Burr-Hamilton duel

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American History

A contemporary artistic rendering of the 11 July 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton by J. Mund.
A contemporary artistic rendering of the 11 July 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton by J. Mund.

The Burr-Hamilton duel was a duel between two prominent American politicians, former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and sitting Vice President Aaron Burr. In the early morning hours of 11 July 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed by separate boats from Manhattan and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey, a popular duelling ground below the towering cliffs of the Palisades. Burr shot and wounded Hamilton, who died the following day from his wounds at his home, The Grange, in northern Manhattan.

Arguably the most famous duel in American history, it arose from a long-standing political and personal rivalry that developed between both men that came to a point with Hamilton's journalistic defamation of Burr's character during the 1804 New York gubernatorial race in which Burr was a candidate. Fought at a time when the practice of dueling was being outlawed in the northern United States, the duel had immense political ramifications. Burr, who survived the duel, would be indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey (though these charges were either later dismissed or resulted in acquittal), and the harsh criticism and animosity directed towards him would bring about an end to his political career and force him into a self-imposed exile. Further, Hamilton's untimely death would fatally weaken the fledging remnants of the Federalist Party, which combined with the death of George Washington (1732-1799) five years earlier, was left without a strong leader.


The duel was the final skirmish of a long conflict between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. The conflict began in 1791, when Burr captured a Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, who would have supported his Federalist policies. (Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury at the time). When the electoral college deadlocked in the election of 1800, Hamilton's maneuvering in the House of Representatives caused Thomas Jefferson to be named President and Burr Vice President. In 1800, Burr published "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States," a document highly critical of Adams, which had actually been authored by Hamilton but intended only for private circulation. When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York instead. Hamilton campaigned viciously against Burr, who was running as an independent, causing him to lose to Morgan Lewis, a Democratic-Republican endorsed by Hamilton.

Both men had been involved in duels in the past. Hamilton had been a principal in 10 shot-less duels prior to his fatal encounter with Burr, including duels with William Gordon (1779), Aedanus Burke (1790), John Francis Mercer (1792-1793), James Nicholson (1795), James Monroe (1797), John Adams (1800), Ebenezer Purdy/ George Clinton (1804). He also served as a second to John Laurens in a 1779 duel with General Charles Lee and legal client John Auldjo in a 1787 duel with William Pierce. In addition, Hamilton claimed to have had one previous honour dispute with Burr; Burr claimed there were two.

Additionally, Hamilton's son, Philip, was killed in a November 23, 1801 duel with George I. Eacker initiated after Philip and his friend Richard Price partook in "hooliganish" behaviour in Eacker's box at the Park Theatre. This was in response to a speech, critical of Hamilton, that Eacker had made on July 4, 1801. Philip and his friend both challenged Eacker to duels when he called them "damned rascals." After Price's duel (also at Weehawken) resulted in nothing more than four missed shots, Hamilton advised his son to delope, and throw away his fire. However, after both Philip and Eacker stood shotless for a minute after the command "present", Philip levelled his pistol, causing Eacker to fire, mortally wounding Philip and sending his shot awry. This duel is often cited as having a tremendous psychological impact on Hamilton in the context of the Hamilton-Burr duel.

Charles Cooper's Letter

On April 24, 1804, a vitriolic letter originally from Dr. Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law was published in the Albany Register in the context of opposing Burr's candidacy. It claimed to describe "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr" at a political dinner. In a letter delivered by William P. Van Ness, Burr demanded "a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertion of Dr. Cooper". Hamilton's reply on June 20 indicated that he could not be held responsible for Cooper's interpretation of his words. Burr's reply on June 21, also delivered by Van Ness, stated that "political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honour and the rules of decorum". Hamilton replied that he had "no other answer to give than that which has already been given". This letter was delivered to Nathaniel Pendleton on June 22 but did not reach Burr until June 25. The delay was due to negotiation between Pendleton and Van Ness in which Pendleton submitted the following paper:

