On July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton during a duel.
The duel was the culmination of years of conflict between the two men. They were bitter political rivals from opposing factions and the animosity often got personal.
Ironically, George Washington warned about the danger of party politics during his farewell speech.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
The Burr-Hamiton feud demonstrates what can happen when factional rivalries go to extremes.
The animous started in 1791 when Burr, a Democrat-Republican, defeated Hamilton’s Federalist father-in-law in a U.S. Senate race. In the 1800 presidential election, the Electoral College deadlocked, throwing the election to the U.S. House. Hamilton ultimately managed to get several fellow Federalists to change their vote from Burr to Jefferson on the 36th and final ballot, denying Burr the presidency.
In an 1801 letter to James McHenry, Hamilton reveals the extent of his animosity.
“Nothing has given me so much chagrin as the Intelligence that the Federal party were thinking seriously of supporting Mr. Burr for president. I should consider the execution of the plan as devoting the country and signing their own death warrant. Mr. Burr will probably make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and will break them the first moment it may serve his purpose.”
In another letter, Hamilton called Burr a “profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme,” and accused him of corruption. Hamilton claimed Burr served the interests of the Holland Land Company while a member of the legislature. He also criticized Burr’s military commission, accusing him of resigning it under false pretenses.
In 1804, Burr ran for governor of New York. Again, Hamilton interjected himself into the election, and Burr blamed Hamilton for his ultimate defeat in that race.
On April 24, 1804, the Albany Register published a letter written by Charles Cooper to Hamilton’s father-in-law opposing Burr’s candidacy. The letter referenced a previous statement by Cooper.
“General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.”
Cooper went on to emphasize that he could describe in detail “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
Burr took offense at being called “despicable” and demanded “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertion of Dr. Cooper.” Hamilton replied that he couldn’t be held responsible for Cooper’s interpretation of his words, saying he would “abide the consequences” should Burr remain unsatisfied.
Burr responded, asserting that “political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum.” After more fruitless back and forth, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and Hamilton accepted.
The two men squared off in Weehawken, New Jersey, in the early morning hours of July 11, 1804. It was common for duelists to deliberately miss, thus proving their courage and ending the duel. It appears Hamilton took this approach, shooting over Burr’s head. Burr then fired, hitting Hamilton above his right hip. The ball broke one of Hamilton’s ribs, causing extensive internal injuries, and lodged in his spine.
It’s difficult to know exactly how the duel played out. The seconds who were the only witnesses, had their backs turned so they could plausibly deny seeing shots fired, given that dueling was illegal
Historian Joseph Ellis offers the most solid speculation on what exactly happened in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
“Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr’s location. In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge. Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton’s gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear. According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.”
Hamilton died the following day.
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