Bickering politicians are nothing new and in fact, the antics of today’s politicians are tame compared to the escapades of yesteryear. On July 11, 1804, the United States Vice President, Aaron Burr, reacting to insults from the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, challenged his foe to a duel during which he shot and killed his opponent. Vice President Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey.
Animosity between Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton
Founding-father Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr had long held a storied animosity towards each other. Hamilton, a Federalist, had helped Thomas Jefferson secure the 1800 presidential victory against Republican Aaron Burr and often publicly ridiculed Burr in the newspapers calling him “unprincipled”, a “dangerous man”, and “one who ought not be trusted”. In those days, the loser of the presidential race became the Vice President and thus, Burr’s loss to Jefferson in the presidential election still earned him a position of power. In 1804, when Burr realized Thomas Jefferson was going to drop him from his ticket in that year’s presidential election, he ran for the New York governor position hoping to secure an alternative leadership position in one of the Nation’s principle states. Once again, Hamilton went on the attack ensuring Burr would lose the governorship race too.
The personal attacks against his character angered Burr who insisted (via a series of letters) Hamilton recant or deny any statement disparaging Burr’s honor over the past 15 years. Hamilton refused but proposed an alternate solution – a duel. At this time, duels were illegal in both New York and neighboring New Jersey. It was against the law to either challenge a person to a duel or to accept a challenge for a duel. Despite the law, the public continued to support dueling as a means of defending one’s honor. In fact, despite the illegality, no one in the state had ever been prosecuted for a duel.
Burr and Hamilton duel
On July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr rowed boats across the Hudson River from New York into New Jersey where they met on a ledge overlooking the river. In part, duelers evaded the long-arm of the law by using the riverbed state boundaries as locations for duels. According to Business Insider:
“Dueling opponents tended to carefully conduct the affair in a manner that made it difficult to prove their guilt of a crime. That typically involved keeping their intentions quiet, never revealing the gun until the last moment, and having friends look away during the moment the shots were fired.”
Following generally-accepted rules for duels (ten paces, then fire), Hamilton and Burr drew their weapons. Witness say there were three seconds between Hamilton’s shot and Burr’s. Historians believe that Hamilton fought with a specially modified “hair trigger” gun that may have misfired as he drew from his waistband. As a result, Burr survived unscathed while Hamilton was mortally wounded by a shot just above the hip which pierced his liver and spine. He died the following day in New York City.
Burr was charged with both the misdemeanor of challenging to a duel and the felony of murder in both New York and New Jersey (since Hamilton was shot in New Jersey but died in New York). Burr promptly fled to Pennsylvania and then to Georgia where he wrote to his daughter:
“There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is, which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice-President. You shall have due notice of time and place. Whenever it may be, you may rely on a great concourse of company, much gayety, and many rare sights.”
U.S. Congressmen jumped to Burr’s aid and plead with governors of New York and New Jersey to drop all charges against Burr. Both states eventually dropped the murder charges but convicted Burr of the misdemeanor offense of challenging another person to a duel. As a result of the conviction, Burr had his voter registration revoked and was prohibited from practicing law or serving in public office for 20 years. His political career was ruined.
As far-fetched as it sounds, duels in the 18th century were not uncommon. President Andrew Jackson survived 13 different duels while Hamilton’s son died from wounds sustained during a duel at the exact same spot where a mere two years later Alexander Hamilton himself died at the hands of Aaron Burr.
A series of historical letters between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton provide details of the event.
Letter from Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, June 18, 1804
The following letter references statements made by D. Cooper, who had recalled various insults made by Alexander Hamilton towards Burr.
N York 18 June 1804
I send for your perusal a letter signed Ch. D. Cooper which, though apparently published some time ago, has but very recently come to my knowledge. Mr. Van Ness, who does me the favor to deliver this, will point out to you that clause of the letter to which I particularly request your attention.
You must perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.
I have the honor to be
Your Obdt. St
Alexander Hamilton’s response to Aaron Burr (hints at a duel), June 20, 1804
N York 20 June 1804
I have maturely reflected on the subject of your letter of the 18th Instant, and the more I have reflected, the more I have become convinced that I could not without manifest impropriety make the avowal or disavowal which you seem to think necessary.
The clause pointed out by Mr. Van Ness is in these terms: “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” To endeavor to discover the meaning of this declaration, I was obliged to seek in the antecedent part of the letter for the opinion to which it referred, as having been already disclosed. I found it in these words: “Genl. Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of Government.” The language of Dr. Cooper plainly implies that he considered this opinion of you, which he attributes to me, as a despicable one; but he affirms that I have expressed some other still more despicable; without, however, mentioning to whom, when or where. ‘Tis evident that the phrase “still more despicable” admits of infinite shades from very light to very dark. How am I to judge of the degree intended. Or how should I annex any precise idea to language so vague?
Between Gentlemen despicable and still more despicable are not worth the pains of a distinction. When, therefore, you do not interrogate me as to the opinion which is specifically ascribed to me, I mist conclude that you view it as within the limits to which the animadversions of political opponents, upon each other, may justifiably extend; and consequently as not warranting the idea of it which Dr. Cooper appears to entertain. If so, what precise inference could you draw as a guide for your future conduct, were I to acknowledge that I had expressed an opinion of you, still more despicable than the one which is particularized? How could you be sure that even this opinion had exceeded the bounds which you would yourself deem admissible between political opponents?
But I forbear further comment on the embarrassment to which the requisition you have made naturally leads. The occasion forbids a more ample illustration, though nothing would be more easy than to pursue it.
Repeating that I can not reconcile it with propriety to make the acknowledgment or denial you desire, I will add that I deem it inadmissible on principle, to consent to be interrogated as to the justness of the inferences which may be drawn by others, from whatever I may have said of a political opponent in the course of a fifteen years competition. If there were no other objection to it, this is sufficient, that it would tend to expose my sincerity and delicacy to injurious imputations from every person who may at any time have conceived that import of my expressions differently from what I may then have intended, or may afterwards recollect.
I stand ready to avow or disavow promptly and explicitly any precise or definite opinion which I may be charged with having declared to any gentleman. More than this can not fitly be expected from me; and especially it can not reasonably be expected that I shall enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted. I trust upon more reflection you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstances and must abide the consequences.
The publication of Dr. Cooper was never seen by me ‘till after the receipt of your letter.
Sir, I have the honor to be
Your Obdt. St
Response from Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, June 21, 1804
N York 21 June, 1804.
Your letter of the 20th inst. has been this day received. Having considered it attentively, I regret to find in it nothing of that sincerity and delicacy which you profess to value.
Political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum. I neither claim such privilege nor indulge it in others.
The common sense of mankind affixes to the epithet adopted by Dr. Cooper the idea of dishonor. It has been publicly applied to me under the sanction of your name. The question is not whether he has understood the meaning of the word or has used it according to syntax and with grammatical accuracy, but whether you have authorized this application either directly or by uttering expression or opinion derogatory to my honor. The time “when” is in your own knowledge but no way material to me, as the calumny has now just been disclosed so as to become the subject of my notice and as the effect is present and palpable.
Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.
I have the honor to be
Your Obdt. St
Alexander Hamilton response to Aaron Burr, June 22, 1804
N York 22 June 1804
Your first letter, in a style too peremptory, made a demand, in my opinion, unprecedented and unwarrantable. My answer, pointing out the embarrassment, gave you an opportunity to take a less exceptionable course. You have not chosen to do it, but by your last letter, received this day, containing expressions indecorous and improper, you have increased the difficulties to explanation, intrinsically incident to the nature of your application.
If by a “definite reply” you mean the direct avowal or disavowal required in your first letter, I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given. If you mean anything different admitting of greater latitude, it is requisite you should explain.
I have the honor to be, Sir
Your Obdt. St
Aaron Burr response to Alexander Hamilton (hints at duel agreement), June 22, 1804
Mr. V Ness has this evening reported to me Verbally that you refuse to answer my last letter, that you consider the course I have taken as intemperate and unnecessary and some other conversation which it is improper that I should notice.
My request to you was in the first instance proposed in a form the most simple in order that you might give to the affair that course to which you might be induced by your temper and your knowledge of facts. I relied with unsuspecting faith that from the frankness of a Soldier and the Candor of a gentleman I might expect an ingenuous declaration; that if, as I had reason to believe, you had used expressions derogatory to my honor, you would have had the Spirit to Maintain or the Magnanimity to retract them, and, that if from your language injurious inferences had been improperly drawn, Sincerity and delicacy would have pointed out to you the propriety of correcting errors which might thus have been widely diffused.
With these impressions, I was greatly disappointed in receiving from you a letter which I could only consider as evasive and which in manner, is not altogether decorus. In one expectation however, I was not wholly deceived, for at the close of your letter I find an intimation, that if I should dislike your refusal to acknowledge or deny the charge, you were ready to meet the consequences. This I deemed a sort of defiance, and I should have been justified if I had chosen to make it the basis of an immediate message: Yet, as you had also said something (though in my opinion unfounded) of the indefiniteness of my request; as I believed that your communication was the offspring, rather of false pride than of reflection, and, as I felt the utmost reluctance to proceed to extremities while any other hope remained, my request was repeated in terms more definite. To this you refuse all reply, reposing, as I am bound to presume on the tender of an alternative insinuated in your letter.
Thus, Sir, you have invited the course I am about to pursue, and now by your silence impose it upon me. If therefore your determinations are final, of which I am not permitted to doubt, Mr. Van Ness is authorized to communicate my further expectations either to yourself or to such friend as you may be pleased to indicate.
