Charles Town, West Virginia
The Duel – Hamilton and Burr
Submitted to the Department of History
December 16, 2011
On July 11, 1804, a duel occurred in Weehawken, New Jersey. Duels were not extremely uncommon in those days but what made this one significant was the individuals involved in the contest. One of the participants was Aaron Burr who happened to be the sitting Vice President of the United States. The other participant was Alexander Hamilton, who was a well-respected statesman and had been the first Secretary of the Treasury serving in the administration of President George Washington. At the conclusion of the duel, Hamilton was mortally wounded and died after suffering in agony for 36 hours. Burr was wanted for murder in New York and New Jersey. Much has been written about the famous duel that occurred that day in Weehawken, New Jersey between Hamilton and Burr. There can be no doubt that much led up to the fateful interaction that day. In addition to the literal duel that occurred and resulted in the end of Alexander Hamilton’s life, there was also a figurative duel between the two men that went on for years prior to Hamilton’s death. While Burr was not injured in the duel, some would suggest that the duel was the end of Aaron Burr just as much as it was Alexander Hamilton. But how might American history have been different if the duel had a different outcome? What if Hamilton had shot and killed Aaron Burr? What if neither man had been injured in the duel?
Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist and was a major contributor to The Federalist Papers. Hamilton served in the US Congress and then served brilliantly as Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. Aaron Burr, on the other hand, was a
Republican. Their differences go back many years prior to their fateful meeting in 1804. One of the first negative interactions occurred in 1791 when Burr won a senate seat from Hamilton’s father-in-law. Hamilton was serving as Secretary of the Treasury to President Washington at the time and was frustrated with Burr’s win of the senate seat.
In 1800, Aaron Burr ran for President. He tied in the Electoral College with fellow Republican Thomas Jefferson, so the decision of who was to be President was decided in the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who hated Jefferson, seemed intent on electing Aaron Burr rather than Jefferson. Hamilton lobbied hard for Jefferson with his Federalist colleagues suggesting that Burr was not an honorable man. The fact that Hamilton lobbied for Jefferson rather than Burr demonstrates the extent of his dislike for Burr. Hamilton and Jefferson were the bitterest of rivals while serving the in the administration of President Washington – Jefferson as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury. Of course, Thomas Jefferson became President and Burr was relegated to the Vice Presidency.
Then in 1804, Burr ran for Governor of New York. Burr ran as an Independent rather than a Republican and, again, Hamilton opposed Burr and encouraged his fellow Federalists not to support Burr. Burr ultimately lost the election to Morgan Lewis, the Republican nominee. Burr’s situation was worsening as his term as Vice President was coming to an end. He was in serious debt and, as a private citizen, would have little shelter from creditors.
In that same year, a letter was published in a New York newspaper quoting Hamilton making disparaging remarks about Burr. As a result of the published letter, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. It may be that Burr believed that a duel with Hamilton would revive his political career. Perhaps Burr was sincerely offended and frustrated with Hamilton and felt a duel was the appropriate recourse. In any case, Hamilton was obliged to accept, in spite of the ironic fact that Hamilton considered himself “strongly opposed to the practice of dueling”.
It should also be noted that this was