Burr Shoots Hamilton in Duel

In the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, at Weehawken in New Jersey, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and mortally wounded former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was carried to the home of William Bayard on the Manhattan shore, where he died at 2:00 p.m. the next day.

One of the most famous personal conflicts in American history, the Burr–Hamilton duel arose from a long-standing political and personal bitterness that had developed between both men over a course of several years. Tensions reached a bursting point with Hamilton’s journalistic defamation of Burr’s character during the 1804 New York gubernatorial race in which Burr was a candidate. Fought at a time when the practice of dueling was being outlawed in the northern United States, the duel had immense political ramifications. Burr, who survived the duel, would be indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey (though these charges were either later dismissed or resulted in acquittal), and the harsh criticism and animosity directed toward him would bring about an end to his political career and force him into a self-imposed exile. Further, Hamilton’s death would fatally weaken the fledgling remnants of the Federalist Party which, following the death of George Washington (1732–1799) five years earlier, was left without a strong leader.

The duel was the final skirmish of a long conflict between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. The conflict began in 1791 when Burr captured a Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, who would have supported Federalist policies. (Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury at the time.) When the Electoral College deadlocked in the election of 1800, Hamilton’s maneuvering in the House of Representatives caused Thomas Jefferson to be named President and Burr Vice President. In 1800, the Philadelphia Aurora printed extracts from a pamphlet Hamilton had earlier published, “Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States,” a document highly critical of Adams, which had actually been authored by Hamilton but intended only for private circulation. Some have claimed that Burr leaked the document, but there is no clear evidence for this, nor that Hamilton held him responsible.

When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York instead. Hamilton campaigned viciously 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 been a principal in 10 shot-less 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/George Clinton (1804). He also served as a second to John Laurens in a 1779 duel with General Charles Lee and legal client John Auldjo in a 1787 duel with William Pierce. In addition, Hamilton claimed to have had one previous honor dispute with Burr; Burr claimed there were two.

Additionally, Hamilton’s son, Philip, was killed in a November 23, 1801 duel with George I. Eacker initiated after Philip and his friend Richard Price partook in “hooliganish” behavior in Eacker’s box at the Park Theatre. This was in response to a speech, critical of Hamilton, that Eacker had made on July 3, 1801. Philip and his friend both challenged Eacker to duels when he called them “damned rascals.” After Price’s duel (also at Weehawken) resulted in nothing more than four missed shots, Hamilton advised his son to delope, and throw away his fire. However, after both Philip and Eacker stood shotless for a minute after the command “present”, Philip leveled his pistol, causing Eacker to fire, mortally wounding Philip and sending his shot awry. This duel is often cited as having a tremendous psychological impact on Hamilton in the context of the Hamilton-Burr duel.

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