“Colonel Burr arrived first on the ground, as had been previously agreed. When General Hamilton arrived, the parties exchanged salutations, and the seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position, as also to determine by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the second of General Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each other’s presence, after which the parties took their stations.”
– Nathaniel Pendleton, W.P. van Ness
This was the joint account written by the seconds to a duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and the former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton which took place on today’s date, July 11 in the year 1804. The seconds in a duel are essentially assistants to the dueling parties. And in this case the two dueling parties were two men who had nursed a blood political feud for some 15 years, which had become very personal. This day would finish both men. Hamilton would die literally, and Burr would die politically, and this moment on the shores of New Jersey would link their names forever.
Burr and Hamilton: A Study in Contrasts
Aaron Burr was born in Newark New Jersey on February 6, 1756. Burr had a fine upbringing
having been born into a strongly Presbyterian family. His father was the President of the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton). But Aaron (above) was just a little too smart to pick up any of his family’s religious work ethic. “Great souls have little use for small morals.” he used to say. He loved money power and influence. He went to Princeton, but interrupted his studies to serve honorably in the American Revolution, acquiring the rank of Colonel. But he was strictly a player at politics albeit a highly intelligent and ambitious one. To Burr, politics offered “…a great deal of fun, honor and profit.”
Not so for Alexander Hamilton. Born almost a year after Burr on January 11, 1757 on the
Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, Hamilton (above) had never viewed any part of life as being fun. His parents (never married) died when he was young and he had had to work his way up through the import/ export company of Beekman and Cruger wherein his brilliant mind kept the books in order. But his witness to slavery in the islands, which he saw as being evil gave him a dim view of humanity. He traveled to America to study in 1773, but like Burr ducked out of school to fight in the Revolution. Even there, his experience dimmed his view of life. Even though his brilliance got him appointed as an aide to George Washington, the suffering he witnessed at Valley Forge as a result of Congressional mis-management weighed heavily on him: “I hate Congress, I hate the Army, I hate the world, and I hate myself.” he wrote at the time. “The whole is a mass of fools and knaves…”
Burr and Hamilton Square Off
Well it didn’t take too long for these two very brilliant and highly ambitious men to run into each other. Hamilton, together with John Jay and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers, which served as a basis for our Constitutional system of government. Hamilton, viewing mankind as essentially greedy and corrupt favored the system of checks and balances which was eventually adopted. But in one of the first elections for a Senate seat in the State of New York, Hamilton found his own candidate, his father in law, being out-done by the wily Aaron Burr and his political games. “I fear that Mr. Burr is unprincipled as both a public and a private man.” he said. “In fact, I take it that he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest and ambition!” he protested. Hamilton got back at Burr in a huge way in the Presidential election of 1800 when he arranged for his supporters to block Burr from taking the Presidency from Thomas Jefferson. So when in 1804, Burr found himself under attack in the press from Hamilton again, he struck back. He wrote to Hamilton that opinions which he expressed in public to a Dr. Cooper were defamatory and called the accusations an “Affair of Honor” which meant he was being challenged to a duel. Hamilton tried to back out of it, but could not bring himself to make a public apology. So the duel was set.
July 11, 1804 at Just After Dawn:
The account of the seconds continued: “He then asked if they were prepared; being answered in the affirmative… both parties presented and fired in succession. The fire of Colonel Burr took effect, and General Hamilton almost instantly fell. Colonel Burr advanced toward General Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to be expressive of regret; but, without speaking, turned about and withdrew, being urged from the field by his friend… with a view to prevent his being recognized by the surgeon and bargemen who were then approaching. No further communication took place between the principals, and the barge that carried Colonel Burr immediately returned to the city. We conceive it proper to add, that the conduct of the parties in this interview was perfectly proper, as suited the occasion.” There have been differing accounts of whether Hamilton deliberately fired over Burr’s head as if to let the whole matter drop, or if he simply missed. But whatever the case, Burr had the next shot and he did not miss. Burr it is said, went home and ate a hearty breakfast. Hamilton, mortally wounded in the stomach lingered on before dying the next day.
Hamilton is today enshrined in our nations memory as one of our founding fathers with his worrisome visage looking out upon us from the ten dollar bill. Aaron Burr was prosecuted for murder, as dueling, however much practiced in some circles was nevertheless illegal. When it became clear that he was going to lose, he was obliged to leave the state of New York and the Vice Presidency. In 1807, he was brought to trial for treason by another of his old targets, Thomas Jefferson after a foolish and ill-conceived attempt to invade Mexico and form a separate country with some American territories. He was acquitted, but was this time obliged to leave the United States altogether. He lived for some time in a house on Craven Street in London (it’s true… he really did!!). Late in life he returned to the United States where he died on Staten Island on Sept. 14, 1836. He is buried in New Jersey. And to this day, he is remembered almost entirely for his connection to a man whom he sought to eliminate from his life completely, by an “Affair of Honor”…..
“Notorious New Jersey” by Jon Blackwell, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2008
“Affairs of Honor” by Joanne B. Freeman, Yale University Press, 2003