Code Duello Under Fire

You can see many of the items mentioned in this essay in Hamilton: The History behind the Musical, a pop-up exhibit open at the Newberry January 11 - March 9.

The hit musical Hamilton opens in Chicago soon, just in time for us to contemplate American election politics then and now. Today, candidates for office lob volleys of criticism and insult toward their political opponents. The twin forces of social media and the world’s voracious appetite for “breaking news” seem to magnify every skirmish. Observers and participants alike lament the ugliness of the political process.

Perhaps it is worth consoling ourselves with the knowledge that even the hallowed early decades of the American republic featured politically motivated personal attacks and, occasionally, physical violence.

Lacking official political parties and strong political institutions, individuals such as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr relied heavily on the integrity of their reputations to weather the vagaries of public opinion. A widely known and respected code of honor informed political behavior, and, as the musical reminds us, appeals to this code sometimes led to ritualistic pistol duels.

As many scholars have relayed, the point of a duel was not to kill an opponent, but to demonstrate bravery and honor in the face of an imminent threat. Of course, the Hamilton-Burr duel ended fatally for Hamilton, and left Burr a ruined man.

Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s modern interpretation of Hamilton’s colorful life, the Hamilton-Burr duel is once again the talk of the nation. The musical’s song “Ten Duel Commandments” summarizes the basic elements of the historical code duello, or rules for dueling. The Newberry’s collection includes numerous books related to the code duello, many of which describe the conditions under which dueling was acceptable and how the participants should conduct themselves on the field.

Samuel Stanton’s 1790 The Principles of Duelling argues for dueling’s necessity and draws a distinction between dueling and murder. Despite widespread familiarity with the code of honor and adherence to the code duello in American and English society, there were vocal opponents. Interestingly, a previous owner of the Stanton work had a clear anti-duel bent, and made critical notes in the margins and on the title page.

The Newberry’s collection also includes many anti-duel sermons, such as Presbyterian minister Benjamin Colman’s 1728 Death and the Grave without Any Order and Timothy Dwight’s 1804 The Folly, Guilt, and Mischiefs of Duelling.

(Searching for the subject “dueling” in the Newberry’s online catalog will return dozens of items from various angles.)

Anti-dueling sentiment intensified in the wake of the Hamilton-Burr duel. More specific information about the duel may be found in William Coleman’s A Collection of the Facts and Documents, relative to the Death of Major-General Alexander Hamilton and in Particulars of the Late Duel, Fought at Hoboken, July 11, between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. A number of secondary works examine the conflict between Hamilton and Burr from more modern perspectives, as well.

Newberry staff have compiled a list of Hamiltonian highlights in the library’s collection. To dig deeper into the collection, visit the Newberry’s online catalog, and please feel free to contact our reference librarians at

By Katie McMahon, Reference Librarian at the Newberry