Burr vs. Hamilton: Why the Vice President Killed the Former Secretary of the Treasury
On July 11th, 1804, Alexander Hamilton was shot by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel.
A few weeks prior to the duel, after he embarrassingly lost his bid for Governor of New York, Burr came across a letter that claimed Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, had called Burr “dangerous” and an untrustworthy man. The letter went on to state that Hamilton had “despicable” opinions of Burr—the word “despicable” really set Burr off and led him to confront Hamilton about the letter. When Hamilton refused to deny what he said—or apologize—Burr challenged him to the infamous duel. Hamilton accepted, with the supposed intent he would not actually kill Burr.
The feud between Hamilton and Burr was not new—they hated each other for quite awhile. Hamilton was convinced Burr was a traitor to his country and worked hard to prevent him from becoming president in 1800. Hamilton again trash-talked Burr all over town during his run for Governor in 1804, which undoubtedly helped Burr lose the race (though he was still Vice President). During Burr’s run, Hamilton was convinced he was plotting with New England to separate from the Union—and take New York with it.
Burr, for his part, remained calm in the face of Hamilton’s gossip. The 1804 letter, however, was the last straw. He had to reclaim his “honor.”
Dueling was illegal at the time, so all parties involved kept it hush hush. On the early morning of July 11th, they crossed the Hudson River from Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey, not far from where Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel three years earlier. They told everybody to turn their backs so, if questioned, they could say they “saw nothing.”
Nobody knows who fired the first shot, but it was clear Hamilton’s shot widely missed Burr and instead hit a tree, while Burr’s shot was right on the money. Hamilton was hit in the abdomen and knew instantly he would not survive.
Hamilton was boated back to Manhattan, where he died the next day surrounded by family and friends. Burr was charged for the murder, but it never reached trial; though his political career was definitely now dead. He went on to try to establish a new, independent empire in the Louisiana territory, but President Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a fan and arrested him for treason. He was ultimately acquitted and lived the rest of his life in obscurity.
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s legacy lived on and the Founding Father, though never president, became arguably just as popular and well-known as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. He even later inspired a Broadway musical (which is streaming right now on Disney+!).