This Thursday marks the 209th anniversary of the deadly duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. What caused the sitting vice president to gun down a Founding Father on the cliffs overlooking New York City?
Historians are still arguing over the deadly duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, which had its deep roots in both men’s service to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
The former friends became bitter enemies over political and personal issues, but a lot is still in dispute over the duel itself–and why it had to happen.
Here are five key points to remember as you draw your own conclusions.
1. The feud went back decades.
Burr and Hamilton were young officers for Washington in the fight with the British. It was Hamilton who got a promotion. Burr was a war hero, but he was overlooked by Washington when he allegedly caught Burr looking at some personal communications. In later years, President Washington turned down a Burr request for a generalship due to “intrigue” by Burr. Washington’s close adviser was Hamilton.
2. The men fought for control over New York politics.
Hamilton was the “big dog” in New York state politics, at least until Burr came along. The former allies became rivals when Burr ran for the U.S Senate against Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. Burr won the election and he later became associated with the Tammany Society, the forerunners of the infamous Tammany Hall. Burr then surpassed Hamilton as a political force within New York.
3. The backstabbing, double-dealing election of 1800.
The election of 1800 would make J.R. Ewing blush: There were double crosses, and Hamilton and Burr were at the center of all the action. It was the first national election with political parties, but in a twist of fate, running mates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College voting (some forgot to cast one less vote for Burr). Hamilton then worked behind the scenes to defeat Burr in the House runoff election, after Burr decided he didn’t want to play second fiddle to Jefferson. The Hamilton-Burr feud was on–big time.
4. Hamilton made Burr a political exile.
After the 1800 election, Hamilton didn’t let the feud with Burr drop. Jefferson also ignored Burr as his vice president, and he made it clear that under new election rules, there was no way Burr was going on the 1804 ticket. Hamilton then worked to defeat Burr’s attempt to become governor of New York. Burr was effectively out of political power even though he was the vice president of the United States. Also, a Burr ally killed Hamilton’s son in a duel.
5. The duel that historians still debate–was it all fixed?
The final straw for Burr was a newspaper article that showed Hamilton trash-talking about Burr’s character. That wasn’t breaking news in 1804, but Burr then demanded Hamilton apologize for 15 years of insults. Hamilton stayed quiet, so Burr demanded a duel.
Duels were common and both men had experience in them. In 1799, Burr dueled against Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Church. This time, Burr and Hamilton met on the same Weehawken spot where Hamilton’s son died in an 1801 duel.
In most accounts, Hamilton shot first and missed, followed by Burr’s deadly shot. One theory, stated in a 1976 Smithsonian magazine article, is that Hamilton’s pistol had a hair trigger that let him get off the first shot. Per that theory, Hamilton had the drop on Burr and just missed the shot.
But Burr claimed in his autobiography that he supplied the pistols, and not Hamilton. And another report states each man brought their own weapons.
Hamilton died 36 hours after the duel from his wounds. His supporters claimed Burr had a chance to spare Hamilton, but Burr killed him in cold blood.
Vice President Burr was indicted for the duel but not arrested. In later years, Burr was accused of treason, but he was acquitted in a trial presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall. He quietly worked as a lawyer in New York in his later years.
The controversy over the duel, however, hasn’t quieted down since 1804.
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