Burr–Hamilton duel

Burr–Hamilton Duel
A 20th-century artistic rendering by J. Mund depicting the July 11, 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton
LocationWeehawken, New Jersey
Coordinates40°46′13″N 74°01′01″W / 40°46′13″N 74°01′01″W / 40.7702; -74.017
DateJuly 11, 1804
TargetAlexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr
Attack type
WeaponsWogdon pistols
Deaths1 (Hamilton)
Non-fatal injuries
PerpetratorsAaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton

The Burr–Hamilton duel was fought between prominent American politicians Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, at Weehawken, New Jersey. It occurred on July 11, 1804,[1] and was the culmination of a long and bitter rivalry between the two men. Hamilton shot first, only to miss and hit a tree directly behind Burr; Burr responded by shooting and mortally wounding Hamilton, who was carried to the home of William Bayard Jr. where he died the next day.


Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, lost his Senate seat to Burr.

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.[3]

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.[3]

Morgan Lewis, endorsed by Hamilton, defeated Burr in the 1804 New York gubernatorial election.

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.[citation needed] Hamilton campaigned vigorously against Burr, who was running as an independent, causing him to lose to Morgan Lewis, a Democratic-Republican endorsed by Hamilton.[citation needed]

Both men had been involved in duels in the past. Hamilton had been a principal in 10 shotless[clarification needed] duels 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.[4] Hamilton also claimed that he had one previous honor dispute with Burr,[5] while Burr stated that there were two.[6][7]

Election of 1800

Burr and Hamilton first came into public opposition during the United States presidential election of 1800. Burr ran for Vice President on the Democratic-Republican ticket, along with presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson, against President John Adams (the Federalist incumbent) and his vice presidential running mate Charles C. Pinckney. Electoral College rules at the time gave each elector two votes for president. The candidate who received the second most votes became vice president.

The Democratic-Republican Party planned to have 72 of their 73 electors vote for both Jefferson and Burr, with the remaining elector voting only for Jefferson. The electors failed to execute this plan, so Burr and Jefferson were tied with 73 votes each. The Constitution stipulates that if no candidate wins a majority, the election is moved to the House of Representatives—which was controlled by the Federalists, at this point, many of whom were loath to vote for Jefferson. Hamilton regarded Burr as far more dangerous than Jefferson and used all his influence to ensure Jefferson's election. On the 36th ballot, the House of Representatives gave Jefferson the presidency, with Burr becoming Vice President.

Charles Cooper's letter

On April 24, 1804, the Albany Register published a letter opposing Burr's candidacy[8] which was originally sent from Charles D. Cooper to Hamilton's father-in-law, former Senator Philip Schuyler.[9] It made reference to a previous statement by Cooper: "General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government." Cooper went on to emphasize that he could describe in detail "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr" at a political dinner.[10]

Burr responded in a letter delivered by William P. Van Ness which pointed particularly to the phrase "more despicable" and demanded "a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertion of Dr. Cooper." Hamilton's verbose reply on June 20, 1804 indicated that he could not be held responsible for Cooper's interpretation of his words (yet he did not fault that interpretation), concluding that he would "abide the consequences" should Burr remain unsatisfied.[11] A recurring theme in their correspondence is that Burr seeks avowal or disavowal of anything that could justify Cooper's characterization, while Hamilton protests that there are no specifics.

Burr replied on June 21, 1804, also delivered by Van Ness, stating that "political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum".[12] Hamilton replied that he had "no other answer to give than that which has already been given". This letter was delivered to Nathaniel Pendleton on June 22 but did not reach Burr until June 25.[13] The delay was due to negotiation between Pendleton and Van Ness in which Pendleton submitted the following paper:

General Hamilton says he cannot imagine what Dr. Cooper may have alluded, unless it were to a conversation at Mr. Taylor's, in Albany, last winter (at which he and General Hamilton were present). General Hamilton cannot recollect distinctly the particulars of that conversation, so as to undertake to repeat them, without running the risk of varying or omitting what might be deemed important circumstances. The expressions are entirely forgotten, and the specific ideas imperfectly remembered; but to the best of his recollection it consisted of comments on the political principles and views of Colonel Burr, and the results that might be expected from them in the event of his election as Governor, without reference to any particular instance of past conduct or private character.[14]

Eventually, Burr issued a formal challenge and Hamilton accepted.[15] Many historians have considered the causes of the duel to be flimsy and have thus characterized Hamilton as "suicidal", Burr as "malicious and murderous", or both.[16] Thomas Fleming offers the theory that Burr may have been attempting to recover his honor by challenging Hamilton, whom he considered to be the only gentleman among his detractors, in response to the slanderous attacks against his character published during the 1804 gubernatorial campaign.[17]

Hamilton's reasons for not engaging in a duel included his roles as father and husband, putting his creditors at risk, and placing his family's welfare in jeopardy, but he felt that it would be impossible to avoid a duel because he had made attacks on Burr which he was unable to recant, and because of Burr's behavior prior to the duel. He attempted to reconcile his moral and religious reasons and the codes of honor and politics. Joanne Freeman speculates that Hamilton intended to accept the duel and throw away his shot in order to satisfy his moral and political codes.[18]