Hamilton–Burr duel correspondences
Burr to Hamilton, June 18, 1804
N York 18 June 1804
I send for your perusal a letter signed Ch. D. Cooper which, though apparently published some time ago, has but very recently come to my knowledge. Mr. Van Ness, who does me the favor to deliver this, will point out to you that clause of the letter to which I particularly request your attention.
You must perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.
I have the honor to be
Your Obdt. St
Hamilton to Burr, June 20, 1804
N York 20 June 1804
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 must 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
Burr to Hamilton, June 21, 1804
N York 21 June, 1804.
Your letter of the 20th inst. has been this day received. Having considered it attentively, I regret to find in it nothing of that sincerity and delicacy which you profess to value.
Political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum. I neither claim such privilege nor indulge it in others.
The common sense of mankind affixes to the epithet adopted by Dr. Cooper the idea of dishonor. It has been publicly applied to me under the sanction of your name. 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. The time “when” is in your own knowledge but no way material to me, as the calumny has now just been disclosed so as to become the subject of my notice and as the effect is present and palpable.
Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.
I have the honor to be
Your Obdt. St
Hamilton to Burr, June 22, 1804
N York 22 June 1804
Your first letter, in a style too peremptory, made a demand, in my opinion, unprecedented and unwarrantable. My answer, pointing out the embarrassment, gave you an opportunity to take a less exceptionable course. You have not chosen to do it, but by your last letter, received this day, containing expressions indecorous and improper, you have increased the difficulties to explanation, intrinsically incident to the nature of your application.
If by a “definite reply” you mean the direct avowal or disavowal required in your first letter, I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given. If you mean anything different admitting of greater latitude, it is requisite you should explain.
I have the honor to be, Sir
Your Obdt. St
Van Ness to Pendleton, June 26, 1804
The letter which you yesterday delivered me and your subsequent communication in Col. Burr’s opinion evince no disposition on the part of Genl. Hamilton to come to a satisfactory accommodation. The injury complained of and the reparation expected are so definitely expressed in his (Col. B.’s) letter of the 21st Inst. that there is not perceived a necessity for further explanation on his part. The difficulty that would result from confining the inquiry to any particular times and occasions must be manifest. The denial of a specified conversation only, would leave strong implications that on other occasions improper language had been used. When and where injurious expressions and opinions have been uttered by Genl. Hamilton must be best known to him and of him only does Col. Burr think it proper to enquire.
No denial or declaration will be satisfactory unless it be general so as to wholly exclude the idea that rumors derogatory to Col. Burr’s honor can have originated with Genl. Hamilton or have been fairly inferred from anything he has said. A definite reply to a requisition of this nature is demanded in Col. Burr’s letter of the 21st Inst. This being refused, invites the alternative alluded to in Genl. H.’s letter of the 20th Inst. It was demanded by the position in which the controversy was placed by Genl. H. on the 22nd Inst., and I was immediately furnished with a communication demanding a personal interview.
The necessity of this measure has not in the opinion of Col. Burr been diminished by the General’s last letter or any subsequent communication which has been received and I am again instructed to deliver you a message as soon as it may be convenient for you to receive it. I beg, therefore, you will have the politeness to inform me at what hour I shall wait on you.
Your most obt. & very hum. Servt.
W. P. Van Ness