For centuries, a man’s honor has been something worth fighting for. In medieval and Renaissance days, knights often defended their honor by facing their insulter in a fight of some kind that ended with the death or surrender of one of the participants. Swords would clash or they would mount their steeds and take up their lances for the joust.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, men still fought to preserve their honor, however, the battle of honor had become much more ritualized. It generally started with the insulted party writing a letter to the insulter, spelling out the offense and what was needed in the form of an apology. A series of correspondence between the offended and offender would take place using ‘seconds’, men who served as couriers and negotiators. In the vast majority of cases, the seconds would negotiate a peaceful settlement in the form of an acceptable apology that satisfied both parties.
If no negotiation could be arranged, then a symbolic duel with pistols would take place. Only the appearance of placing their lives on the line seemed to be enough save one’s reputation, but rarely did either party intend to kill the other. In the vast majority of duels, the rivals would aim and fire just to the side or above their opponent. Once the shots were fired, reputations were restored and the two parties went on with their lives.
The animosity between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton started around the time of the passage of the US Constitution. They were on opposing political sides and neither man seemed willing to negotiate with the other on most political terms and it became common knowledge that the two men had become bitter political rivals.
The 1800 presidential election may have been the final straw that broke whatever relationship may have existed between Burr and Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams in a hotly contested battle. Both of them warned the public and Congress that the other would destroy the newly found nation. Jefferson’s running mate was Aaron Burr and since the ballots were not separate, Jefferson and Burr both tied with the most electoral votes. The tie forced the House to make the decision of who would be president and who would be vice president. Instead of every representative having a vote, it was restricted to only one vote per state. At one point, the Federalists in the House who supported Burr seemed like they were close to making Aaron Burr the next president. However, Alexander Hamilton became heavily involved and finally brought the tide over to Jefferson who won with the votes of 10 states to Burr’s 4. Hamilton leveled many unflattering claims against Burr, some of which may have seemed more personal than political.
During the next four years of Jefferson’s term, his relationship with Vice President Aaron Burr deteriorated to the point that Jefferson would not agree to having Burr serve with him for a second term. Burr was wooed by the Federalists, who opposed Jefferson. Burr’s move to the opposite party led Hamilton to refer Burr as a very dangerous man who should never be trusted with the reins of government.
In 1804, having been excluded from Jefferson’s re-election ticket, Aaron Burr decided to run for governor of New York on the Democratic-Republican ticket. His opponent was Morgan Lewis who ran on the Federalist Party ticket. Hamilton publicly endorsed Lewis for the governorship. During the campaign, Hamilton slung a lot of political mud at Burr, which only fueled the feud between the two men. The polls in New York opened on April 24, 1804 and closed April 26, 1804. When the votes were counted, Burr took 22,139 votes (41.80%) and Lewis took 30,829 votes (58.20%) and the governor’s seat. Burr directly blamed Hamilton and his negative mudslinging for his political loss.
After the loss of the governor’s election, Burr believed that he needed to demand an apology from Hamilton and sent a letter via his second. A series of correspondence via the seconds ensued but Hamilton’s response to Burr was less than appeasing or apologetic. Burr then demanded an apology for everything that happened over the past 15 years and Hamilton refused, leaving no recourse other than a public duel.
On July 10, 1804, Alexander Hamilton wrote his will and put all of his affairs in order.
On this day, July 11, 1804, Hamilton, along with his second, Nathaniel Pendleton and a physician by the name of Dr. David Hosack, took a barge from Manhattan to New Jersey, and then made their way to Weehawken, the selected location of the duel. The Hamilton party arrived at the location just before 7:00am to find Burr and his second W.P. Van Ness already there.
According to the two seconds:
“Colonel Burr arrived first on the ground, as had been previously agreed. When General Hamilton arrived, the parties exchanged salutations, and the seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position, as also to determine by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the second of General Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each other’s presence, after which the parties took their stations. The gentleman who was to give the word then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing, which were as follows:
“The parties being placed at their stations, the second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready; being answered in the affirmative, he shall say- present! After this the parties shall present and fire when they please. If one fires before the other, the opposite second shall say one, two, three, fire, and he shall then fire or lose his fire.
