This Day in History: Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel

On this day in 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr mortally wounds Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In a sad and ironic twist, Hamilton’s oldest son had been killed in a duel on the very same dueling grounds less than three years earlier.

Burr and Hamilton clashed repeatedly over the years. Less than four years earlier, Hamilton had worked against the election of Burr when Burr had a shot at stealing the presidency from Jefferson. In that year’s unusual House contingent election, Hamilton had written many letters to Congressmen. He described Burr to the only Congressman from Delaware, James Bayard: “[G]reat Ambition unchecked by principle, or the love of Glory, is an unruly Tyrant.”

Despite the acrimony between the two men, none of these earlier events ever sparked a duel. So what happened in 1804 to push Burr over the edge?

The statement that prompted the duel occurred while Aaron Burr was running for New York Governor. During the campaign, Hamilton attended a dinner party in which he apparently laid into Burr a bit. Presumably, a dinner party would not have caused such a problem, except one of the attendees later wrote about it. His letters were discovered and published. Hamilton’s precise statements at the dinner party are unknown, but the letters summarized Hamilton’s opinion that Burr is a “dangerous man” who could not be trusted and referenced a “still more despicable opinion” expressed by Hamilton.

Burr had had enough. An incident that probably should have been written off as a minor episode in a heated political campaign instead spun out of control. Burr later wrote that “Genl. H. had long indulged himself in illiberal freedoms with my character. He had a peculiar talent of saying things improper and offensive in such a manner as could not well be taken hold of. . . . I have never mentioned these circumstances, always hoping that the generosity of my conduct would have some influence on his. In this I have been constantly deceived, and it became impossible that I could consistently with self-respect again forbear.”

Hamilton spent the last Sunday of his life with his family. His son related that “before the heat of the day, he walked with his wife over all the pleasant scenes of his retreat. On his return to the house, his family being assembled, he read the morning service of the Episcopal church. The intervening hours till evening were spent in kind companionship; and at the close of the day, gathering around him his children under a near tree, he laid with them upon the grass until the stars shone down from the heavens.”

The next day, Hamilton left for the city. He needed to put his affairs in order. On Wednesday, July 11, he met Burr in the early morning hours at Weehawken, close to the Hudson River.

Hamilton had already decided that he would not fire directly at Burr. The night before, he wrote his wife: “The Scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject myself to the guilt of taking the life of another.”

As the duel began, both men appeared to fire at roughly the same time; however, Nathaniel Pendleton (Hamilton’s second) thought that Burr might have fired first. Pendleton also noted that Hamilton’s arm jerked upward a bit as he fired. Burr was not hit by Hamilton’s bullet, but Hamilton took a hit a little above his hip. The bullet tore through Hamilton’s liver and lodged in his vertebrae. Hamilton told the doctor on the scene: “This is a mortal wound, Doctor.”

Hamilton was carried to the home of William Bayard. His wife was called for and arrived around noon. A bishop was also called and gave Hamilton communion. Hamilton died the next day.