“Ten Duel Commandments” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Thematically this song was heavily inspired by the 1997 Notorious B.I.G. classic “Ten Crack Commandments”. On that track, Biggie Smalls puts forth 10 rules which, based on experience, he feels are prerequisites for being a successful crack dealer. 

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Lin-Manuel Miranda's Ten Duel Commandments at Lyrics.org.

And as the title of this particular song suggests the cast of Hamilton, a play set around the turn of the 19th century, are likewise putting forth 10 rules, albeit for one to be successful at dueling, which was an accepted mode of conflict resolution back in those days. 

More specifically, they are primarily referring to the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton, who was Vice President of the US at the time and his established rival, Aaron Burr.  And the way they went about dueling was via the usage of pistols.  So perhaps the easiest way to go about analyzing this piece is by breaking down the “10 Duel Commandments” one-by-one.

First Commandment

The first rule indicates, as duels tended to be, that the whole ordeal is about honor.  As such if your opponent apologizes beforehand, which would pretty much be the same as admitting defeat under such circumstances, then such is sufficient, as in “no… further action” being necessary.

Second Commandment

The second rule focuses on what in dueling circles were referred to as seconds. A second, most simply put, is the homey of a dueler. And the role which these individuals served first and foremost was trying to resolve the dispute before it actually went to the guns. Also, according to Wikipedia, they were tasked with “oversee(ing) the mechanics” of the duel. And in some cases a second may even fight in place of the primary dueler. And what the second commandment is saying, comprehensively, is to always have your second, i.e. your backup, by your side throughout such ordeals.

Third Commandment

Indeed the third commandment goes on to advise that you “have your seconds meet face-to-face”, i.e. your second and that of your adversary meeting. Ideally they are doing so to “negotiate a peace” between the two parties. Indeed the vocalist goes on to note that “most disputes die” without any shots actually being fired. But if such is not possible, then the two seconds should rather “negotiate a time and place” for the duel to transpire. 

Fourth Commandment

And along those same lines the fourth commandment dictates that if peace is not possible, then it’s all good.  For now it is time, in true B.I.G. fashion, “to get some pistols and a doctor on site”. 

And concerning said doctor, he’s to be paid in advance in addition to being treated well.  Also to note, duels were not necessarily free-for-alls where you just can just openly take the life of your opponent.  In fact in some places they were even illegal. As such, the doctor is also to be instructed to “turn around” once the fighting actually commences, so then he could not be brought as a witness to court.

The fifth commandment advises duelers to engage in combat before the rising of the sun.  Apparently there were a number of advantages to conducting such activities during the early dawn. The fifth commandment also puts forth that a “high and dry” place should be chosen to hold the duel. And it seems that latter bit of advice is also in case you’re the one who ends up on the wrong end of a sword.

Indeed the sixth commandment recommends that you “leave a note for your next of kin”.  It seems that doing so would be just in case you don’t make it back, so they would at least know how you met your fate. And on that note, you should also start praying regarding the afterlife.

Seventh and Eighth Commandments

As a matter of fact the seventh commandment directs the dueler to “confess your sins”, i.e. make peace with God, so to speak.  But all of that noted, now the moment has arrived to “finally face your opponent”. So you need to be ready for the adrenaline rush that follows.

It also becomes more obvious at this point that the vocalists are promoting peace more so than war. For at the beginning of the eighth commandment they are once again espousing negotiation, as in now being the “last chance” for a dueler to do so. Then the two actual figures upon which this song is based, the aforementioned Hamilton and Burr, have a fictionalized conversation in that regard. 

And anyone versed in the history of this dispute knows that the two of them did indeed go on to fight. And likewise in the song, these two figures are not able to put their differences aside peacefully.

Ninth Commandment

The ninth commandment then advises a dueler in two regards. First is to look your opponent squarely in the eye and to “aim no higher” than that. And secondly, actually busting a shot at him is going to require you to “summon all the courage you require”. 

Tenth Commandment

And lastly, the tenth duel commandment is to take the “ten paces” mandated by the rules of the duel and then to “fire” upon your opponent.



So conclusively, this song is fictional and historical at the same time. That is to say that it’s writers most likely have never been in a duel nor actually bore witness to one firsthand, as by this point in time the practice is well outdated. But that said, they based the lyrics on one that actually transpired as well as historical documents detailing how these types of battles went down. 

So this piece is perhaps something a history teacher would covet, i.e. the detailing of an important 19th century event and practice put into the form of an entertaining, modern-day hip-hop song. But at the same time, as it tends to go with such projects, fully understanding it necessitates a bit of additional research.

"Ten Duel Commandments"
"Ten Duel Commandments"

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