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An Affair of Honor Next
Digital History ID 2980

 

On the morning of June 18, 1804, a visitor handed a package to the 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 private morality. The letter, signed by Burr, demanded a "prompt and unqualified" denial or an immediate apology.

Alexander Hamilton regarded Burr as an unscrupulous man. Burr, in turn, blamed Hamilton for his defeat in the race for governor of New York earlier in the year. When Hamilton failed to respond to his letter satisfactorily, Burr insisted that they settle the dispute according to the code of honor.

Gentlemen in late 18th century America were very anxious to protect their honor. To defend his reputation, a gentleman might challenge another to a duel, which was followed by a series of formal responses and negotiations. Only rarely did a challenge result in violence. Eleven times Alexander Hamilton was involved in affairs of honor; only once were shots exchanged.

Shortly after 7 o'clock on the morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton met on a dueling ground in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York. It was the exact spot where Hamilton's eldest son Philip had died in an earlier duel.

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.

Hamilton had said he was going to intentionally fire his first shot to the side. The popular view was that 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. According to the code of honor, if Burr missed on his first try, Hamilton would have a second chance to shoot.

New Jersey indicted Burr for murder. The vice president took refuge in Georgia and South Carolina, until the indictments were quashed and he could finish his term in office.

The early 19th century was a period rife with conflict and partisan passion.

  • The Jeffersonians attempted to use the impeachment process to rid the federal courts of judges they considered unfit or overly partisan.
  • A former vice president was tried for treason.
  • Britain and France intercepted American ships and confiscated their cargoes.
  • Britain seized naturalized American sailors and forced them into the British navy.
  • Finally, the United States once again waged war with Britain, the world's strongest power.

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