Duel Between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

Why were Hamilton and Burr eager to fight to the death?

Illustration of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Preparing to Duel
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is not only a fascinating incident in early United States history but also one whose impact cannot be overstated as it resulted in the death of Hamilton, who was serving as President George Washington's secretary of the Treasury. The foundation of their rivalry was set many years before they actually dueled on a fateful morning in July 1804.

Causes of the Rivalry Between Hamilton and Burr

The rivalry between Hamilton and Burr had its roots in a 1791 Senate race. Burr defeated Philip Schuyler, who was Hamilton's father-in-law. As a Federalist, Schuyler would have supported Washington's and Hamilton's policies, while Burr, as a Democratic-Republican, opposed those policies.

The relationship only became more fractured during the election of 1800. In this election, the Electoral College was at an impasse as to the selection of the president between Thomas Jefferson, who was running for president, and Burr, who had been running for the vice presidential position on the same ticket. Electoral rules at this time did not distinguish between votes cast for president or vice president; instead, the votes for all four candidates for these positions were tallied. Once the votes were counted, it was found that Jefferson and Burr were tied. This meant that the House of Representatives had to decide which person would become the new president.

While Hamilton didn't support either candidate, he hated Burr more than Jefferson. As a result of Hamilton's political maneuverings in the House of Representatives, Jefferson became president and Burr was named his vice president.

In 1804, Hamilton again entered the fray in a campaign against Aaron Burr. Burr was running for New York governor, and Hamilton vigorously campaigned against him. This helped Morgan Lewis win the election and led to further animosity between the two men.

The situation worsened when Hamilton criticized Burr at a dinner party. Angry letters were exchanged between the two men, with Burr asking for Hamilton to apologize. When Hamilton would not do so, Burr challenged him to a duel.

Duel Between Hamilton and Burr

In the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, Hamilton met Burr at the agreed-upon site at the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey. Burr and his second, William P. Van Ness, cleared the dueling grounds of trash. Hamilton and his second, Nathaniel Pendelton, arrived shortly before 7 a.m. It is believed that Hamilton fired first and probably honored his pre-duel pledge to throw away his shot. However, his unorthodox manner of firing up instead of into the ground gave Burr the justification to take aim and shoot Hamilton. The bullet from Burr struck Hamilton in the abdomen and probably did significant damage to his internal organs. He died from his wounds a day later.

The Aftermath of Hamilton's Death

The duel ended the life of one of the greatest minds of the Federalist Party and the early U.S. government. As secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had a significant impact on the commercial underpinning of the new federal government. The duel also made Burr a pariah in the political landscape of the U.S. Although his duel was considered to be within the bounds of the moral ethics of the time, his political aspirations were ruined.