Aaron Burr felt that he had many good reasons to hate Alexander Hamilton. Burrs resentment of Hamilton may have begun during the American Revolution, when both men served as aides to General George Washington. In 1776, Burr was severely reprimanded by Washington when he was caught in the act of casually reading the Commander-in-Chiefs private correspondence. After this incident, Washington mistrusted Burr and maintained a cold, formal distance from him. Alexander Hamilton, in contrast, quickly became one of Washingtons most trusted aides.
After the Revolution, both Burr and Hamilton resigned their military commissions and became lawyers, setting up private practices in New York City and becoming intimately involved in the political development of the new nation.
In 1789, Hamilton was hand-picked by Washington to become the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. In the same year, Aaron Burr was appointed Attorney General of the state of New York. Two years later, in 1791, Burr defeated Hamiltons father-in-law in a New York election for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Following this election, Senator Burr became the target of a steady stream of disparagement from Treasury Secretary Hamilton. Charging that Burr was for or against nothing, but as it suits his interest or ambition, Hamilton concluded, I feel it a religious duty to oppose his career.
During the next eight years, Burrs political ambitions were often thwarted by Hamilton. In 1795, Burr entered the race for the governorship of New York, only to be defeated by John Jay, who had Hamiltons firm support. The next year, Burr campaigned for the Presidency, but lost to John Adams. Finally, in 1798, when a war with France seemed likely, Burr was nominated to a post as quartermaster general in the U.S. Army. Hamilton, who was then serving as inspector general of the army, vetoed Burrs appointment.
In February, 1801, Aaron Burr was elected to the office of Vice-president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson. During the election, it seemed for a time that Burr might actually receive the majority of electoral votes and become President himself. Once again, however, Alexander Hamilton used his influence to shift votes away from Burr.
Hamiltons support for Jefferson was particularly devastating to Burr because Hamilton was the leading conservative opponent of Jeffersons democratic ideology. If there is a man in this world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson, Hamilton wrote. But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration. Hamilton compared Burr to Catiline, a classical Roman politician whose name was considered synonymous with cold-blooded, backstabbing ambition.
Gradually, Jefferson also began to mistrust Burr, and dropped him from re-election plans in 1804.
As his Vice-presidential term expired, Aaron Burr entered the race for the office of governor of New York. If successful in his bid for the governorship, he hoped to regain popular support and run again for the Presidency in 1808.
As the New York gubernatorial election approached, Alexander Hamilton continued his attacks on Vice-president Burr in speeches delivered to private political dinner meetings.
Eventually, some comments made at one of these meetings were published in an Albany newspaper, which quoted Hamilton as saying that Burr was a dangerous man... who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government. The author of the published letter went on to suggest that Really, Sir, I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.
Aaron Burr was infuriated when he read Hamiltons published comments, which came to his attention shortly after he lost the New York election. He believed that Hamiltons unrelenting insults to his character had cost him the governorship, effectively ending his political career.
On June 18, 1804, Burr wrote a letter to Hamilton which contained an implicit challenge to fight a duel. Included with the letter was a copy of the newspaper clipping containing the offensive remarks. Burr requested a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the despicable opinion attributed to Hamilton.
Following the time-honored code of gentlemen, Hamilton would be obliged to fight if he acknowledged his insulting remarks. If Hamilton wanted to escape combat, he would have to publicly state that Burr was a gentleman, and no scoundrel.
Responding to Burrs indignant request, Hamilton claimed to have never seen the article in question before receiving Burrs note. Hamilton refused to discuss the question of what the specific comments regarding Burr might have been. The more I have reflected the more I have become convinced, Hamilton wrote, that I could not, without manifest impropriety, make the avowal or disavowal which you seem to think necessary.
Frustrated, Burr wrote back to Hamilton, accusing him of insincerity and demanding a definite reply. Hamilton again refused to discuss any comments he may have made, claiming only that they would not have been found to exceed the limits justifiable among political opponents. He then blankly refused to respond to any further questions.
