The Duel Burr-Hamilton: July 11th, 1804

The Burr–Hamilton duel took place in Weehawken, New Jersey, between Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, the first and former Secretary of the Treasury, on the morning of July 11, 1804. The duel was the culmination of a bitter rivalry between both men who had become high-profile politicians in postcolonial America. In the duel, Burr fatally shot Hamilton, while Hamilton fired into a tree branch above and behind Burr’s head. Hamilton was taken back across the Hudson River and died the following day in New York.

The death of Hamilton led to the permanent weakening of the Federalist Party and its demise in American domestic politics. It also effectively ended the political career of Burr, who was vilified for shooting Hamilton; he never held another high office after his tenure of vice president ended in 1805.

In the early morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed from Manhattan by separate boats and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, a popular dueling ground below the towering cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades. Dueling had been prohibited in both New York and New Jersey, but Hamilton and Burr agreed to go to Weehawken because New Jersey was not as aggressive as New York in prosecuting dueling participants. The same site was used for 18 known duels between 1700 and 1845, and it was not far from the site of the 1801 duel that killed Hamilton’s eldest son Philip Hamilton. They also took steps to give all witnesses plausible deniability in an attempt to shield themselves from prosecution. For example, the pistols were transported to the island in a portmanteau, enabling the rowers to say under oath that they had not seen any pistols. They also stood with their backs to the duelists.

Burr, William Peter Van Ness (his second), Matthew L. Davis, another man (often identified as John Swarthout), and the rowers all reached the site at 6:30 a.m., whereupon Swarthout and Van Ness started to clear the underbrush from the dueling ground. Hamilton, Judge Nathaniel Pendleton (his second), and Dr. David Hosack arrived a few minutes before seven. Lots were cast for the choice of position and which second should start the duel. Both were won by Hamilton’s second, who chose the upper edge of the ledge for Hamilton, facing the city. However, Joseph Ellis claims that Hamilton had been challenged and therefore had the choice of both weapon and position. Under this account, Hamilton himself chose the upstream or north side position.

Some first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired, but some say only Burr fired, and the seconds disagreed on the intervening time between them. It was common for both principals in a duel to fire a shot at the ground to exemplify courage, and then the duel could come to an end. Hamilton apparently fired a shot above Burr’s head. Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The large-caliber lead ball ricocheted off Hamilton’s third or second false rib, fracturing it and causing considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm, before lodging in his first or second lumbar vertebra. According to Pendleton’s account, Hamilton collapsed almost immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward him in a speechless manner (which Pendleton deemed to be indicative of regret) before being hustled away behind an umbrella by Van Ness because Hosack and the rowers were already approaching.

It is entirely uncertain which principal fired first, as both seconds’ backs were to the duel in accordance with the pre-arranged regulations so that they could testify that they “saw no fire”. After much research to determine the actual events of the duel, historian Joseph Ellis gives his best guess:

Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr’s location. In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge. Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton’s gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear. According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.

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