Burr-Hamilton duel
General Hamilton says he cannot imagine what Dr. Cooper may have alluded, unless it were to a conversation at Mr. Taylor's, in Albany, last winter (at which he and General Hamilton were present). General Hamilton cannot recollect distinctly the particulars of that conversation, so as to undertake to repeat them, without running the risk of varying or omitting what might be deemed important circumstances. The expressions are entirely forgotten, and the specific ideas imperfectly remembered; but to the best of his recollection it consisted of comments on the political principles and views of Colonel Burr, and the results that might be expected from them in the event of his election as Governor, without reference to any particular instance of past conduct or private character.
Burr-Hamilton duel

After the delivery of Hamilton's second letter, a second paper submitted by Pendleton further offered "in relation to any other language or conversation or language of General Hamilton which Colonel Burr will specify, a prompt or frank avowal or denial will be given." This offer was not accepted and a challenge was formally offered by Burr and accepted by Hamilton.

Many subsequent historians have considered the causes of the duel to be flimsy and have thus either characterized Hamilton as "suicidal", Burr as "malicious and murderous," or both.

The duel

The pistols used in the duel
The pistols used in the duel

Hamilton and Burr agreed to cross the Hudson River at dawn to take the duel to a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey, because dueling had been outlawed in New York. The same site had been used for 18 known duels between 1700 and 1845. In an attempt to prevent the participants from being prosecuted, procedures were implemented to give all witnesses plausible deniability. For example, the pistols were transported to the island in a portmanteau, enabling the rowers (who also stood with their backs to the duelists) to say under oath that they had not seen any pistols.

Burr, William P. Van Ness (his second), Matthew L. Davis, and another (often identified as Swartwout) plus their rowers reached the site first at half past six, wherupon Burr and Van Ness started to clear the underbrush from the duelling 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 of which were won by Hamilton's second who chose the upper edge of the ledge (which faced the city) for Hamilton.

All first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired; however, Hamilton and Burr's seconds disagreed on the intervening time between the shots. Hamilton fired first without hitting Burr. Burr's shot hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The bullet ricocheted off Hamilton's second or third false rib—fracturing it—and caused considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm before becoming lodged in his first or second lumbar vertebra. According to Pendleton's account, Hamilton collapsed immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward Hamilton 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. Burr returned on his barge and had breakfast in the city.

Dr. David Hosack's Account

Dr. David Hosack, the physician, testified that he had only seen Hamilton and the two seconds disappear "into the wood", heard two shots, and rushed to find a wounded Hamilton when his name was called. Hosack also testified that he had not seen Burr, who had been hidden behind an umbrella by Van Ness, his second. In a letter to William Coleman, Dr. Hosack gives a very clear picture of the events:

Burr-Hamilton duel
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.
Burr-Hamilton duel

Dr. Hosack goes on to say that in a few minutes Hamilton had revived, either from the hartshorn or fresh air. Hosack finishes his letter:

Burr-Hamilton duel
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.
Burr-Hamilton duel

Dr. Hosack wrote his account on August 17, about one month after the duel had taken place.

Statement to the Press

Pendleton and Van Ness issued a press statement about the events of the duel. The statement printed out the agreed upon dueling rules and events that transpired. Pendleton and Van Ness agreed that Hamilton fired first and that both men had fired "within a few seconds of each other."

In Pendleton's amended version of the statement, he and a friend went to the site of the duel the day after Hamilton's death to discover where Hamilton's shot went. The statement reads:

Burr-Hamilton duel
They [Mr. Pendleton and an accomplice] ascertained that the ball passed through the limb of a cedar tree, at an elevation of about twelve feet and a half, perpendicularly from the ground, between thirteen and fourteen feet from the mark on which General Hamilton stood, and about four feet wide of the direct line between him and Col. Burr, on the right side; he having fallen on the left.
Burr-Hamilton duel

Hamilton's intentions

In Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr, a letter that Hamilton wrote the night before the duel, Hamilton stated that he was "strongly opposed to the practice of dueling" for both religious and practical reasons and continued to state:

Burr-Hamilton duel
I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.
Burr-Hamilton duel

When Burr later learned of this, he responded: "Contemptible, if true."

