The Hamilton-Burr Duel
Digital History ID 1071
On the morning of June 18, 1804, a visitor handed a package to former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Inside was a newspaper clipping and a terse three-sentence letter. The clipping said that Hamilton had called Vice President Aaron Burr “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” It went on to say that Hamilton had “expressed” a “still more despicable opinion” of Burr—apparently a bitter personal attack on Burr’s public and private morality, not merely a political criticism. The letter, signed by Burr, demanded a “prompt and unqualified” denial or an immediate apology.
Hamilton and Burr had sparred verbally for decades. Hamilton regarded Burr as an unscrupulous man and considered him partly responsible for a duel in 1801 that had left his son Philip dead. Burr, in turn, blamed Hamilton for his defeat in the race for governor of New York earlier in the year. When, after three weeks, Hamilton had failed to respond to his letter satisfactorily, Burr insisted that they settle the dispute according to the code of honor.
Shortly after 7 A.M., on July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton met on the wooded heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, a customary dueling ground directly across the Hudson River from New York. Hamilton’s son died there in a duel in 1801. Hamilton’s second handed Burr one of two pistols equipped with hair-spring triggers. After he and Burr took their positions ten paces apart, Hamilton raised his pistol on the command to “Present!” and fired. His shot struck a tree a few feet to Burr’s side. Then Burr fired. His shot struck Hamilton in the right side and passed through his liver. Hamilton died the following day. The popular view was that Hamilton had intentionally fired to one side, while Burr had slain the Federalist leader in an act of cold-blooded murder. In fact, historians do not know whether Burr was guilty of willful murder. Burr had no way of knowing whether Hamilton had purposely missed. Hamilton, after all, had accepted the challenge, raised his pistol, and fired. According to the code of honor, if Burr missed on his first try, Hamilton would have a second chance to shoot.
The states of New York and New Jersey wanted to try Burr for murder; New Jersey actually indicted him. The vice president fled through New Jersey by foot and wagon to Philadelphia, then took refuge in Georgia and South Carolina, until the indictments were quashed and he could finish his term in office.
Colonel Burr arrived first on the ground, as had been previously agreed. When General 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 position, as also to determine by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the second of General Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each other's presence, after which the parties took their stations. The gentleman who was to give the word then explained to the parties the roles 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 this the parties shall present and fire when they please. If one fires before the other, the opposite second shall say one, two, three, fire, and he shall then fire or lose his fire.
He then asked if they were prepared; being answered in the affirmative, he gave the word present, as had been agreed on, and both parties presented and fired in succession. The intervening time is not expressed, as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. The fire of Colonel Burr took effect, and General Hamilton almost instantly fell. Colonel Burr advanced toward General Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to General Hamilton's friend to be expressive of regret; but, without speaking, turned about and 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 further communication took place between the principals, and the barge that carried Colonel Burr immediately returned to the city. We conceive it proper to add, that the conduct of the parties in this interview was perfectly proper, as suited the occasion."
Dr. David Hosack observed:
"When called to him upon his receiving the fatal wound, I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, 'This is a mortal wound, doctor;' when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless. I immediately stripped up his clothes, and soon, alas I ascertained that the direction of the ball must have been through some vital part. His pulses were not to be felt, his respiration was entirely suspended, and, upon laying my hand on his heart and perceiving no motion there, I considered him as irrecoverably gone. I, however, observed to Mr. Pendleton, that the only chance for his reviving was immediately to get him upon the water. We therefore lifted him up, and carried him out of the wood to the margin of the bank, where the bargemen aided us in conveying him into the boat, which immediately put off. During all this time I could not discover the least symptom of returning life. I now rubbed his face, lips, and temples with spirits of hartshorn, applied it to his neck and breast, and to the wrists and palms of his hands, and endeavoured to pour some into his mouth.
When we had got, as I should judge, about fifty yards from the shore, some imperfect efforts to breathe were for the first time manifest; in a few minutes he sighed, and became sensible to the impression of the hartshorn or the fresh air of the water. He breathed; his eyes, hardly opened, wandered, without fixing upon any object; to our great joy, he at length spoke. 'My vision is indistinct,' were his first words. His pulse became more perceptible, his respiration more regular, his sight returned. I then examined the wound to know if there was any dangerous discharge of blood; upon slightly pressing his side it gave him pain, on which I desisted.
Soon after recovering his sight, he happened to cast his eye upon the case of pistols, and observing the one that he had had in his hand lying on the outside, he said, "Take care of that pistol; it is undischarged, and still cocked; it may go off and do harm. Pendleton knows " (attempting to turn his head towards him) 'that I did not intend to fire at him.' 'Yes,' said Mr. Pendleton, understanding his wish, 'I have already made Dr. Hosack acquainted with your determination as to that' He then closed his eyes and remained calm, without any disposition to speak; nor did he say much afterward, except in reply to my questions. He asked me once or twice how I found his pulse; and he informed me that his lower extremities had lost all feeling, manifesting to me that he entertained no hopes that he should long survive."
Source: William Coleman, ed., A Collection of Facts and Documents, relating to the Death of ... Alexander Hamilton (1804).
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