He then asked if they were prepared; being answered in the affirmative, he gave the word present, as had been agreed on, and both parties presented and fired in succession. The intervening time is not expressed, as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. The fire of Colonel Burr took effect, and General Hamilton almost instantly fell. Colonel Burr advanced toward General Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to General Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret; but, without speaking, turned about and withdrew, being urged from the field by his friend, as has been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognized by the surgeon and bargemen who were then approaching. No further communication took place between the principals, and the barge that carried Colonel Burr immediately returned to the city. We conceive it proper to add, that the conduct of the parties in this interview was perfectly proper, as suited the occasion.”
Burr emerged unscathed but Hamilton had been shot in the abdomen. Immediately, Dr. Hosack ran to his side and later wrote this account:
“When called to him upon his receiving the fatal wound, I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, ‘This is a mortal wound, doctor;’ when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless. I immediately stripped up his clothes, and soon, alas I ascertained that the direction of the ball must have been through some vital part. His pulses were not to be felt, his respiration was entirely suspended, and, upon laying my hand on his heart and perceiving no motion there, I considered him as irrecoverably gone. I, however, observed to Mr. Pendleton, that the only chance for his reviving was immediately to get him upon the water. We therefore lifted him up, and carried him out of the wood to the margin of the bank, where the bargemen aided us in conveying him into the boat, which immediately put off. During all this time I could not discover the least symptom of returning life. I now rubbed his face, lips, and temples with spirits of hartshorn, applied it to his neck and breast, and to the wrists and palms of his hands, and endeavoured to pour some into his mouth.
When we had got, as I should judge, about fifty yards from the shore, some imperfect efforts to breathe were for the first time manifest; in a few minutes he sighed, and became sensible to the impression of the hartshorn or the fresh air of the water. He breathed; his eyes, opened, wandered, without fixing upon any object; to our great joy, he at length spoke. ‘My vision is indistinct,’ were his first words. His pulse became more perceptible, his respiration more regular, his sight returned. I then examined the wound to know if there was any dangerous discharge of blood; upon slightly pressing his side it gave him pain, on which I desisted.
Soon after recovering his sight, he happened to cast his eye upon the case of pistols, and observing the one that he had had in his hand lying on the outside, he said, ‘Take care of that pistol; it is undischarged, and still cocked; it may go off and do harm. Pendleton knows ‘ (attempting to turn his head towards him) ‘that I did not intend to fire at him.’ ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Pendleton, understanding his wish, ‘I have already made Dr. Hosack acquainted with your determination as to that’ He then closed his eyes and remained calm, without any disposition to speak; nor did he say much afterward, except in reply to my questions. He asked me once or twice how I found his pulse; and he informed me that his lower extremities had lost all feeling, manifesting to me that he entertained no hopes that he should long survive.”
On July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton died from his wound.
Whether true or not, reports soon spread that Hamilton fired his pistol into the air, purposely missing Burr but that Burr drew down on Hamilton with the intent to kill. This ended what political career Burr had left. It also led officials in New York and New Jersey to file murder charges against Burr, who fled to South Carolina to hide.
In 1805, Burr joined a group who planned to form a separate confederacy with the help of the British and Spanish, consisting of several western states and territories. He and his comrades spent the next year recruiting gullible young men, largely from the interior of the country to join their cause. In the fall of 1806, Burr made plans to take an armed group to New Orleans with the intent on capturing it.
One of Burr’s co-conspirators was General James Wilkinson who later turned out to be an agent that worked with the Spanish. In October 1806, Wilkinson had second thoughts and sent Jefferson a deciphered copy of a letter supposedly written by Burr detailing plans to take a 7,000-man army to New Orleans. He followed that up with additional evidence against Burr.
Aaron Burr was subsequently arrested in Alabama on charges of treason on February 19, 1807. His trial was held in the US Circuit Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. The US Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, heard the case against Burr.
Jefferson refused to testify and with the help of a lot of political jargon, Marshall acquitted Burr on the charges of treason. He was later charged with a misdemeanor for waging war against Spain, but was again acquitted. Burr spent four years in Europe before returning to the US, broke.
On September 14, 1836, Arron Burr died at the age of 80. In Port Richmond on Staten Island, New York.
Sources for the above includes: Today, 1807: US Vice President Arrested for Treason; Understanding the Burr-Hamilton Duel; Burr Slays Hamilton in Duel; Duel At Dawn, 1804; Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s Duel; Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Dueled to the Death July 11, 1804; What Did Aaron Burr Do After Shooting Alexander Hamilton?; Our Campaigns: NY Governor