William P. Van Ness Helps Burr Receive Satisfaction
William P. Van Ness was a lower-level Founder who’s role in the creation of the United States was small.
Van Ness was lucky enough, however, to be one of the two witnesses to the Hamilton-Burr duel.
Controlling the Narrative
“Dr Sir, If your attention to your friend will not be interrupted by it, I will be greatly obliged to you, to inform me of the situation of General Hamilton. I sincerely hope that his wound is not, as has been stated to me, pronounced mortal.”
Van Ness was writing to Nathaniel Pendleton. The two men had been the opponents’ ‘Seconds’ (a dueling term of assistant).
Van Ness and Pendleton spent the previous days corresponding to each other on behalf of the combatants. They set the rules of engagement, went to the scene, and loaded the pistols.
They were the only two men who witnessed the duel.
Though it may seem that Van Ness was only trying to cover his (and Burr’s) rear end, the truth is that by the codes of the day the parties needed to present a unified front. Many people frowned upon dueling and traditionally it was the job of the Seconds to work together in alleviating public concerns.
This is demonstrated again later in the letter where Van Ness states:
“The propriety of withholding particular information, and answers to interrogatories at this moment has doubtless occurred to you. I only take the liberty of suggesting it here, least your present solicitude should render you less cautious than usual.”
William P. Van Ness
So, who was William P. Van Ness and how did he find himself playing a role in one of the most important deaths in American history?
Van Ness was born into an upper-middle class New York family. He studied law with Edward Livingston, a member of the all-important (though much underappreciated) Livingston Family.
At just 22, William passed the bar. About this time, he became friendly with Aaron Burr and became his right-hand man during the Presidential Campaign of 1800.
When Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in voting and the House of Representatives was given the task of choosing the third President, Van Ness quietly urged Federalist Party members to choose Burr for the position.
By the time of the duel, William had written Examination of Charges against Aaron Burr in defense of his mentor’s actions during the campaign.
After the duel William P. Van Ness stayed in New York. He wisely did not follow the Vice-President (Burr) west on the filibustering expedition which would later lead to accusations of treason.
Instead he continued his law practice in New York City. During this time, Van Ness published several books, most of which discussed the laws of his State and were primarily for use as textbooks.
Shortly after James Madison ascended to the Presidency, he appointed William to the United States District Court for the District of New York. Although this position would change two years later to the Southern District of New York, the duties remained the same an Van Ness held a Federal Justiceship for the remainder of his life.
The Van Buren Connection
Future President Martin Van Buren read law under William P. Van Ness during his studies to pass the bar.
Van Buren was recommended to Ness based on their shared beliefs, and William introduced the young man to the political games being played in New York City. Although he knew Aaron Burr while during Burr’s Vice Presidency, Martin began a law practice Upstate before the duel took place.
Decades later, while Van Buren himself was Vice President, he purchased Van Ness’ old property, renaming it Lindenwalden.
Did you know there were several Founders who fought in duels? Learn about some of these gentlemen by perusing my articles for Richard Dobbs Spaight, John Cadwalader, and Declaration Signer Button Gwinnett.
If you’d like to learn more about The Duel, pick up a copy of ‘Founding Brothers’ which discusses several key moments in Revolutionary History. This is the book that changed me from casual history fan to Founders nut. For that reason it holds a special place in my heart. Make sure you get a copy through the affiliate link below.