Several additional letters passed between the two men. Burr insisted that Hamilton either acknowledge or deny the comments attributed to him; Hamilton stubbornly refused to do either.
Finally, on June 27, 1804, Burr demanded that Hamilton face the consequences of his base slander. He formally challenged Hamilton to a duel to settle their differences. To Burrs satisfaction, Hamilton accepted the challenge.
According to some reports, Burr prepared for the impending duel by practicing his marksmanship every evening after dinner. Hamilton, however, prepared for the combat by spreading rumors that he felt no anger at all towards Burr, and would therefore refuse to fire his own pistol during the duel.
On the morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton met at Weehawken, an isolated strip of land on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River.
The rules of the duel were laid out according to long standing tradition. Each man was accompanied by a second to serve as a witness and assistant. The duelists were to stand at a distance of ten paces about 30 feetfrom one another. One of the seconds, chosen by drawing lots, would ask if the men were ready, and then call out the order Present! at which point the men were free to aim and fire at one another.
Various accounts of the duel disagree on exactly what happened in the instant after the word present was spoken. Burr said that Hamilton fired first and missed. Burrs bullet, however, found its mark, striking Hamilton in the stomach and lodging in his spine. As Hamilton fell to the ground he cried out I am a dead man!
According to Hamiltons second, it was Burr who fired first, and Hamiltons gun went off only as he fell after being shot. Later, a tree branch was found near the spot where Burr had stood, with a hole in it that had been made by Hamiltons bullet.
Alexander Hamiltons second rowed him across the Hudson River to his home in New York City. Aaron Burr heard that Hamilton, as he lay dying in his bed, was still working diligently to soil Aaron Burrs reputation.
The dying Hamilton was painting himself as a peace-loving victim of Burrs violent animosity. Hamilton told the minister who attended him, I have no ill-will against Col. Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.
Alexander Hamilton died two days later at the age of 49. Hamiltons supporters immediately launched a propaganda offensive against Aaron Burr. They claimed that Alexander Hamilton was personally opposed to the practice of dueling, and had only agreed to fight to avoid the appearance of cowardice. A letter that Hamilton had written was published, in which he told his friends that he would not fire upon Burr, whatever the consequences to himself, thus giving a double opportunity to Col. Burr to pause and reflect. Noting that Hamilton had intended to throw away his first shot, his mourning supporters claimed that he had intentionally fired in the air. Burr dismissed this claim as a contemptible disclosure if true.
On August 2, a New York coroner formally accused the Vice-president of murder, as did a New Jersey court a few days later.
In the days immediately following the duel, Aaron Burr remained in seclusion. He then secretly left New York to escape the notoriety brought on by his killing of Hamilton.
Despite his status as an accused murderer, Burr was allowed to complete his term as Vice-President, which ended in March, 1805. Then, with warrants for his arrest still out in New York and New Jersey, he traveled to the western territories of the United States, where he masterminded a scheme to seize control of the Louisiana Territory and Mexico, apparently with the goal of setting up his own independent country. Arrested and tried for this conspiracy in 1807, Burr was acquitted for lack of evidence. He continued to drift through the southern United States and Europe for the next 32 years. As his political career faded from public memory, he remained notorious as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton. He died in 1836, at the age of 80.
Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man. by H.S. Parmet and M.B. Hecht. Macmillan, 1967.
Ordeal of Ambition: Hamilton, Jefferson, Burr. by Jonathan Daniels. Doubleday, 1970.
Alexander Hamilton: A Biography in His Own Words (2 vol.). Ed. by Mary Jo Kline. Newsweek, 1973.
Alexander Hamilton. by Henry Cabot Lodge. Houghton Mifflin, 1888.
Interview at Weehawken: the Burr-Hamilton Duel as Told in the Original Documents. ed. by H.C. Syrett and J.G. Cooke. Wesleyan, 1960.
Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Jefferson. by D.B. Chidsey. Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1975.
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