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Thu Jul 11, 2019, 09:05 AM

215 Years Ago Today; The US Vice-President shoots and scores... a musical.


A 20th-century rendering by J. Mund depicting the July 11, 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

The Burr–Hamilton duel was fought at Weehawken, New Jersey between Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury. It occurred on July 11, 1804, and was the culmination of a long and bitter rivalry between the two men. Vice President Burr shot Hamilton, while Hamilton's shot broke a tree branch directly above Burr's head. Hamilton was carried to the home of William Bayard Jr. where he died the next day.

The Burr–Hamilton duel is one of the most famous personal conflicts in American history. It was a pistol duel which arose from long-standing personal bitterness that developed between the two men over the course of several years. Tension rose with Hamilton's journalistic defamation of Burr's character during the 1804 New York gubernatorial race, in which Burr was a candidate.

The duel was fought at a time when the practice was being outlawed in the northern United States, and it had immense political ramifications. Burr survived the duel and was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, though these charges were later either dismissed or resulted in acquittal. The harsh criticism and animosity directed toward him following the duel brought an end to his political career. The Federalist Party was already weakened by the defeat of John Adams in the presidential election of 1800 and was further weakened by Hamilton's death.

The duel was the final skirmish of a long conflict between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. The conflict began in 1791 when Burr won a United States Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, who would have supported Federalist policies. (Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury at the time.) The Electoral College then deadlocked in the election of 1800, during which Hamilton's maneuvering in the House of Representatives caused Thomas Jefferson to be named president and Burr vice-president.[2]

Hamilton's animosity toward Burr was severe and well-documented in personal letters to his friend and compatriot James McHenry. The following quotation from one of these letters on January 4, 1801 exemplifies his bitterness:

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.

Hamilton details the many charges that he has against Burr in a more extensive letter written shortly afterward, calling him a "profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme", accusing him of corruptly serving the interests of the Holland Land Company while a member of the legislature, criticizing his military commission and accusing him of resigning it under false pretenses, and many more serious accusations.

It became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, so the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York instead. Hamilton campaigned vigorously against Burr, who was running as an independent, causing him to lose to Morgan Lewis, a Democratic-Republican endorsed by Hamilton.

Both men had been involved in duels in the past. Hamilton had participated in 10 duels where the pistols failed to fire prior to his fatal encounter with Burr, including duels with William Gordon (1779), Aedanus Burke (1790), John Francis Mercer (1792–1793), James Nicholson (1795), James Monroe (1797), and Ebenezer Purdy and George Clinton (1804). He also served as a second to John Laurens in a 1779 duel with General Charles Lee, and to legal client John Auldjo in a 1787 duel with William Pierce. Hamilton also claimed that he had one previous honor dispute with Burr, while Burr stated that there were two.


The duel

Artistic impression of Burr's shot

In the early morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed from Manhattan by separate boats and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, a popular dueling ground below the towering cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades. Dueling had been prohibited in both New York and New Jersey, but Hamilton and Burr agreed to take the duel to Weehawken because New Jersey was not as aggressive in prosecuting dueling participants as New York. The same site was used for 18 known duels between 1700 and 1845. They also took steps to give all witnesses plausible deniability in an attempt to shield themselves from prosecution. For example, the pistols were transported to the island in a portmanteau, enabling the rowers to say under oath that they had not seen any pistols. They also stood with their backs to the duelists.

Burr, William Peter Van Ness (his second), Matthew L. Davis, another man (often identified as John Swarthout), and the rowers all reached the site at 6:30 a.m., whereupon Swarthout and Van Ness started to clear the underbrush from the dueling ground. Hamilton, Judge Nathaniel Pendleton (his second), and David Hosack arrived a few minutes before seven. Lots were cast for the choice of position and which second should start the duel. Both were won by Hamilton's second, who chose the upper edge of the ledge for Hamilton, facing the city. However, Joseph Ellis claims that Hamilton had been challenged and therefore had choice of both weapon and position. Under this account, it was Hamilton himself who chose the upstream or north side position. The duel took place near the area where Philip Hamilton had lost a duel to George Eacker three years earlier.

All first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired, although the seconds disagreed on the intervening time between the shots. It was common for both principals in a duel to fire a shot at the ground to exemplify courage, and then the duel could come to an end. Hamilton apparently fired a shot above Burr's head. Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The large-caliber lead ball ricocheted off Hamilton's third or second false rib, fracturing it and causing considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm, before lodging in his first or second lumbar vertebra. According to Pendleton's account, Hamilton collapsed almost immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward him in a speechless manner (which Pendleton deemed to be indicative of regret) before being hustled away behind an umbrella by Van Ness because Hosack and the rowers were already approaching.

It is entirely uncertain which principal fired first, as both seconds' backs were to the duel in accordance with the pre-arranged regulations of the duel and so that the men could later testify that they "saw no fire". After much research to determine the actual events of the duel, historian Joseph Ellis gives his best guess:

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.


The mortally wounded Hamilton was taken to the home of William Bayard Jr. in New York, where he received communion from Bishop Benjamin Moore. He died the next day after seeing his wife Elizabeth and their children, in the presence of more than 20 friends and family members; he was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan. (Hamilton was an Episcopalian at his death.) His political ally Gouverneur Morris gave the eulogy at his funeral and established a private fund to support his widow and children.

Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but neither charge reached trial. In Bergen County, New Jersey, a grand jury indicted him for murder in November 1804, but the New Jersey Supreme Court quashed it on a motion from Colonel Ogden. Burr fled to Saint Simons Island, Georgia and stayed at the plantation of Pierce Butler, but he soon returned to Washington, D.C. to complete his term as Vice President.

He presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase "with the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil", according to a Washington newspaper. Burr's heartfelt farewell speech to the Senate in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics to tears.

With his political career apparently over, Burr went west where he became involved in "filibuster" plans, which some later claimed were intended to establish a new independent empire carved out of the Louisiana territory. General James Wilkinson worked with him, but he had a change of heart and betrayed their plans to President Jefferson. Burr allegedly tried to recruit William Eaton, and Eaton accused him in letters to Jefferson that led to Burr's arrest and trial for treason. He was acquitted of all charges but his reputation was further damaged, and he spent the following years in Europe. He finally returned to New York City in 1812, where he resumed his law practice and spent the remainder of his life in relative obscurity.


In popular culture
The rules of dueling researched by historian Joanne B. Freeman provided inspiration for the song "Ten Duel Commandments" in the Broadway musical Hamilton. The songs "Alexander Hamilton", "Your Obedient Servant", and "The World Was Wide Enough" also refer to the duel. The musical compresses the timeline for Burr and Hamilton's grievance, depicting Burr's challenge as a result of Hamilton's endorsement of Jefferson rather than the gubernatorial election. In Hamilton, the duel is the penultimate scene, before the show's finale is sung. The result is the same, but Hamilton's actions are different: he aims his pistol at the sky, but it is too late and Burr has fired his shot.

Descendants of Burr and Hamilton held a re-enactment of the duel near the Hudson River for the duel's bicentennial in 2004. Douglas Hamilton, fifth great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton, faced Antonio Burr, a descendant of Aaron Burr's cousin. More than 1,000 people attended it, including an estimated 60 descendants of Hamilton and 40 members of the Aaron Burr Association. The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society has been hosting the Celebrate Hamilton program since 2012 to commemorate the Burr–Hamilton Duel and Alexander Hamilton's life and legacy.


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