Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Duel

Today is the 203rd anniversary of the most famous duel in American history.

1804. Weehawken, New Jersey. Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President of the United States shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist and former Secretary of the Treasury.

How could this happen?

Hamilton came to the colonies as a poor immigrant. He joined the Continental Army in 1776 and quickly became one of George Washington’s favorite soldiers, serving as the future president’s aid. After the war, Hamilton served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and led the ratification movement to create a strong, central government. In 1789, Washington appointed Hamilton the nation’s first secretary of the treasury.

Conversely, Burr was the son of a prestigious New Jersey family. He graduated from college, served in the Continental Army, and distinguished himself in battle. After the war, he was elected to the New State Assembly, served as state attorney, and was elected to the U. S. Senate.

But Hamilton did not trust Burr. He thought Burr was an opportunist, who would do anything to advance his own interests. Hamilton was not shy about sharing his low opinion about Burr to others. By 1804, their relationship had deteriorated to the point where Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Unfortunately, the two sides were unable to resolve their differences peacefully. On July 11, 1804 at 7 am, the pair met near Weehawken, New Jersey. It was the same spot where Hamilton’s son had died in a duel just two years earlier.

We don’t know exactly what happened. Some claim Hamilton fired first, but purposely fired into the air, missing Burr on purpose. But Burr’s actions are easier to trace. He took aim and fired, hitting Hamilton in the stomach. The bullet pierced his liver and spine. Alexander Hamilton died the next afternoon.

The nation was outraged when they heard Hamilton was killed in a duel—and by the Vice President, no less! New Jersey and New York charged Burr with a variety of crimes, including murder, but he was never prosecuted. He served out the rest of his term as Vice President and died 32 years later.


Rhea said...

Very cool. I didn't know this was the anniversary of the duel. I am New Jersey native, now living in Boston, and a history buff.

Samuel P. Wheeler said...

Hi Rhea,

Thanks for reading! I've never visited the site of the duel, but I'd love to see it. I wonder if it is possible to see the spot today?

The spot was called "The Heights of Weehawken" in New Jersey, just below the cliffs of the Palisades.