On July 11, 1804, two leading U.S. politicians overreacted to personal insults between them. That doesn’t sound out of the ordinary considering the divisiveness among politicians in today’s government, except then-Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton settled the issue with an armed duel to the death.
Since both New Yorkers belonged to opposing political parties, Burr a Republican and Hamilton a Federalist, they developed an adversarial political relationship, according to the Library of Congress. The two were at odds in the controversial presidential election of 1800, when Hamilton helped secure Thomas Jefferson’s victory at the expense of Burr, who became vice president. (In those days, the runner-up in presidential elections became vice president.) Hamilton wrote then that Burr’s “public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement,” according to David Stewart, writing for the Constitution Daily blog.
Over the years Hamilton had also called Burr “embryo-Caesar” and remarked that he was “unprincipled both as a public and private man.” In 1804, Burr lost an election for New York governor and blamed Hamilton for more personal insults.
By then, Burr was fed up with repeated public attacks on his personal character and demanded that Hamilton retract his comments. His outspoken critic refused but did agree to a duel with Burr based on a code of honour known then as “code duello.”
There were rumours that Hamilton actually had no intention of shooting at Burr during the duel. “Contemptible, if true,” said Burr in response to such rumours, demonstrating his firm commitment to the duel.
Strangely, Hamilton helped pass legislation in New York making it illegal to challenge or accept a challenge for a duel, following the death of Hamilton’s 18-year-old son in an 1802 duel, according to historian John Buescher’s explanation of the duel on teachinghistory.org.
Despite the passage of that law, the public continued to support dueling as a means of defending one’s honour, and no one had been prosecuted for a duel in New York when the Hamilton-Burr duel took place.
To avoid the law, Hamilton and Burr rowed separately from New York City to an isolated ledge just above the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, a popular location for duels. “It was a place where duelists from New York City could go to settle their affairs in secret as dueling per se was not illegal in New Jersey,” Buescher wrote.
Dueling opponents also tended to carefully conduct the affair in a manner that made it difficult to prove their guilt of a crime. That typically involved keeping their intentions quiet, never revealing the gun until the last moment, and having friends look away during the moment the shots were fired.
Burr, surviving unscathed, mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day in New York City. He immediately faced legal consequences for his actions. Since Hamilton’s death took place in New York, he was charged with both the misdemeanour of challenging to a duel and the felony of murder. He faced the same felony charge in New Jersey.
The vice president of the United States found himself a fugitive for murder in two states, and fled to Pennsylvania and then Georgia. “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey,” Burr wrote to his daughter. “The subject in dispute is, which shall have the honour of hanging the Vice-President. You shall have due notice of time and place. Whenever it may be, you may rely on a great concourse of company, much gayety, and many rare sights.”
But a number of Congressmen sent a letter to the governor of New Jersey pleading that prosecutors drop the case against Burr because it was supposedly a fair duel. Although the murder charges in both states were eventually dropped, Burr was convicted of the misdemeanour offence for challenging Hamilton in the first place. As a consequence, he was banned from voting, practicing law, and serving in public office for 20 years.
Although there was only one winner, both were ruined, Stewart points out in his blog post. “Both lost: Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, his life; Burr, the sitting Vice President, his future,” Stewart writes.
Burr later stood trial for treason for allegedly leading efforts to establish an independent country at the Mississippi River from U.S. and Spanish territories, although he was acquitted.
Duels in early America among notable public figures were not uncommon, according to Constitution Daily. President Andrew Jackson survived 13 duels, including one in 1806 where the opponent he killed shot him in the ribs. A prominent sailor named James Barron killed the U.S. Navy hero Stephen Decatur in an 1820 duel, and in 1826 Virginia Senator John Randolph and Secretary of State Henry Clay both missed each other in their duel.
Burr himself had engaged in one duel before he killed Hamilton. The last duel to take place in the popular Weehawken, New Jersey location occurred as late as 1837, when a police constable thwarted an attempt by two would-be duelists and took them into custody, according to teachinghistory.org.
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