks about someone publicly, as to ruin their image, thenthe socially acceptable thing to do was to take matters into your own hands, tempt fate, andcall forth a duel. This was by no means a war over words- rather, a war over character andthe societal norms found within the early stages of the foundation of the United States. If Hamilton had not taken up the offer on the duel, he would have been marked as a cowardthrough the eyes of the public. This was, at the time, social suicide, and could easily
terminate one’s chances of maintaining political power.The newspapers, at the time, were the only source of “reputable” information for the
general public, aside from word of mouth. No telecommunications had been invented, andthe journalists held a monopoly on the spread and transmission of information. Therefore,what was put down on paper in the news was considered to be more or less accurate,although much of the news in those times was fabricated truth. Today, such fabricationsstill run rampant in the media, and one must be very careful in believing things that arepublicized, no matter what their source may be. In the case of Burr and Hamilton, thenewspapers falsified many of the important facts dealing with the duel, and Burr, in theend, was made to look like a bloodthirsty fool, socially and politically stigmatizing him as
“the man who killed Alexander Hamilton”. This, while true,
was in the opinions of Burr andHamilton a perfectly acceptable truth, as the duel was mutually accepted. No rules werebroken, and the honor of both Burr and Hamilton remained theoretically intact.