Today, we are used to our politicians taking shots at each other, mostly through third-party ad campaigns. Imagine, however, if Vice President Joe Biden got insulted by some personal comments made by past Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson and then challenged Paulson to a duel with pistols.
Sound crazy? It happened on July 11, 1804 when then Vice President, Aaron Burr, shot and killed our country’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
The duel has interested me since I was a young man. Recently I have read about the duel’s details in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. And I continue to wonder, how could two intelligent political leaders actually go outside and shoot at each other?
While it is hard for us to imagine today it was expected in society at that time that when men of upper classes were offended by the comments of other men, they would duel each other for the sole purpose of defending their honor or the honor of their wife or family. These high-class duels usually involved intentionally missed shots, but not this time.
What Caused the Duel? Hamilton had disliked Burr for many years and often spoke and wrote negative things about him. Hamilton thought, and some historians agree, that Burr was incompetent and was solely motivated to do things for personal gain. When Burr found out that Jefferson wasn’t going to include him as Vice-President on his 1804 ticket, Burr decided to run for governor of New York against Morgan Lewis. Hamilton said and wrote many things to discredit Burr at the outset of this campaign.
What brought the dispute to a head was when a private letter from Hamilton to someone was summarized in the newspaper as, “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." Burr demanded Hamilton deny the statement, and Hamilton did not. Being dishonored, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.
Both men had histories of dueling, so the duel challenge was not surprising. However, in the past the duels were non-events when the participants either didn’t shoot or shots were deliberately missed.
The Duel. In 1804 it was illegal to duel in New York, but not in New Jersey. So these governmental leaders, who were from around New York City, did the only responsible thing, they crossed the Hudson River and held the duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. The duel was carefully organized so as to protect both parties from murder charges if one should die in the process. Historians mostly agree that two shots were fired, one from each. Many believe Hamilton shot first, but rather than shooting into the ground as was customary, he shot above Burr’s head into some trees. Burr then shot Hamilton in the abdomen. Here is what Joseph Ellis wrote in Founding Brothers:
“Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr's location. The bullet only skimmed Burr's ear. In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge. Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton's gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear. According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.”
Hamilton was transported alive back across the Hudson, where he died the next day. Burr left the scene with his assistants. He was later tried for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but both cases never got to trial. He eventually went back to Washington where he continued to serve as Vice-President until March 1805. After leaving office he continued to do unethical things, even tried for treason by President Jefferson, and was forever discredited. He lived until 1836.
Yes, Burr won the duel and lived for 32 more years. But in the duel over reputation, most agree Burr lost. And sometimes, even when you win, you lose.