Facebook photos under the Fox Theatre’s marquee showed many bar members among the thousands who witnessed “Hamilton: An American Musical,” which finished its three- week Atlanta run Sunday night.
Lawyers might not have known that one of Georgia’s first federal judges is portrayed in the play’s climactic scene, the 1804 duel between former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr.
Burr tells the audience that he arrived at the New Jersey dueling ground with his second, William P. Van Ness, while “Hamilton arrived with his crew, Nathaniel Pendleton and a doctor that he knew.”
Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography on which the musical was based states that Pendleton was a Hamilton confidant who fought in the Revolutionary War before becoming a U.S. district court judge in Georgia. Pendleton also had been state attorney general from 1785 to 1786.
Pendleton served only seven years, resigning in 1796 and moving to New York “to escape the Georgia climate, which was harming his health,” Chernow reports.
In 1804, Pendleton and Van Ness were pulled into the long-simmering feud between Hamilton and Burr. The breaking point, Chernow explains, was Hamilton expressing an unspecified “despicable” opinion of Burr at a dinner party, according to a party guest’s letter that was subsequently published.
According to Chernow, duels were “elaborate forms of conflict resolution. … The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of the antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.”
Pendleton and Van Ness carried letters between Hamilton and Burr and met several times to hammer out a settlement, but the parties were intransigent, Chernow writes.
After Burr shot Hamilton to death, Pendleton and Van Ness issued a joint statement, concluding, “The conduct of the parties in that interview was perfectly proper as suited the occasion.”
Van Ness would go on to become a federal judge in New York, appointed by another foe of Hamilton, President James Madison.