DO YOU LIKE GUNS? DO YOU LIKE COOL STORIES ABOUT COOL DUDES WHO DUEL?
WELL HANG TIGHT BECAUSE I’VE GOT A COOL STORY FOR YOU.
July 11, 1804. Weehawken, New Jersey. Two men arrive, only one walks away. One is Aaron Burr, the Vice President. The other, Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury and a signer of the Constitution. You would think that two forty-somethings that helped form our nation would handle personal disputes in a calm rational matter. Well you’d be wrong because these two fought like toddlers.
Both men were orphaned in adolescence and faced extraordinary strife in childhood. Hamilton was born in Nevis, an island in the West Indies. His father abandoned their family when Alexander was 10 and his mother died two years later. After her death, Hamilton worked as a clerk in a counting house, impressing his bosses so much that they raised money to send him off to school in America. In New York, he attended King’s College–known today as Columbia University.
Meanwhile, Burr was an orphan at age two. He was sent to live with an uncle who whipped him. Aaron ran away time after time, but his uncle found him. At age 16, Burr graduated from the College of New Jersey (today, Princeton) as a student of theology, but later turned to a career in law.
Tensions rose between these two men during the American Revolution. Both men were war heroes, either being one of two men of their regiment to survive a battle (Burr) or having their horse shot down from under them and walking away unscathed (Hamilton).
General George Washington heard about Hamilton’s victories and invited him to be one of his aide-de-camps. Though Hamilton was moving up the ranks, he was extremely temperamental. Because he was born in the West Indies, he felt many people judged him for it, causing him to lash out with his peers and even Washington himself. Burr was invited to become an aide as well, but was almost immediately fired and sent to work for General Israel Putnam.
After the war, the two were friendly to each other in public, but were rivals in New York City courtrooms, where they both worked as lawyers. In 1791, Burr beat out Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for a U.S. Senate seat. Hamilton lashed out, thinking Burr ran just to spite him. He wrote letters to lawmakers, hurling insults at Burr.
In 1800, Burr ran for President. He tied with Thomas Jefferson and the House of Representatives had to choose the next POTUS. As the House chose, Hamilton once again wrote notes slandering Burr’s name and intentions. Burr was defeated, and he believed it was because of Hamilton’s words. The feud between the two had been given more fuel.
When Burr’s Vice Presidency was coming to a close, he decided to run for governor of New York. Burr caught wind that Hamilton was once again planning to run a smear campaign against him. Burr lost the election for governor and was infuriated, once again blaming Hamilton for the loss. He wrote his falsifier and requested that Hamilton apologize or Burr would challenge him to a duel. Hamilton chose the duel.
The location would be the Weehawken dueling grounds, across the Hudson River from New York City. The location was the same where, just three years before, Hamilton’s son Philip died from, you guessed it, a duel.
Hamilton shot first, but missed. To this day, the jury is out on whether he purposefully missed or misfired. Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower right abdomen above his right hip. The bullet fractured his third false rib and ricocheted through his liver and diaphragm before lodging into his spine. He collapsed immediately and Burr started to approach his fallen comrade, seemingly out of regret, but he was rushed away to his rowboat.
Hamilton drifted in and out of consciousness and died the following day. Burr was tried for treason in 1807 but was pardoned. He lived in Europe from 1808 to 1812 and never regained political power. He remarried in 1833 at the age of 77 and frequently remarked about the duel, referring to Hamilton as, “my friend, whom I shot.”
Today, a road runs through the original dueling grounds site, but along the bank of the river is a monument with a statue of Hamilton’s bust and a boulder where he is believed to have rested after being wounded. Hamilton’s face is plastered on the ten dollar bill and statues of him are in almost every major city on the East Coast. Burr remains a forgotten figure from history for an act that both men shared equal blame.
Currently, Broadway actor, composer, and lyricist is composing “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a concept album based on the life of the former Secretary of the Treasury. The first song, performed by the character of Aaron Burr, can be watched here:
In addition, Nick Cardiff- who portrays Alexander Hamilton in the YouTube series “I Made America”, performed a response to Miranda’s rap, where he mentions more of the details of the duel (It’s also hilarious–if you have the time, watch the entire series, it’s great. Just great.):
Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg
Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser