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Run Up to the Duel

In a letter to Burr, Dr. Charles D. Cooper wrote that Hamilton "...has come out decidedly against Burr; indeed when he was here he spoke of him as a dangerous man, and who ought not to be trusted."

Burr then asked William P. Van Ness to deliver a note to Hamilton. Van Ness’s account follows.

On the afternoon of 17th June last I received a Note from Col Burr requesting me to call on him the following morning which I did. Upon my arrival he observed that it had of late been frequently stated to him that Genl Hamilton had at various times and upon various occasions used language and expressed opinions highly injurious to his reputation, that he had for some time felt the necessity of calling on Genl Hamilton for some explanation of his conduct, but that the statements which had been made to him, did not appear sufficiently authentic to justify the measure. That a Newspaper had however very recently been put into his hands in which he perceived a letter signed Ch D. Cooper [Dr. Charles Cooper] containing information, which he thought demanded immediate investigation. Urged by these circumstances and justified by the opinion of his friends, he said, that he had determined to write Genl Hamilton a Note upon the subject which he requested me to deliver. I assented to his request, and on my return to the City which was at 11 O clock the same morning, I delivered to Genl Hamilton the Note which I received from Col Burr for that purpose & of which the following is a Copy.

Hamilton responded to Burr’s challenge with these words:

Sir - The language of Doctor Cooper affirms that I have expressed some opinion "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?

I trust, on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequences.

Burr responded to Hamilton’s note as follows:

Sir: The common sense of Mankind affixes to the epithet adopted by Dr. Cooper the idea of dishonor. The question is not whether he has used it with grammatical accuracy, but whether you have uttered expressions derogatory to my honor.

Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.

Aaron Burr prepared an apology that he asked Hamilton to accept.

June 25, 1804

G H [General Hamilton] being apprised that expressions are ascribed to him impeaching the honor & affecting the private reputation of A B [Aaron Burr] and perceiving that reports to this effect have been widely disseminated feels it due to his own honor as also to that of a gentleman that traduced under the sanction of his name to remove all such injurious expressions.
G H frankly & explicitly disclaims & disavows the use of any expressions tending to impeach the honor of A B. He feels the sincerity & candor of his own character injured by a charge of the kind, & while he regrets that his expressions have been misrepresented or misconstrued, he can only account for this effect by supposing that language he may have employed in the warmth of political discourse has been understood, or represented in a latitude entirely foreign from his sentiments or his wishes.
If G H has on any occasions uttered such expressions he feels a propriety in fully & explicitly with drawing them as the ebullitions of party feelings which may have escaped him in the heat of political discourse but which he is conscious are unmerited & regrets having employed.

Read Hamilton's statement - written between June 27 and July 4, 1804 to be made public in the event of his death.

Student questions:

  • Which of the two - Hamilton or Burr - provoked the duel?
  • Why do you think Hamilton was unwilling to issue the apology that Burr requested?

Before the duel, Hamilton wrote two letters to his wife.

Student questions:

  • What do these letters suggest about Hamilton’s state of mind prior to the duel?
  • Do they suggest that Hamilton was willing to shoot Burr?
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