Friday, June 6, 2008

I Would Rather Be Right than . . .

One of the most dramatic scenes in United States history was played out in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Two long-time political antagonists, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, faced each other with pistols — then a somewhat popular form of alternative dispute resolution — after what could probably be described as a failed co-mediation. As every student of history knows, Burr walked away afterward; Hamilton was carried.

The events surrounding the duel have been chronicled by Ron Chernow in Chapters 41 and 42 of his excellent biography of Hamilton (The Penguin Press 2004).

Burr, then Vice-President of the United States, knowing he was about to be dumped by President Thomas Jefferson in the upcoming national election, had just run for Governor of New York and lost decisively to Morgan Lewis. Hamilton, formerly Secretary of the United States Treasury in Washington’s cabinet, was trying to re-build his law practice after three years of being off the national political stage following the Federalist defeat in 1800.

The immediate cause of the fight was a letter published by a Doctor Charles D. Cooper, in which the author had attributed to Hamilton a number of disparaging remarks about Burr at a dinner gathering in New York a few months earlier. According to Chernow, after detailing several such remarks, Cooper ended his letter by stating: "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr." In a June 18 letter to Hamilton, Burr demanded to know what the "despicable opinion" was. Hamilton rather pedantically responded by objecting that the question was too general for him to answer. The dispute escalated over the next three weeks in a series of letters carried between the two men by their seconds, William P. Van Ness (Burr) and Judge Nathaniel Pendleton (Hamilton). Despite the efforts of these two gentlemen to assist their principals to reach an honorable accord, neither of the antagonists would give an inch.

Technically, by the accepted code of such "affairs of honor," Hamilton was correct in maintaining his legalistic stance. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the fact that Burr was a better shot! As Chernow put it: "In a shockingly brief span, the two men had moved to the brink of a duel and were ready to lay down their lives over an adjective."

Based on my experience, Mr. Chernow should not have been surprised by the way this drama unfolded. Even in this supposedly more enlightened age, many negotiations bog down over "the principle of the thing." Recall, for example, how much time was spent arguing over the shape of the table before serious negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam could even get started. Time and again, matters that seem important at the height of a controversy, but which seem utterly ridiculous in retrospect, will impede a settlement.

Of course, it takes a lot to convince antagonists who have "gotten their blood up" to back off and take a bird’s eye view of the situation. But one possible approach to moving beyond "the principle of the thing" might be to ask the parties to imagine how the dispute will be viewed by objective observers 200 years (or even two months) hence.

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