This song begins with the familiar door squeak followed by a slam, and Aaron Burr vents his most venomous and angry version of the opening question, “How does Hamilton, an arrogant, immigrant, orphan, bastard, whoreson…” Having finally established his motivation to be in the room where it happens, Burr’s every move is blocked by Hamilton. Burr sings, “I look back on where I failed, and in every place I checked, the only common thread has been your disrespect.” The “checked” reference is the final move in chess as we approach the endgame of their contest.
Historically, having demonstrated his untrustworthiness in the mess of the election of 1800, Burr was dumped as a running mate for President Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1804, and instead Burr ran for Governor of New York State. It was Hamilton’s aggressive opposition to Burr leading to Burr’s defeat that pushed our narrator over the edge. Burr was told of some negative comments that Hamilton made about him at a dinner party and took insult as a result. In the musical, the chorus member who will play the Bullet in the duel hands Burr a quill to pen a letter.
Burr’s angry missive to his rival is met by Hamilton’s cockiness that if Burr wants to take issue, he needs to be specific about which one of Hamilton’s many insults he is unhappy with. The tune of the song is a prissy stilted waltz or minuet as the two men engage in the intricate dance of their letters. Hamilton had been close to dueling numerous times before in his life, but in the other circumstances, he was always the one demanding an apology, so he could afford to be uncompromising. As the challenged rather than the challenger, Hamilton lacked a credible way of extracting himself from the situation while still maintaining his already somewhat tattered reputation.
The two exchange a series of letters, Burr in succinct paragraphs, Hamilton in his usual voluminous exposition, in which each refuses to bend or apologize. Ironically, each man observes the social niceties in concluding, “I have the honor to be your obedient servant.” Hamilton ends, “A dot Ham.” Burr continues, “A dot Burr.” Burr gets in the last word, but Hamilton comes out on top.