You think politics today is a vicious contact sport? Sissy stuff. On July 11, 1804 the sitting Vice President of the United States plugged a Founding Father in the gut leaving him to die in agony a day later. It was the most famous Affair of Honor in American History—the fatal meeting between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, a bluff overlooking the Hudson River and the City of New York beyond.
The men, so alike in temperament and ambition, were long-time bitter political rivals.
Alexander Hamilton--the bastard son of small time Barbados merchant and certified Founding Father at the peak of his career in 1792 as the first Secretary of the Treasury and George Washington's most trusted advisor. Detail from a full length portrait by John Trumbull.
Hamilton, of course, was George Washington favorite, the virtual son he never had. After distinguished service as Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Revolution, he became the principal author of the Federalist Papers. As Secretary of the Treasury, he famously paid off American war debt and established the First Bank of the United States. Thomas Jefferson’s bitter personal and political rival, Hamilton founded and was the chief architect and organizer of the Federalist Party. In New York he was a successful lawyer and businessman who married into the wealthy and powerful Patroon dynasty, the Schuylers.
Yet despite his wealth, success, and fame, he was humiliated by the humble circumstances of his birth as the bastard child of a Scottish clerk on the island colony of Barbados. He would be haunted by rumors that his mother was a mulato creole. He knew that he was not by rights a gentleman and his foreign birth forever precluded him from becoming truly Washington’s heir as President.Aaron Burr is commemorated for his service as the third Vice President by this bust in the Senate chamber.
Burr was born in more privileged circumstances, the son and namesake of a leading Presbyterian divine and the second president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton.) He served with distinction in the Revolution displaying battlefield bravery and shrewd tactical acumen many times. He achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but despite his notable achievements was not elevated to higher rank by Washington—a cause of personal bitterness. After the war Burr married the daughter of a British officer and moved to New York where he became the leading criminal defense attorney in the city. After a turn in the State Assembly, Burr’s political fortunes rose under the sponsorship of Governor George Clinton, the leading northern ally of Jefferson in his emerging Democratic Republican Party. Clinton appointed young Burr state Attorney General and backed him in 1791 when Burr beat incumbent Phillip Schuyler—Hamilton’s father-in-law—to take a U.S. Senate seat.
Although their previous personal relations were cordial much of their mutual enmity grew from this confrontation. In the end Burr grew restless in a Senate dominated by Federalists and prolonged absences hurt his income as an attorney on which he was dependent since he was not personally wealthy. He resigned his seat to return to the state Assembly. Officially an independent with Republican leanings, Burr also drew support from moderate Federalists who became alarmed at Hamilton’s attacks on President John Adams. In the city Burr assembled his own political organization, considered by many one of the first political machines. He enlisted the support of a local patriotic society, The Sons of St. Tammany, in addition to Jefferson loyalists.
In the election of 1800, New York and its rich electoral vote was considered pivotal. Burr was named running mate to Jefferson on the Democratic Republican ticket in the hope that he could deliver New York, although the Assembly was in Federalist hands before the election. Federalists in the city under Hamilton were in disarray, divided by his tepid support of the President. A private letter by Hamilton highly critical of Adams’ character was published causing considerable damage and Burr was suspected—but never proven—to be behind the dirty trick. Meanwhile his new machine paid off handsomely. Republicans swept the city taking with it the Assembly which in turn selected Republican electors.
Under the Constitution at the time the candidate with a majority of electors won the presidency and the second place finisher became vice president. This system was in place before the development of parties. There was no provision for tickets or a designated vice presidential candidate. There was a plan for one elector to withhold a vote to Burr, but mysteriously none did so, resulting in a 73-73 tie vote between Jefferson and Burr. The decision was thrown into the House of Representatives where Federalists held a substantial edge.
The election of 1800 was thrown into the House of Representatives when Jefferson and Democratic-Republican running mate both received 73 Electoral College votes.
The House soon deadlocked. Despite public and private statements deferring to Jefferson, ever ambitious, Burr privately courted friends of John Adams among the Federalists to block Jefferson. Hamilton sprang into action himself, unleashing a flurry of letters urging the election of Jefferson who he considered the “far less dangerous of the two.” However, much he detested Jefferson, he despised Burr more. On the 36th ballot Hamilton convinced two of his supporters to abstain. Recognizing defeat, Burr’s moderate Federalist support fell in line behind Jefferson. Needless to say, after the intrigue relations between the new President and Vice President were icy.
Against this festering background, things came to a head in 1804 as it became apparent that Jefferson would dump Burr as Vice President. He turned his eyes to a comeback in Albany as Governor. These plans were squashed when Hamilton threw his support behind another Republican, Morgan Lewis. During the campaign an ardent supporter of Hamilton sent a letter to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler excoriating Burr and alluding to “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” The letter indiscreetly found publication in the Albany Register. Burr whipped off a letter demanding of Hamilton an “explanation and apology.” Hamilton professed ignorance of any such statement and refused to apologize.
After subsequent exchanges through intermediaries, Burr formally challenged Hamilton. At many points in this exchange either party could have diffused the situation over a slight which many historians believe did not rise to the occasion of an affair of honor even among the prickly. But they did not. Hamilton may have been suffering depression over the downturn of his political fortunes—the defeat of Adams had destroyed the Federalists as a national party leaving behind only a sectional rump in New England. He had also been humiliated by a sexual blackmail scandal which had caused him to issue a public letter admitting to indiscretions. And he was also deeply in debt. Most of all, he mourned the loss of his son Philip who had been killed on the Weehawken dueling ground in 1801 in a fight at least partly over his father’s honor.
