On July 11, 1804, two prominent American politicians met on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, to settle a long-standing feud with pistols. The duel ended with the death of one of them, and the ruin of the other. The participants were Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, the former secretary of the treasury and a leading Federalist. The duel was the culmination of a bitter and personal rivalry that had political and historical implications for the young nation.
The Background of the Duel
Burr and Hamilton had been political enemies since the 1790s, when they both emerged as influential figures in the nascent American republic. Burr was a charismatic and ambitious politician, who had served as a senator from New York and as Thomas Jefferson’s running mate in the 1800 presidential election. Hamilton was a brilliant and visionary statesman, who had been a key aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War and the architect of the nation’s financial system. Both men had strong opinions and personalities, and often clashed over the issues of the day, such as the role of the federal government, the relations with France and Britain, and the rights of the states.
Their rivalry intensified in the 1800 presidential election, when Burr and Jefferson tied in the electoral college vote, and the decision was left to the House of Representatives. Hamilton, who despised Burr as a dangerous opportunist, used his influence to persuade the Federalists to support Jefferson, who was his political adversary but also his personal friend. Jefferson won the presidency, and Burr became the vice president, but he never forgave Hamilton for his interference.
In 1804, Burr decided to run for governor of New York, hoping to revive his political career and challenge Jefferson’s leadership. Hamilton, who feared that Burr would disrupt the stability and unity of the nation, campaigned vigorously against him, and accused him of being a traitor and a scoundrel. Burr lost the election, and blamed Hamilton for his defeat. He challenged Hamilton to a duel, to defend his honor and reputation. Hamilton accepted, reluctantly, feeling that he had no choice but to uphold the code of gentlemanly conduct.
The Outcome of the Duel
The duel took place on the morning of July 11, 1804, on a ledge overlooking the Hudson River. The two men stood 10 paces apart, and fired at each other with .54 caliber pistols. Hamilton, who had declared that he would not aim at Burr, missed his shot, and hit a tree branch above Burr’s head. Burr, who had declared that he would not miss, shot Hamilton in the lower abdomen, piercing his liver and spine. Hamilton fell to the ground, mortally wounded, and was carried to a boat that took him back to New York. He died the next day, at the age of 47, leaving behind a widow and seven children.
Burr, who was unhurt, fled the scene, and was soon indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey. He returned to Washington, D.C., and resumed his duties as vice president, but he was ostracized by the public and the political elite. He finished his term in 1805, and then embarked on a series of controversial and mysterious schemes, involving a possible secession of the western states, a war with Spain, and a creation of a new empire in Mexico. He was arrested and tried for treason in 1807, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence. He spent the next few years in exile in Europe, and then returned to the United States in 1812, where he lived in obscurity and poverty until his death in 1836, at the age of 80.
The Impact of the Duel
The duel between Burr and Hamilton had a lasting impact on American history and culture. It marked the end of the era of dueling, which was seen as a barbaric and outdated practice that contradicted the ideals of democracy and civilization. It also marked the end of the Federalist Party, which lost its most influential and visionary leader, and was unable to compete with the Democratic-Republican Party, which dominated the politics of the early 19th century. It also marked the beginning of the rise of the Jeffersonian vision of America, which emphasized states’ rights, agrarianism, and expansionism, and which shaped the nation’s destiny for decades to come.
The duel also became a symbol of the tensions and conflicts that characterized the American experiment, such as the clash between individual ambition and public service, the balance between national and local interests, and the role of honor and morality in politics. The duel also became a source of inspiration and fascination for generations of writers, artists, historians, and dramatists, who have portrayed and interpreted the event in various ways, reflecting the changing values and perspectives of the American society. The most recent and popular example is the musical Hamilton, which tells the story of the duel and its protagonists, and which has sparked a renewed interest and debate about the legacy and relevance of Burr and Hamilton for the present day.