1. Character Development
Synopsis – Previously, in “Your Obedient Servant”, Burr writes to Hamilton, eventually challenging him to a duel. Hamilton and Burr duel in Weehawken flats, New Jersey; as Hamilton dies, he reflects on the legacy he has left on America, Burr shoots and kills him, subsequently realizing that he will be remembered as the villain of history.
Who – Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and their seconds
What – A duel
When – July 11th, 1804 (5:00 am)
Where – Weehawken flats, New Jersey, on a secluded ledge above the Hudson River
Why – Escalating conflicts between Hamilton and Burr
The main characters in this song are Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The duel that takes place in “The World Was Wide Enough” is the climax of many years of escalating disagreements between them, such as when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, for a seat in the Senate and when Hamilton supported his enemy Jefferson instead of Burr in the election of 1800.
Hamilton’s wants are to leave behind a legacy, leave his mark on America, and, usually, to act quickly and uninhibitedly. Right before his death, he ponders what a legacy is, and how America “let [him] make a difference/A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints and rise up” (Hamilton). He dies having fulfilled this goal, using his skill in writing to rise to the top and help form the United States. Something else Hamilton almost always does is acting quickly and confidently, charging recklessly through life. He demonstrates this throughout the play, such as in “Non-Stop” and “My Shot”, but in the duel, he does not. This is the one time he throws away his shot by aiming his pistol at the sky and it may have cost him his life.
As for his fears in this song, Hamilton distrusts those who seem to stand for nothing and is deeply aware about how the world perceives him. A major part of the background of his character and the duel is his and Burr’s differing ideologies. Hamilton does not like how Burr is more neutral and does not seem to have many principles. When asked why he supports Jefferson, in “The Election of 1800” he says that “Jefferson has beliefs/Burr has none” (Hamilton). Second, throughout the play, he thinks about his legacy and what other people think about him. He says, “If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me? What if this bullet is my legacy?” (Hamilton). He could be saying this to Burr only, or to everyone in general. He considers that if he throws away his shot, Burr’s last memory of him will be killing him. If he kills Burr, that bullet will be his legacy as well, and he will be remembered as the one who shot Aaron Burr. In the end, he decides to throw away his shot, perhaps because he thought that this legacy would be more agreeable than the one left by shooting Burr.
In this song, Burr wants to regain his reputation, keep his family safe, and to wait and cautiously deliberate his actions, except for this time. He thought that dueling would salvage his remaining political dignity, but instead, killing Hamilton made him infamous. Second, the line “I had only one thought before the slaughter; this man will not make an orphan of my daughter” indicates that if he knows it will to be him or Alexander, he refuses to put his daughter through the same hardships he had to suffer as an orphan himself because he knows how bad it is (Hamilton). Finally, in contrast to Hamilton, in the rest of the play, Burr almost always thought through his actions carefully and waited for the perfect opportunities. However, in this song, he is the one who rashly charges forward and Hamilton is the one who waits; Hamilton points his gun at the sky, and Burr shoots him, hitting him between the ribs.
Burr’s main fear in this song is being remembered as a villain. He knows that “history obliterates/in every picture it paints/it paints [him] and all [his] mistakes” (Hamilton). Although he was a good person, because of how neutral he always was in the public’s eyes, he is known most as the one who killed Hamilton. Hamilton asks, “What if this bullet is my legacy?”; the legacy left behind by Hamilton’s bullet that misses majorly affects Burr. When he kills Hamilton, the bullet becomes the legacy that Hamilton leaves for him. As soon as they confirm the duel, one of them is destined to be known by the world as a murderer. When Hamilton throws away his shot, he leaves that burden for Burr to bear, forcing him to take on that legacy of violence.
2. Historical Elements
Historical events and ideas: Burr-Hamilton Duel
A Summary of the Conflicts Leading to the Duel
Their relationship really began to deteriorate when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, for a seat in the U. S. Senate. The next major conflict was when Jefferson and Burr were tied for presidency in the election of 1800; Hamilton enthusiastically supported Jefferson because even though they disagreed, he did not an unprincipled leader to run the country. Although he called Jefferson “a contemptible hypocrite” in letters, he thought of Burr that “Great Ambition unchecked by principle…is an unruly Tyrant.” In early 1804, when he knew he would not be re-elected as vice-president, he switched parties and attempted to get nominated as the Federalist candidate for governor of New York, but Hamilton used his influence to make him lose again. He then tried to run for governor without a party and lost badly in April 1804.