I have the honor to be
Your Ob st
Letter from William P. Van Ness to Nathaniel Pendleton proposing a duel, June 26, 1804
The letter which you yesterday delivered me and your subsequent communication in Col. Burr’s opinion evince no disposition on the part of Genl. Hamilton to come to a satisfactory accommodation. The injury complained of and the reparation expected are so definitely expressed in his (Col. B.’s) letter of the 21st Inst. that there is not perceived a necessity for further explanation on his part. The difficulty that would result from confining the inquiry to any particular times and occasions must be manifest. The denial of a specified conversation only, would leave strong implications that on other occasions improper language had been used. When and where injurious expressions and opinions have been uttered by Genl. Hamilton must be best known to him and of him only does Col. Burr think it proper to enquire.
No denial or declaration will be satisfactory unless it be general so as to wholly exclude the idea that rumors derogatory to Col. Burr’s honor can have originated with Genl. Hamilton or have been fairly inferred from anything he has said. A definite reply to a requisition of this nature is demanded in Col. Burr’s letter of the 21st Inst. This being refused, invites the alternative alluded to in Genl. H.’s letter of the 20th Inst. It was demanded by the position in which the controversy was placed by Genl. H. on the 22nd Inst., and I was immediately furnished with a communication demanding a, personal interview.
The necessity of this measure has not in the opinion of Col. Burr been diminished by the General’s last letter or any subsequent communication which has been received and I am again instructed to deliver you a message as soon as it may be convenient for you to receive it. I beg, therefore, you will have the politeness to inform me at what hour I shall wait on you.
Your most obt. & very hum. Servt.
W. P. Van Ness
Letter from William P. Van Ness to Nathaniel Pendleton, June 26, 1804
[New York, June 27, 1804]
The letter which I had the honor to receive from you under date of yesterday, states among other things, that in Genl Hamilton’s opinion, Col: Burr has taken a very indefinite ground, in which he evinces nothing short of predetermined hostility; and that Genl Hamilton thinks it inadmissible that the enquiry should extend to his confidential as well as other conversations. To this Col. Burr can only reply that secret whispers traducing his fame and impeaching his honor, are at least equally injurious, with slanders publicly uttered; That Genl H. had at no time and in no place a right to use any such injurious expressions; and that the partial negative he is disposed to give with the reservations he wishes to make, are proofs that he has done the injury specified.
Col: Burr’s request was in the first instance proposed in a form the most simple, in order that Genl Hamilton might give to the affair that course to which he might be induced by his temper and his knowledge of facts. Col. B. trusted with confidence that from the frankness of a soldier and the candor of a gentleman he might expect an ingenuous declaration; that if, as he had reason to believe Genl H. had used expressions derogatory to his honor, he would have had the magnanimity to retract them; and that if, from his language injurious inferences had been improperly drawn he would have perceived the propriety of correcting errors, which might thus have been widely diffused. With these impressions Col. Burr was greatly surprised at receiving a letter which he considered as evasive and which in manner he deemed not altogether decorous. In one expectation however, he was not wholly deceived, for the close of Genl Hamilton’s letter contained an intimation that if Col. Burr should dislike his refusal to acknowledge or deny, he was ready to meet the consequences. This Col. B. deemed a sort of defiance, and would have felt justified in making it the basis of an immediate message. But as the communication contained something concerning the indefiniteness of his request: As he believed it rather the offspring of false pride than of reflection, and as he felt the utmost reluctance to proceed to extremities, while any other hope remained, his request was repeated in terms more explicit. The replies and propositions on the part of Genl H. have in Col. B’s opinion been constantly in substance the same.
Col: Burr disavows all motives of predetermined hostility. A charge by which he thinks insult is added to injury, he feels as a gentleman should feel, when his honor is impeached or assailed, and without sensations of hostility or wishes of revenge, he is determined to vindicate that honor at such hazard as the nature of the case demands.
The length to which this correspondence has extended only tending to prove that the satisfactory redress, earnestly desired cannot be obtained, he deems it useless to offer any proposition except the simple Message which I shall now have the honor to deliver.
I have the honor to be with great respt.
Your Obt & very hum Servt
W: P. Van Ness
Joint Statement by William P. Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton on the Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, July 17, 1804
[New York, July 17, 1804]
Col: Burr arrived first on the ground as had been previously agreed. When Genl Hamilton arrived the parties exchanged salutations and the Seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of positions as also to determine by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the Second of Genl Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took their stations. The Gentleman who was to give the word, then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing which were as follows: The parties being placed at their stations The Second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready—being answered in the affirmative, he shall say “present” after which the parties shall present & fire when they please. If one fires before the other the opposite second shall say one two, three, fire, and he shall fire or loose his fire. And asked if they were prepared, being answered in the affirmative he gave the word present as had been agreed on, and both of the parties took aim, & fired in succession, the Intervening time is not expressed as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col: Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell. Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew. Being urged from the field by his friend as has been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognized by the Surgeon and Bargemen who were then approaching. No farther communications took place between the principals and the Barge that carried Col: Burr immediately returned to the City. We conceive it proper to add that the conduct of the parties in that interview was perfectly proper as suited the occasion.