Today In History: Burr Kills Hamilton In Duel
Today in 1804, longtime rivals Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton faced off in their famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr triumphed over Hamilton, though in the process of killing him, became one of the great villains of American history.
Hamilton, the lead Federalist, despised Burr and worked actively to sabotage him. Burr ran for the vice presidency on Thomas Jefferson’s ticket in 1796, and Hamilton waged one of the first negative electoral PR campaigns against him, stating publicly, “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.”
In 1800, again Jefferson’s pick for VP, Burr published a previously confidential piece of writing Hamilton had penned that was very critical of John Adams, his political ally. Partially thanks to the rift it opened among the Federalists, Jefferson took the presidency.
After a scrum in the House of Representatives that saw a contingent of Federalists defect to Burr’s side, Burr became vice president. Jefferson and Burr’s relationship soured during Jefferson’s presidency. Jefferson did not support Burr’s re-election campaign in 1804. Federalists in New York persuaded Burr to run for governor of the state. His bid was unsuccessful, in large part because Hamilton politicked aggressively against him.
Humiliated, Burr challenged Hamilton to an “affair of honor,” the polite term for a duel. Duels were standard practice, and most never escalated to the actual firing of guns. This was not to be the case with Hamilton and Burr.
The spot where they dueled was the same dueling grounds where Alexander Hamilton’s son had died in a dispute over his father’s honor three years prior.
Eyewitness accounts conflict about how the duel began. Hamilton’s camp said he fired his gun into the air out of moral protest. Burr’s camp said he fired at Burr and missed. In response, Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach. Hamilton died the following day.
Burr served out the remainder of his term as Vice President a national villain. In 1805, he conspired with the commander-in-chief of the army, James Wilkinson, to defect from the United States and form his own sovereign nation in the Louisiana Territory. The plan was thwarted when the British refused aid. They again made plans to seize a chunk of land for themselves in Spanish America.
In 1806, Burr led an armed contingent on a march towards New Orleans. Wilkinson stabbed him in the back, reporting his movements to the federal government and accusing him of treason. He was arrested and tried for treason, but was acquitted. Burr fled to Europe, disgraced, but later returned to New York. Burr died in 1836.