The duel between Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the sitting Vice President Aaron Burr took place on this date 212 years ago.
The feud between the two men had been festering for years, hitting its peak after New York’s gubernatorial race of 1804. Hamilton had brutally criticized Burr as he ran and then lost the race for governor.
Burr challenged Hamilton to the famous duel, and the two men, with their seconds rowed across the Hudson River to Weehawken, New Jersey.
Details of the actual duel are sketchy, at best. Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, although authorities in New Jersey were not as aggressive in prosecuting the crime. The unwritten rules of dueling at the time had the seconds standing with their backs to the duelists, that way they had plausible deniability, and could say that they didn’t actually see any shots fired.
All accounts say that both men fired, although the timing of the shots and the intentions of the duelists remain controversial. Most agree that Hamilton fired first, his shot going high in the air, with the musket ball hitting a tree. Whether Hamilton missed intentionally or the pistol went off too soon due to a hair trigger, is openly debated.
Burr did not miss, probably intentionally. Hamilton was struck in the abdomen, the musket ball deflecting off of a rib and shattering it. Severe damage was done to his liver and diaphragm. Hamilton knew immediately that he was mortally wounded.
Alexander Hamilton, former chief staff aide to General Washington during the Revolution and the Nation’s first Secretary of Treasury, died from his wounds the following afternoon.
Aaron Burr would be charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, but neither case would go to trial. He would go on to finish his term as vice president, although his political career was basically over. His arrest and trial for treason during President Thomas Jefferson’s second term, further led to his political exile, even though he was acquitted of all charges. He would die in 1836 at the age of 80 in Staten Island, NY.
In a twist to the story, Alexander Hamilton’s son, Philip had been killed in a duel three years earlier in 1801. That duel also took place at Weehawken. Between the years of 1700 and 1845, 18 duels are known to have taken place at Weehawken.
The Wogdon dueling pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel are on display at the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase & Co in New York City.