Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Most Famous Duel in American History: Hamilton Killed By Burr

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the dueling grounds of Weehawken, New Jersey to engage in one of the most famous duels in American history. The two politicians had been engaged in a war of words since 1791 when Burr won a United States Senate seat from Hamilton’s father in law. Hamilton, a Federalist, and Burr, a Republican, continued to fight over politics until 1804. That year, Burr suffered a crushing loss in the New York governor’s race, and believed, with some cause, that Hamilton had helped to convince voters to keep Burr out of office. What actually led to the duel was Hamilton’s supposed conduct at a dinner party.
In February 1804, Hamilton attended a dinner party at the home of Dr. Charles D. Cooper. At the dinner, Hamilton shared his own scathing views of Burr. At one time (though not at the dinner) he stated unequivocally, “[He is] For or against nothing, but as it suits his interests of ambitions. I feel the religious duty to oppose his career.” Cooper later related Hamilton’s bad opinion of Burr in a letter to Philip Schuyler.  At some point, this opinion traveled from a private conversation through the letter to Schuyler to the New York newspaper the “Albany Register.” The public smearing of Burr gave him an opportunity to revive his flagging political career (or so he thought). He challenged Hamilton to a duel for offending his honor. Hamilton couldn’t deny the accusation, which was substantively true, without offending his own honor. That said, to refuse to duel Burr would also ruin his honor. Thinking he had no other option, Hamilton agreed to the duel, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The two met on July 11th and fired .56 caliber revolvers at one another. Burr escaped unscathed while Hamilton was mortally wounded. He died the next day. The duel robber the young country of one of the most brilliant minds the young nation had in its ranks.
While Hamilton paid the ultimate price in the duel, Burr also suffered. The gambit he hoped would revitalize his political career essentially helped to end it. After his term as Vice President (1801-1805), Burr was never elected to another office. He was also charged with two counts of murder as a result of the duel. You might think the duel and its fallout would have ended Burr’s penchant for desperate action in the hopes of making political gains. Unfortunately, in history as in life some people do not learn from their mistakes. Burr’s next plot to gain power and prestige would end with charges of treason.

A few years ago, people gathered on the anniversary of the Burr and Hamilton duel at the scene of the crime to reenact history. Check it out:

Now that you know the facts about one of the most famous duels in American history, lets hope you never find yourself in this position.

To read some of the correspondence between Hamilton and Burr that led to the duel, check this out.

[Image via Rutgers]

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