The famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr took place at the dueling grounds (the cliffside backyard of a man who hated dueling but didn’t seem to be able to stop people from using his land) in Weehawken, NJ on the morning of July 11, 1804. My students are becoming quite adept at finishing my lyrics, so I prompted, “Everything is…” and they completed, “Legal in New Jersey.” Dueling was not actually legal in New Jersey, but it was prosecuted less energetically than in New York, so both parties rowed across the Hudson for the dawn meeting.
Although Burr has been a reasonably reliable commentator in the show to this point, he is transformed into an unreliable narrator as he tells the story of the duel. Authors will often use children or animals to tell stories understanding that children do not necessarily grasp the nuance of all that is going on around them, and an animal such as a dog may be distractible and thus miss pieces of the action. In “The World Was Wide Enough,” Burr is mentally compromised and does not portray reality accurately. He comments that “my fellow soldiers’ll tell you I’m a terrible shot,” while the reality was that he was not only an accomplished marksman, he had also practiced prior to the duel. Burr is determined not to allow Hamilton to “make an orphan of my daughter.” While technically being true, Theodosia is already married with at least one child in 1804, so she would not exactly be out on the street with no one to love her.
The counting ends, and the Bullet mimes the shot leaving Burr’s pistol and painfully slowly making its way across the stage. Hamilton’s mind, faster than a speeding bullet, reviews the major themes and people in his life as for the first time he uncharacteristically hesitates about what to do. He contemplates the meaning of a legacy, echoing Washington’s own imagery of a garden, but in the silence, he imagines America as a symphony in which instruments of all shapes, colors, sizes, and backgrounds blend together in beautiful harmony that is far greater than any individual alone. As he runs out of time, he imagines all of his friends and family who have already died waiting for him on the other side. For a moment Eliza appears in front of him as the counterbalance tying him to life. His brain calms at the sight of her as he bids her good-bye. He aims his pistol at the sky and throws away his shot.
Burr cries out, “Wait!” He has acted rashly for the first time in his life, and he immediately pulls back to his theme (wait for it) and vainly wishes to reverse his action. The reports from the seconds conflicted about who shot first, but it was established that Hamilton’s shot did go wide and high into the trees. Burr’s shot hit Hamilton in the abdomen above his hip, and Hamilton knew instantly it was a mortal blow. The doctor and Nathanial Pendleton, Hamilton’s second, brought the injured man back to New York, where Eliza was summoned and her husband died the next day. In the song, a heartbeat is heard from the moment the bullet strikes until the single chime of a church bell signals Hamilton’s passing.
The people of New York City were more devastated by Hamilton’s passing than by President Washington’s, possibly because Hamilton was relatively young age of 49 and the death was so senseless. The New York Supreme Court and the Bank of New York were both draped in black. Citizens wore black arm bands for a month. In Philadelphia the front pages of the newspapers were printed with borders appropriate for a funeral. Businesses closed for the hastily arranged state funeral that was the largest such event in the history of the city to that date.
In the lyrics, Burr comments about his rival, “He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it.” Hamilton had left several letters behind stating that he intended to throw away his shot, which had the desired result of destroying Burr’s reputation. My students agreed that the only thing they knew about Burr from school was that he had killed Hamilton, so Burr’s legacy is a dark one. Burr did have a rather black sense of humor about the affair, notably referring to his longtime nemesis as, “my friend Hamilton, who I shot.” He did once express his regret by commenting, “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
This video is a wonderful summary and has some footage from the stage production: https://cptv.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ham16.soc.ushis.duel/hamiltons-america-understanding-the-burr-hamilton-duel/#.Wh7JSlWnFph