That month, a letter was published that claimed Hamilton called Burr “a dangerous man” at a dinner party. In June, Burr wrote to Hamilton asking him to explain, which led to Burr demanding that he deny he ever said anything bad about him. Hamilton thought this would damage his political career. In response, Burr challenged him to a duel. He was opposed to the practice of dueling, and even said in a statement released after his death that “[his] religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of Duelling, and it would even give [him] pain to be obliged to shed the blood of a fellow creature in a private combat forbidden by the laws” (Statement on Impending Duel With Aaron Burr).
Hamilton and Burr left Manhattan from different docks at 5am, each rowed by 4 men to New Jersey. Burr arrived at 6:30, Hamilton half an hour later. They met at Weehawken Flats, New Jersey, as dueling was not strictly regulated there, on a secluded ledge near Hudson River. This was also most likely where Hamilton’s son, Philip, died. Hamilton likely had not fired a pistol since the revolution, which was not since 1783. Burr had been practicing his marksmanship leading up to the duel. The song says he was a terrible shot, but this is not really proved definitively. By lot, Hamilton picked which side he would fire from.
Hamilton aimed his pistol then asked for a moment to put on his glasses, which is referenced in the song, but he had already told confidants that he would throw away his shot by aiming wide on purpose. He also said in a statement that he wanted “to reserve and throw away [his] first fire, and [he had] thoughts even of reserving [his] second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and to reflect” (Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr). This is also technically against the rules of dueling; he is not allowed to throw away his shot like that.
The seconds provided conflicting stories of who shot first and whether Hamilton missed on purpose or missed because of accidentally shooting the pistol when he got hit. However, Hamilton’s gun most likely fired first. Burr’s shot hit Hamilton in the abdomen area above the right hip, fractured a rib, tore through his diaphragm and liver, and lodged in his spine. He died on July 12, 1804, having survived about 31 hours after the duel.
Socials curriculum: Disparities in power alter the balance of relationships between individuals and societies
The conflicts that led to the duel were mostly based on power, how Burr was seeking it, and how Hamilton used his existing power to prevent Burr from getting it. Motivated by their differences in ideology, Hamilton was determined not to let someone with great ambition but without many opinions and principles into a position of power, lest he become an unruly tyrant. This power struggle escalated to the point where the only way they could think of to resolve it was through violence.
3. Guided question
A clash between two ideals
One of the major conflicts between Hamilton and Burr that led to the duel is Hamilton supporting Jefferson, his supposed enemy, instead of Burr. This is because even though Hamilton dislikes Jefferson’s politics, at least he has opinions and stands for something, rather than Burr’s decision first seen in “Aaron Burr, Sir” to not “let them know what [he’s] against or what [he’s] for” (Hamilton). The clash between these ideologies repeats throughout the musical and the American Revolution. On one hand, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the American patriots believe in bold, drastic actions and change. The patriots want independence from Britain, and they want it quickly and at whatever cost. They know exactly what they want and what they stand for. Hamilton represents the American ideal in many ways. He worked his way up from the bottom with his confidence and skill, he is opinionated, and he is not afraid to speak his mind. In “Your Obedient Servant”, he tells Burr that he “has always worn [his opinion] on [his] sleeve” (Hamilton).
On the other hand, Burr represents more of a loyalist ideology. He is patient, cautious, and “willing to wait for it” (Hamilton). Hamilton tells him in “Your Obedient Servant” that the reason people do not trust him is because “no one knows what [he believes]” (Hamilton). The Loyalists are similar in several ways; many of them did not want to take sides, wanted the revolution to come later, or were afraid of the chaos of the mobs. As Hamilton asks Burr in “Aaron Burr, Sir”, “if [Burr doesn’t] stand for anything, what [does he] fall for?” (Hamilton). Because of the magnitude of their differences, it leads to Hamilton “poison[ing] [his] political pursuits”, as covered in the summary of conflicts that led to the duel (Hamilton).
History and being remembered
Since history is written by the victors, history remembers the rebels who fought for the revolution more vividly than it remembers the loyalists. For Hamilton, this means that even when he died, he died a martyr because he “wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for [him]” (Hamilton). To him, America is a “great unfinished symphony” where anyone can make a difference and climb to the top, no matter who they are or what their background is (Hamilton). When he is gone, he is remembered more for his contributions to the formation of America than for all the other questionable things he did. Meanwhile, Burr says that “now [he is] the villain in your history” (Hamilton). The reason for this is likely that killing Hamilton is the boldest thing he does in the public’s eyes, so that is how history remembers him. As mentioned earlier, Burr was cautious and uninvolved in contrast to Hamilton’s confidence. Like the rebels and the loyalists, in this case too, the boldest and most vibrant actions, whether good or bad, are immortalized by history and the people who take those actions are forever painted in their light.
In summary, this song offers insight on the lives and privileges of those involved in the American Revolution by revealing what ideologies and values divided the patriots and loyalists and how they were remembered going into the future.