The morning mist, still clinging to the ground, was the only witness as two of the most prominent men of the era stood facing each other on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. It was July 11, 1804, and the legendary duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton was about to commence. The culmination of a political and personal rivalry that had simmered for years, this event would mark a turning point in American history, and define the legacy of both men.
Aaron Burr was then Vice President of the United States, serving under President Thomas Jefferson. Despite holding one of the highest offices in the nation, Burr’s political future was in jeopardy due to a number of controversies and political enemies. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, was a former Secretary of the Treasury and one of the United States’ founding fathers. His influence on the nation’s early politics was immense, and his strong Federalist views often put him at odds with the Republican Burr.
The duel between Burr and Hamilton was one of the last instances of this once-common practice among gentlemen in the United States. While it may seem strange to modern audiences, dueling was viewed by many in the early nineteenth century as a legitimate way of settling disputes, particularly those involving questions of honor. Despite this, the Burr-Hamilton duel held a particular significance due to the stature of the two men involved and the circumstances surrounding their disagreement. The duel marked a watershed moment, and the outcry it prompted would accelerate the decline of the practice in the United States.
Background of the Aaron Burr vs Alexander Hamilton Duel
While their relationship had been strained for years, the animosity between Burr and Hamilton escalated dramatically during the 1800 presidential election. Burr, the Republican candidate for vice president, and Thomas Jefferson, the presidential candidate, tied in electoral votes. The decision was then passed to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation cast a single vote. Hamilton, a Federalist, used his influence to ensure that Jefferson was chosen over Burr.
Burr would go on to serve as Vice President under Jefferson, but Hamilton’s actions during the election had soured their relationship. Burr believed that Hamilton had deliberately sabotaged his political career, and this perceived slight would form a central part of their escalating rivalry. Hamilton’s fierce opposition to Burr’s political aspirations did not end with the 1800 election. He also opposed Burr’s candidacy for governor of New York in 1804, again contributing to Burr’s defeat.
In April of that year, a letter was published in a newspaper that cited Hamilton’s opinion of Burr as “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted.” Burr, feeling his honor was at stake, demanded an explanation from Hamilton. Hamilton neither denied nor apologized for the comments, leading to a series of letters exchanged between the two men that ultimately resulted in the challenge to a duel.
Preparing for the Duel
The code duello, a set of guidelines governing dueling, dictated many aspects of the preparations. Burr and Hamilton, adhering to the etiquette of the day, each selected a “second”—essentially, a combination of an adviser and a witness. Burr chose William Van Ness, a young lawyer, while Hamilton selected Nathaniel Pendleton, a friend and fellow veteran of the Revolutionary War.
As was customary, the seconds attempted to reconcile the two men and avoid the duel altogether. When those efforts failed, they turned to the logistics. The location selected was the same place where Hamilton’s son, Philip, had died in a duel three years earlier—an eerie coincidence that only added to the drama of the event.
The weapons used were a pair of .54 caliber Wogdon dueling pistols provided by Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Barker Church. Interestingly, these guns had a hidden “hair-trigger” setting that allowed for a lighter pull and more accurate shot. There is still debate among historians as to whether Hamilton knew about and used this feature.
The Burr-Hamilton Duel
On the morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton, along with their seconds and Dr. David Hosack, rowed across the Hudson River to the dueling ground at Weehawken. Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, and the seclusion of the site was chosen in an attempt to avoid the attention of the authorities.
Upon reaching the grounds, Hamilton and Burr took their places 10 paces apart. The seconds, standing to the side, prepared to witness the grim proceedings. The specifics of what happened next have been the subject of much debate. Burr claimed that Hamilton fired first and that he returned fire in response. However, Hamilton’s second, Pendleton, stated that Burr fired first and that Hamilton’s shot—said to have struck a tree branch above and behind Burr—was a reflexive response.
Regardless of who fired first, the end result was tragically clear: Hamilton was hit. The bullet struck him in the lower abdomen, fracturing his ribs and damaging his liver and diaphragm. He fell to the ground, and his pistol discharged into the air. Burr, unharmed, was hustled off the field as Dr. Hosack rushed to Hamilton’s side.
Hosack found Hamilton conscious but in great pain. He was transported back across the river to the home of a friend in New York City, where he was attended to by numerous physicians. Despite their best efforts, Hamilton’s condition continued to worsen throughout the day. He died the next afternoon, with his wife, Elizabeth, and seven of their eight children at his side.
As news of Hamilton’s death spread, there was an immediate public outcry. Hamilton was mourned as a national hero, while Burr was vilified. Despite his role as Vice President, Burr found himself an outcast, even within his own party.
Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, but the charges were eventually dropped. However, his political career was effectively over. He would later be implicated in a plot to establish an independent territory in the Southwest and was tried for treason. Although acquitted, his reputation was further tarnished, and he spent much of the rest of his life in Europe before returning to New York to practice law.
The Impact of the Burr-Hamilton Duel
The death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with the Vice President of the United States sent shockwaves through the nation. It gave a significant push to the anti-dueling movement, particularly in New York. By 1809, a law had been passed in the state that not only outlawed dueling, but also disenfranchised anyone who issued or accepted a dueling challenge. This effectively made it political suicide for a gentleman to take part in a duel.
Burr’s life post-duel was marked by controversy and failure. Shunned by society and haunted by his past, he died in obscurity in 1836. His legacy has been largely defined by the duel and its aftermath.
The Burr-Hamilton duel remains one of the most infamous events in American history. It was a tragic end to the lives of two men who had played crucial roles in the formation of the nation. And it marked the beginning of the end for a practice that had, for so long, been a part of the American cultural fabric.