Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton
The most famous duel fought in American history was that between Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President, and former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. There was little love lost between the two. Hamilton had unsuccessfully campaigned against Burr when running for governor of New York in 1804, and a series of vitriolic aspersions Hamilton cast on Burr’s honor over the past 15 years led to the Vice President challenging Hamilton to a duel.
Hamilton held strong beliefs against dueling. Just three years before he’d lost his son to duel fought in defense of his father’s honor. Nevertheless this time he agreed. The date was set to July 11, 1804, and because the penalty for dueling in New York was death, the appointed place was the dueling grounds near Weehawken, New Jersey. Inauspiciously for Hamilton, the spot wasn’t far from the site of his son’s death.
What happened next is a matter of controversy as both men’s spotters had their backs turned so, under testimony, they could swear they’d “seen no fire”. Honouring the agreement, Hamilton fired his shot into the trees above Burr’s head, discharging his pistol and thereby fulfilling his duty. Burr, perhaps mistakenly believing the shot to have been a near miss, then took aim and shot Hamilton in the ribs. Hamilton collapsed, and Burr slowly and regretfully made his way towards him (suggesting aiming to kill may not have been intentional) before being led away behind an umbrella by his party.
Hamilton lay slumped, and when physician David Hosack reached him was only able to utter, “This is a mortal wound, doctor”, before falling unconscious. He awoke sometime later to inform Dr. Hosack that his gun was still loaded, and should be emptied lest it causes harm, and that the present judge, Nathaniel Pendleton, knew he didn’t intend to fire at Burr. He was taken to New York where he died the next day, in his friend’s home and surrounded by his loved ones.
Burr was tried for murder but acquitted. Other charges led to him being arrested for treason. On the run from the law and heavily in debt, he fled to Europe where he spent most of his time in England and Scotland under aliases. Ultimately he would return to New York, but his political life was done. He lived a privately secluded life until his death on Staten Island on September 14, 1836, the day of his divorce.
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