For most younger folks today the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel is probably best, and perhaps only, known from a popular television commercial. When first viewing that commercial myself, as a young high school student, I remember having only a vague idea of who Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were; that vague idea coming from having read Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without A Country in English class a year or two before. So I knew there had been some kind of duel that involved the two men, though I had no idea of their significance to American history or why they felt the need to shoot at each other from ten paces.
Burr and Hamilton had both served in the Revolutionary War and had achieved high ranks; Burr a colonel and Hamilton a general, though the generals commission was granted long after the Revolution during what is known as the Quasi-War with France. Both were integral in the early Republic holding important offices at various times, and mostly friendly at the start. But the seeds of rivalry were planted in 1791 when Burr beat Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, in the race for the Senate seat from New York. From there the animosity festered. Hamilton saw Burr as a political opportunist and a bit of a flip-flopper, to use today’s language, and was often very critical of him in public. Burr was in fact a bit of a schemer, or as some might see it, politically shrewd. Either way, he didn’t much care for Hamilton’s opinion of him and they were constantly at odds. So much so that when the Presidential election of 1800 ended in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton used as much of his influence as he could among more moderate Federalists–who would have preferred Burr to Jefferson as President, though they were both Republicans–in the House of Representatives–which was responsible for breaking the tie–to see that Burr lost. This might not seem like that big of a deal except for the fact that it was well known that Jefferson and Hamilton were bitter political enemies. So strong had the feud between Hamilton and Burr become that Hamilton would prefer to see his greatest political opponent reach the presidency, than the more moderate Burr.
Burr did serve as Vice President under Jefferson, as the runner-up did at the time, but it was rumored that Jefferson would attempt to replace him in the next election in 1804. Burr decided to run for governor of New York, but was again thwarted, again largely due to Hamilton and his allies. During the course of the campaign a letter surfaced that had been written to Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, by a Dr. Charles D. Cooper which described “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr” at a dinner. According to the code of honor of the day, attacks on someone political views, even very harsh ones, were fair game, but to impugn on a man’s personal character was viewed as out of line. Burr demanded an apology from Hamilton, or at the very least, an explanation. Hamilton refused, claiming not to know specifically what Dr. Cooper was referring to and therefore could not offer an explanation or an apology. Through a series of letters delivered through proxies, Hamilton and Burr continued to spar over the issue, eventually to the point where Burr demanded an apology for every negative thing Hamilton had ever said about him and Hamilton refusing because it was, basically, all true.
Finally, in an effort to regain his honor, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton, feeling his own honor was at stake, accepted. Both men had fallen on hard times politically in recent years; Burr’s virtual dismissal as Vice President (though he was still the current VP in 1804) and loss in the New York gubernatorial election had damaged his reputation and ego and Hamilton had not served in public life in any real capacity for at least four years and his Federalist party was diminishing in influence. Perhaps they both saw in the duel a chance, not only to settle old scores, but to reclaim former prestige, if not politically, then at least personally. They agreed to meet at Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11th, 1804 to settle things once and for all.
Coming Soon: The Duel: Part Two