Drunk History: An Intoxicated Look at the Famous Alexander Hamilton — Aaron Burr Duel

Improv com­e­dy troop Upright Cit­i­zens Brigade, who recy­cled U.S. his­to­ry in code duel­lo, an impro­vised enact­ment of the Alexan­der Hamil­ton-Aaron Burr duel, have cre­at­ed “Drunk His­to­ry,” which takes the cringe-wor­thy premise of the man-on-the-street pop quiz and adds some addi­tion­al elements—binge drink­ing and goofy his­tor­i­cal re-enact­ments with actors like Michael Cera (Super­bad, Arrest­ed Devel­op­ment, etc.). In this first episode of “Drunk His­to­ry,” Mark Gagliar­di, after drink­ing a bot­tle of scotch, nar­rates the sto­ry of the Hamil­ton-Burr duel, and Cera, in a ridicu­lous pow­dered wig and a pair of Vans, mimes the part of Hamil­ton. Gagliardi’s slurred nar­ra­tion and anachro­nis­tic touch­es like Cera/Hamilton on a cell phone ratch­et up the absur­di­ty.

The real sto­ry of the duel on July 11, 1804 involves some com­pli­ca­tions of elec­toral pol­i­tics and ide­o­log­i­cal con­flicts between the Fed­er­al­ist for­mer Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Hamil­ton and the anti-Fed­er­al­ist Vice-Pres­i­dent Burr. A long-stand­ing per­son­al feud between the two men was prob­a­bly exac­er­bat­ed by class con­flict: Hamil­ton had hum­ble ori­gins as a poor immi­grant from the Caribbean and Burr was son of a pres­i­dent of the future Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and grand­son of Puri­tan divine Jonathan Edwards. Although duel­ing was ille­gal at the time, the aris­to­crat­ic prac­tice con­tin­ued to set­tle dis­putes between gen­tle­men, and both Hamil­ton and Burr had been involved in sev­er­al pri­or duels. Nev­er­the­less, Hamil­ton was reluc­tant to meet Burr’s chal­lenge and is said to have delib­er­ate­ly missed his first shot (and in some dis­put­ed accounts, his pis­tol was loaded when he fell to the ground).

The Hamil­ton-Burr duel is one of the most inter­per­son­al­ly dra­mat­ic events in Amer­i­can history—easy fod­der for comedic treat­ment like “Drunk His­to­ry” and code duel­lo and high­ly seri­ous accounts like the PBS series Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence’s “The Duel.” But what some­times gets obscured behind the dra­ma are the polit­i­cal con­flicts over Fed­er­al­ist posi­tions, con­flicts that have nev­er quite been resolved and form the basis for our most heat­ed nation­al debates, includ­ing the still-rag­ing pol­i­tics, even after the Supreme Court’s rul­ing, of the Afford­able Care Act.

In the video below, his­to­ri­an Car­ol Berkin explains the often con­fus­ing debate between what came to be called, erro­neous­ly, Fed­er­al­ism and those who opposed the doc­trine.

Josh Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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