www.GunsOfOld.com -- The Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton Duel
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A Fateful American Duel
A 4G Company
The most famous duel fought on American soil was undoubtedly that between sitting Vice President Aaron Burr and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. It was a duel that very likely changed the course of American history.
Aaron Burr was a hero of the American Revolution, a brilliant man and an astute politician, with many friends in high places. Whether or not he carried the 1800 election, it is likely he'd have had a great deal more influence in the course of American affairs, if not for his fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was also a Revolutionary hero--co-author of The Federalist Papers and one of the founding fathers of the new Republic on the American continent. A senior aide to General Washington, he commanded three battalions at Yorktown. He served in the Continental Congress, was the new country's first Secretary of the Treasury and a signer of the Constitution. He quickly became one of its foremost authorities on constitutional interpretation, possibly the first American constitutional
Who can say what contributions these two brilliant and capable men might have made to the new republic, and what path its history might have taken, if not for the fateful duel that ended in the death of one and the disgrace of the other? Either or both of them may well have become president of the Republic during their lives.
The two men held such conflicting political views that it was inevitable they would clash, but the enmity between them intensified during the bitterly contested election of 1800. After a tie in the electoral college in which Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes, it became the task of the House of Representatives to finally decide--after the casting of thirty-six separate ballots--that Thomas Jefferson would be president, and Aaron Burr Vice President.
The duel was fought with a pair of pistols made by London gunsmiths Wogden and Barton. The same pistols had been used in several previous duels, including another involving Aaron Burr, and one in which Hamilton's oldest son, Phillip, had been killed in 1801. Phillip had been fatally wounded after deciding not to fire on his opponent, reportedly due to regret for his part in provoking the duel--which may well have been a factor in Hamilton's fatally odd behavior during his duel with Burr.
Photo (public domain) from Chase Manhattan archives, courtesy of Wikipedia.
This artist's rendition of the dual between Burr and Hamilton is by J. Mund. The public domain image was reproduced from Wikipedia.
Hamilton's shot went high in the air. Some accounts claim the pistol he used had a ”hair” trigger that caused the weapon to discharge prematurely. Others suggest that Hamilton resolved in advance to deliberately “throw” (miss) his shot to give Burr a chance to pause and reconsider, and because of his own religious convictions against taking a life. A letter he wrote to his wife before the duel affirmed that he would rather die than live with the guilt of taking another’s life. When it was his turn to fire, however, Burr exhibited no such qualms. He took deadly aim and Hamilton fell, fatally wounded in the stomach. He was carried to a friend’s house on Manhattan Island where he died a day later in agonizing pain.
Burr was charged with murder in New York, where he lived, and in New Jersey where the duel took place, but neither charge was ever brought to trial. Burr completed his term as vice president, but his reputation never recovered. His political career in ruins, he migrated west. Scandal continued to follow him until his death in 1836.
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The pistols used in the duel still survive today. They changed hands several times before being purchased by the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1930, and today remain on display in a Manhattan branch of J.P. Morgan Chase and Company.
It was rumored at the time that Hamilton had more than a little to do with Burr's being denied the Presidency, actively working behind the scenes to ensure his defeat. It was certainly no secret that Hamilton regarded Burr as a dangerous fanatic whose views on monetary policy and government were little short of lunacy. But it wasn't until 1804, just before Burr was defeated in his bid to become governor of New York, that a New York newspaper quoted Hamilton as saying that Burr was “. . . a dangerous man . . . who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.”
Burr sent Hamilton a letter demanding he apologize and retract his remarks, and there followed an acrimonious correspondence in which Hamilton refused, after which Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton felt honor-bound to accept. Since dueling had been outlawed in New York, the Burr and Hamilton parties rowed across the Hudson River in separate boats to a site known as the Heights of Weehawken, a river landing beneath the New Jersey Palisades which had become a popular dueling site of the day. The pistols were transported inside a traveling case, and the oarsmen instructed to stand with their backs to the duelers, so they could say under oath, if called upon to testify, that they had seen no pistols--precautions that were probably for naught, given the outcome and the prominence of the duelers.
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