Two ambitious men. Two loaded pistols. Two witnesses. If you would have been on the west bank of the Hudson River near Weehawken, New Jersey on the afternoon of July 11, 1804, that’s what you would have seen.
Holding one pistol was Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States, serving with President Thomas Jefferson. Standing opposite Burr was Alexander Hamilton, the former first Treasury Secretary of the United States and master of political intrigue. There is little doubt that these two men hated each other. In the culture of the times, it was probably couched in more refined terms, but the hatred was still there.
For Burr, his dislike of Hamilton had mostly to do with Hamilton’s political machinations. The face of the 10-dollar bill used his pull to try and get John Adams defeated in the 1796 Presidential election. It failed, to the loss of Aaron Burr, who had been chosen by Thomas Jefferson (Adams’ opponent) as a Vice Presidential candidate. Adams became the President, Jefferson the Vice President and Burr, the…nothing.
Then in 1800, Hamilton again exerted his powerful influence, this time successfully, to get Adams defeated, but the result left Jefferson and Burr tied in votes. In the 37th House vote, Hamilton sided with Jefferson, and again Burr, hungry for power, was foiled.
Fast forward to 1804, and Jefferson was again nominated as a Presidential candidate, but decided that Aaron Burr would not be his running mate. So Burr chose to run for the governorship of New York, but lost that election as well, due in large part, once again, to Alexander Hamilton. Small wonder that Burr felt the way he did.
Hamilton’s dislike of Burr was likely rooted in his own indiscretion. Hamilton was found out in a torrid affair with a married woman, and rumors of it were circulated, most likely by Burr and James Monroe. Hamilton was forced to confess the affair publicly and to resign his position as Treasury Secretary, which badly tarnished his reputation.
No doubt, as these men faced off, all these things were running through their minds. And while the animosity gave each man the desire as much as the pistols provided the method, Hamilton had already made the decision not to shoot at Aaron…Burr had not. So when the guns discharged, Hamilton’s shot went high. Burr’s shot went true, piercing his foe’s abdomen and lodging in his spine.
Alexander Hamilton, on the same field where his son had died in a duel 3 years before, fell mortally wounded, and succumbed to his injuries the next day. Though dueling was illegal in New Jersey, Burr was never tried and, in fact, completed his term as Vice President.
Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton – An outstanding book!!