Weehawken Dueling Ground

Weehawken, New Jersey

Weehawken, New Jersey

Like most things in this country, the original is lost. It comes creeping to us out of the past, interpreted by some as “rocks that look like rows of trees”. And that makes sense, perched so high on those sheer ancient palisades. But it also might mean “place of gulls”, and as you watch them pirouette and dance in the sky above your head, you can see the logic in that. But there is also a school of thought that Weehawken draws it’s name from the old Lenape word for “at the end of”. And that sounds just. Standing here at the end of the cliffs. At the end of America where it meets the Hudson. At the end of the life of Alexander Hamilton and for that matter, Aaron Burr.

Old guidebooks point you to a park overlooking the Hudson and the bright gleaming towers of Wall Street. But you have to keep going, south, in the general direction of the Virgin Islands, following the cliff around to where it veers off onto a namesake road leading you to a flagpole, a bust, a boulder and a few plaques, all surrounded by a black fence. And I understand that fence. You don’t want this to become a magnet for suicide. You wouldn’t want this tragedy to lend some sort of poetry or legitimacy to the confused or the merely murderous.

The shadow of the flag falls across the boulder behind it, the boulder that legend says Hamilton collapsed upon on that July day in 1804, the bullet from Burr’s pistol having bounced off ribs and lodged somewhere in his spine. But even that quickly becomes a myth that the plaques waste no time disabusing you of. Because no one, no matter how angry or insulted, would climb the sheer rock face of the Palisades merely to have a duel. Such an exercise would demonstrate a colossal lack of planning. And dueling was, if nothing else, eminently well planned. So the plaques direct your gaze back down towards the shoreline. Telling you “somewhere below this site” in the general vicinity of those condominiums and railroad tracks and BMWs, “all came to defend their honor according to the custom of the day.”

So you head back down toward the river, asking yourself as you go, is that what they were doing here? After all, it seems plausible. Hamilton insulted Burr and the code duello was clear on what had to happen next. The separate boats bringing the parties across in the dawn. The pistols hidden from the view of the rowers so that they could claim ignorance. The seconds, who would turn their backs and step away from the action at the last minute to protect their own innocence – at least as far as a court of law was concerned. The very spot itself – the very spot you’re looking for now – secluded from view, and yet paradoxically easily accessible and known to all.

The plaques of course list Hamilton and Burr and a few other notables who made the trek out here. Curiously, they don’t mention Hamilton’s son, Philip, who died on this very spot – where ever it is – only three years before. Who died in a duel to defend the honour of his father, a duel his father – who had groomed him from birth for the great things he himself had nearly achieved, who had guided every aspect of his life in exactly the way his own Caribbean parents never had done for him – a duel his father personally directed him into.

So you have to wonder, as you wander the shoreline, if it wasn’t so much honour that Hamilton was looking to defend as it was a future he was looking to recapture. A lost son. A career that was now in shambles, his personal reputation in tatters, his power – which had seemed so complete only four years earlier that many believe he was personally responsible for Jefferson’s ultimate election – a distant memory.

And Burr? What was he doing here? What was the sitting Vice-President of the United States doing here? He had come within one single vote – literally! – of becoming the third president of the United States! He nearly became governor of New York! Certainly he wasn’t well-liked, and of course, he and Hamilton had been trading barbs and insults for years. But what was the logic of standing here on this grassy knoll on this hot summer day? To what possible end? To finally eliminate this thorn in his political ambitions? To fix the past that had always swirled about him with some kind of rumour and innuendo for as long as he could remember?

And did they find it, either of them? Did Burr find the respect he’d always felt eluded him? Did Hamilton find the future he’d lost?

And that’s when you realize what this is. As you stop hacking through the brush and the undergrowth, as you turn your back to the Palisades and look out across the river named for that misguided Dutchman, you give up and you realize what you have found. There is a reason you can’t find it. There is a reason you can’t name it. There is a reason Burr and Hamilton lost everything here. Because this is America’s national monument to not finding what you’re looking for.

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~ by martinbihl on March 24, 2009.

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