Salena Zito

WEEHAWKEN, N.J. – Sometimes all it takes to put the world in perspective is to stand in the shadow of where great men fell, even great men so tragically flawed by revenge that they foolishly participated in a duel to settle a political slight. The most famous political and personal animosity of its time existed between Federalist Alexander Hamilton, the primary author of “The Federalist Papers” and our first Treasury secretary, and Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president.

“Hamilton particularly despised Burr, believing that he was a totally unprincipled opportunist,” explains Keystone College History professor Jeff Brauer.

In modern terms, think Arlen Specter.

In a 1791 U.S. Senate race, Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, who would have supported Hamilton’s policy of a strong central government. In the presidential election of 1800, when an unexpected tie arose between Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton did everything he could to ensure Burr’s defeat in the tie-breaking House of Representatives.

Their animosity worsened in 1804 when Hamilton campaigned vigorously to defeat Burr in New York’s gubernatorial campaign. “After a series of angry letters and Hamilton’s refusal to apologize, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel,” Brauer recounts.

On July 11, 1804, the two men crossed the Hudson River from New York to Weehawken, site of a popular dueling ground. Hamilton reportedly shot first and intentionally missed Burr, in a customary show of courage.

But he shot in the air, rather than into the ground, which apparently led Burr to believe that Hamilton was trying to kill him. Burr returned fire and mortally wounded Hamilton.

“Alexander Hamilton’s death led to the demise of the Federalist Party and the political career of Aaron Burr,” Brauer recounts.

Today’s overzealous reaction to a sarcastic tweet or Facebook posting by an elected official pales in comparison to the Burr-Hamilton affair.

Yet if dueling is a thing of the past, confrontational politics lives on.

Garden State Gov. Chris Christie, known for his resoluteness in standing up for what he thinks is best for his state, often is labeled a bully because he speaks his mind.

“I take it in stride,” he says. He has no intention of changing, he adds, but he does wish some people would put it all into perspective.

“People want you to play it straight,” he says in response to today’s media frenzy whenever a politician speaks outside the safety of talking points.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.