In addition, after being mortally wounded, Hamilton's first words on regaining consciousness were “Pendleton knows I did not mean to fire at Col. Burr the first time.” indicating he intended to throw his shot.

Burr's intentions

Burr was reputed as a good shot. The afternoon after the duel, he was quoted as saying that had his vision not been impaired by the morning mist, he would have shot Hamilton in the heart. According to the account of Jeremy Bentham, who met with Burr in 1808 in England, Burr claimed to have been certain of his ability to kill Hamilton, and Bentham concluded that Burr was "little better than a murderer."

The Pistols

Others have attributed Hamilton's apparent misfire to the hair-triggered design of one of the Wogdon dueling pistols, both of which survive today. One of the pistols has a flint-lock firing mechanism and the other has been converted from the original flint to a percussion firing mechanism. When asked by Pendleton before the duel if he would have the "hair-spring" pistol, Hamilton reportedly replied "not this time."

The pistols belonged to Hamilton's brother-in-law, John Barker Church, who was a business partner of both Hamilton and Burr. He purchased the pistols in London in 1797. They had previously been used in a 1799 duel between Church and Burr, in which neither man was injured. In 1801, Hamilton's son, Philip, used them in a duel in which he died. In 1930 the pistols were sold to the Chase Manhattan Bank, now preserved by JPMorgan Chase & Co.


A mortally wounded Hamilton died the following day and was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan (Hamilton was nominally Episcopalian). Governor Morris, a political ally of Hamilton's, gave the eulogy at his funeral and secretly established a fund to support his widow and children.

Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but neither charge reached trial. In Bergen County, New Jersey, a grand jury indicted Burr for murder in November 1804, but the New Jersey Supreme Court quashed the indictment on a motion from Colonel Ogden.

Burr fled to South Carolina, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Washington, D.C. to complete his term of service as Vice President. He presided over the Samuel Chase impeachment trial "with the dignity and impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil." Burr's heartfelt farewell speech in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears.

An 1841 map showing the location of a Hamilton Monument (Larger)
An 1841 map showing the location of a Hamilton Monument (Larger)

With his political career over, Burr went west, where he allegedly had plans to establish a new empire carved out of the Louisiana territory. However, after General James Wilkinson refused to support Burr and William Eaton informed President Jefferson of Burr's duplicitous intentions, Burr was charged with treason after being detained in Missouri in the process of recruiting for his coup. He was later acquitted due to lack of physical evidence.

Years later, he returned to New York City to practice law and was tried and acquitted for his role in the duel. He died in 1836 in Staten Island, New York, never having apologized to Hamilton's family or shown any remorse for ending Hamilton's life, though he once remarked "Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me."


The first memorial to the duel was constructed in 1806 by the Saint Andrew Society, of which Hamilton was formerly a member. A 14 foot marble cenotaph, consisting of an obelisk topped by a flaming urn and a plaque with a quote from Horace surrounded by an iron fence, constructed approximately where Hamilton was believed to have fallen. Duels continued to be fought at the site and the marble was slowly vandalized and removed for souvenirs, leaving nothing remaining by 1820. The tablet itself did survive, turning up in a junk store and finding its way to the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, where it still resides.

From 1820 to 1857, the site was marked by two stones with the names Hamilton and Burr placed where they were thought to have stood during the duel. When a road from Hoboken to Fort Lee was built through the site in 1858, an inscription on a boulder where a mortally wounded Hamilton was thought to have rested—one of the many pieces of graffiti left by visitors—was all that remained. No primary accounts of the duel confirm the boulder anecdote. In 1870, railroad tracks were built directly through the site, and the boulder was hauled to the top of the Palisades, where it remains today. In 1894, an iron fence was built around the boulder, supplemented by a bust of Hamilton and a plaque. The bust was thrown over the cliff on October 14, 1934 by vandals and the head was never recovered; a new bust was installed on July 12, 1935.

The plaque was stolen by vandals in the 1980s and an abbreviated version of the text was inscribed on the indentation left in the boulder, which remained until the 1990s when a granite pedestal was added in front of the boulder and the bust was moved to the top of the pedestal. New markers were added on July 11, 2004, the 200th anniversary of the duel.

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