Plans were laid for the duel, which would be held in secret in New Jersey because dueling had been outlawed in New York State and because both men, despite participation in earlier duels, were publicly opposed to the practice. In a document written to be found in event he was killed, Hamilton wrote that:
I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.
This was a common, honorable, practice which was usually, but not universally, honored in turn by the second party refusing to fire or “wasting his shot.” In this manner most duels ended bloodlessly but honorably. But Burr had no way of knowing that this was Hamilton’s intention.
Only fanciful pictures of the duel exist. This one at least shows Hamilton wasting his shot in the air. But all the seconds and witnesses stood apart with their back turned so as not to be able to testify as eye witnesses. The men arrived by boat across the Hudson, not by carriage. And Burr would have broken his wrist and probably his nose had he discharged his pistol in such a ridiculous manner.
There was no eyewitnesses testimony to the shooting itself. The seconds to both men and the hired oarsmen who had ferried them across the Hudson were positioned with their backs to the action so that if called to court they could truthfully testify that they did not “witness fire.” The best reconstruction of the events goes as follows—although a minority historians debate virtually every single particular to this day.
The men faced each other at a distance of less than twenty feet. Hamilton faced east, across the river with the morning sun in his eyes. There was a slight, rising mist. Hamilton ostentatiously practiced aiming and sighting his pistol and polished his glasses for better vision, which would have indicted to Burr that he intended to shoot. By lot, Hamilton had the first shot. He raised his pistol and fired high into the air, the bullet lodging in a tree limb high above and to the left of Burr. But this was not the common way to “waste a bullet” which was to fire into the ground.
Burr may have concluded that he had simply come under incompetent fire. At any rate, he leveled his matched pistol and fired, striking Hamilton in the stomach. The bullet grazed his liver and diaphragm before becoming lodged in his spine, likely paralyzing him below the wound. He crumpled to the ground immediately.
Turning around witnesses describe Burr as looking shocked and starting toward Hamilton before his second rushed him away, hiding him behind an umbrella. Hamilton told Dr. David Hosack, “The wound is fatal” before collapsing into unconsciousness. The doctor soon lost trace of a pulse or sign of respiration. Seconds hurriedly carried the wounded man to the boat, where he revived.
Carried to the home of an acquaintance Hamilton lingered until the next day, much of the time awake but delirious with pain.
Burr must have known that his political career was as dead as Hamilton. Public outrage was great. He was indicted for murder in both New Jersey and New York. Burr fled the city to the South Carolina plantation of his beloved daughter Theodosia. The murder charges in New Jersey were eventually dismissed.
Burr returned to Washington to finish his term as Vice President, dutifully presiding over sessions of the Senate. His final days were marked as the presiding officer in the impeachment of Federal Judge Samuel Chase with what a contemporary said was, “with the dignity and impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil.” Soon after he summoned all of his considerable charm in an emotional farewell to the Senate that had even some of his old enemies in tears.
Burr turned his attention to adventurous schemes in the West including a filibustering campaign to liberate Texas from the Spanish—or possibly to set himself up a ruler of an inland empire. Unfortunately for Burr one of his fellow plotters was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army James Wilkinson, who was also a long-time secret agent of the Spanish (can’t make this kind of stuff up, folks.) As authorities began to uncover the plot, Wilkinson saved himself in a letter to President Jefferson putting the whole thing in Burr’s lap.
Burr defends himself at his treason trial presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall.
Jefferson was eager for revenge on Burr and had him prosecuted for treason. The President was foiled at the 1807 trial presided over by Federalist Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall sitting as a circuit judge who directed a verdict of acquittal on the grounds that no eyewitnesses to any overt acts could be found.
Fleeing notoriety and creditors Burr went to Europe where he tried to raise money for further western adventures. He lived for a while with noted British Unitarian Jeremy Bentham. He was eventually ordered out of England and Napoleon Bonaparte refused to entertain him to hear about his plot to seize Spanish Florida and/or British Caribbean islands.
In 1812 Burr returned to New York, where he was tried for murdering Hamilton but acquitted. He resumed the practice of law and his charm ensured a wide circle of friends. One feeble attempt at a political comeback failed. His heart and health were broken when his beloved daughter Theodosia and his grandson perished in a shipwreck. A long-time widower, he married a wealthy heiress late in life, but she walked out after only four months after discovering that Burr was siphoning her riches to support Western land investment schemes. She was granted a divorce on the day he died. September 14, 1836 at the age of 80 after a paralyzing stroke.
Hamilton is more kindly remembered by history, His bust stands on the old Weehawken Dueling Grounds in New Jersey overlooking the Hudson River.
The Burr-Hamilton Duel spurred opposition to dueling in the North. Burr, with his reputation for shady dealings and political opportunism is generally cast as the villain of the story by historians. But he had his supporters, including liberal novelist Gore Vidal, who made Burr the hero of one of the novels in his multi-volume American history arc.
Following the duel Anti-dueling sentiment spread, laws against the practice were more scrupulously enforced and new ones were enacted where they had not previously been in force. By 1830 most of the nation outlawed dueling, and it was rapidly disappearing in the North. It long remained common, however, among the Southern Planter class and in the military, two places in which honor depended on the acknowledgement of others and could be irretrievably lost if not defended.