West Bank of the Hudson River, New Jersey, 11th July 1804.
I turned to see my friend of more than twenty years preparing to shoot me. Vice President Aaron Burr, having rebuffed all overtures of peace, insisted on this duel. It was after all, a matter of honour. Burr stood across the field, shadows from a copse of trees darkening his grim expression. A slight tremor in his hands the only indication of a conflict in his mind. How had it come to this? Through revolutionary war and burgeoning government, Burr was there dogging my heels. Encouraging, motivating, and criticizing my every step, my every action. Best of friends, and worst of enemies.
One. Two. Three. Our men stood under the shade of the trees and began to count to ten. The doctor turned his back to maintain deniability. Our places were set, our pistols loaded. A cruel ball of lead packed against volatile gunpowder, eager to be dispensed with loud finality. Most disputes don’t get this far. The mere prospect of a duel was enough to satisfy honour, but not this time. I would not back down to Burr.
Four. Five. Six. My chest tightened with righteous indignation. I was right to support his rival, Burr would have made a terrible president. He had no stance, only misdirection and obfuscation. Our new nation needed a president with vision, not a man who sought power for powers sake. No, I will not let him blame me for his failures. I outstretched my arm in defiance. Burr would not be my downfall.
Seven. Eight. I let out the air I held in my chest, steadying my aim and drawing in my final breath. My vision blurred and a thought unbidden sprung into my mind. My stomach dropped accordingly. Philip, my poet, my pride, my son. I stood mere meters away from the spot where he perished. A victim of pride, both his and mine. Shot dead in a duel at age nineteen. He followed my advice. He rose his gun to the sky and threw away his shot. That should have been the end of the matter but his opponent fired true. My son dead by my own hubris.
Nine. My wife Eliza lost a son and still comforted a cursed husband. She brought me back from the depths of despair and placed me on the straightened path. I gripped my pistol tighter and set my jaw. Burr would not prevent me from returning to my Eliza.
Ten. In that final moment, I thought not of Burr but of Philip and my final words to him. I raised my gun to the sky and fired my shot to the heavens.
A bullet struck my lower abdomen. I fell to the leaf-littered ground, taking in a shuddering breath. I raised my head to see a look of pure shock on dear Burr’s face. He fell to his knees, pistol rolling from his limp hand. The pain faded as I thought of Eliza. Fear not my dear wife, I thought, for I’m off to see our son. I whispered her name, Eliza. Best of wives and best of women.
Words by Mark Vawser
Illustration by Dallas Nery