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Tales of Our Country: The Duel

It’s July 11, 1804. The sun has just risen over the Hudson River that divides New York and New Jersey. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are on separate boats crossing to New Jersey, prepared to meet on a rock near Weehawken. They are ready to duel, defending their honor after their long-time rivalry.

It all started in 1791, when Burr defeated Phillip Schulyer, Hamilton’s father-in-law. Schulyer would have been a supporter of Hamilton’s federalist ideas, what later would morph into the Federalist party. Burr, on the other hand, leaned closer to Thomas Jefferson’s philosophies, what would later become the Democratic-Republican party.

The feud picked up again in 1800 when the presidential election ended in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives. Hamilton, though not a Congressman, was a well-known figure having previously served as Secretary of the Treasury. His influence was immense. Hamilton choose to back Jefferson, resulting in Burr becoming the vice president.

By 1804, it became clear that Jefferson had no intention of keeping Burr on the ticket for the upcoming election. Burr instead chose to focus on running for Governor of New York.  Hamilton actively campaigned against him. One major incident during this time was a letter from Charles Cooper, a lawyer and member of the Democratic-Republican party, to Phillip Schulyer. The letter recounts an incident in which Hamilton called Burr a “dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” The letter was published in the Albany Register and caused quite a stir. Burr responded demanding that Hamilton either own up to what was recounted or deny it. Hamilton punched back saying that he could not be held responsible for how Cooper interpreted his words (a rather cheeky response). Burr punched back. Published letters were the Twitter of the day and honor was an important public asset.

The correspondence culminated in a challenge issued by Burr for which Hamilton reluctantly accepted. Burr was attempting to recover some of the honor he lost in the eyes of the public, largely at the hands of Hamilton who had little choice but to accept because he attacked Burr first.

The duel was finally on. Hamilton and Burr arrived with their valets, chose their weapons, and took their positions. Two shots were fired but the time between them is up for debate. Most accounts state that Hamilton fired first, missing Burr. The general consensus is that Hamilton intended to miss and had even pledged to before the duel. Burr fired back and hit Hamilton in the rib cage. Under the dueling code, Burr was perfectly justified in doing this but  whether he meant to hit Hamilton or not is also up for debate. Recall that weapons back then were not as precise as they are now. Shocked, Burr approached Hamilton before fleeing. Hamilton was taken back to New York where he would die the next day.

The duel had several implications. For one, it was one of the last major duels in American history and proved to be the tipping point for the anti-dueling movement in the northeast. New Jersey and New York had already begun to make the practice illegal, but this duel really pushed it over the edge, also putting the practice out of fashion. It was also a rare instance in which too political rivals resorted to such measures, demonstrating the fragility of the new union and showing that the government is only as strong as the individuals that make it up, according to historian Joseph Ellis. Finally, according to Ellis, it is the only example of bloodshed between too American political compatriots until the Civil War.

Hamilton would live on in history as the victim and Burr a murderer. Burr was still the sitting vice president when all of this occurred. He completed his term then fled. The story of his exile, capture and trials is a fascinating one but that’s another tale of our country.