Updated: Sep 25
Bastard, orphan, the ten-dollar founding father. Most people would recognize Alexander Hamilton from any of those words thanks to the Broadway musical Hamilton. Some fans of the musical may remember that July 11th marks the culmination of one of the most infamous days in American political history: the duel between founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The duel has been memorialized in the annals of American history and Broadway stage alike. Here are the facts:
Alexander Hamilton is thought to have been born in either 1755 or 1757 in the Caribbean island Nieves. He was born out of wedlock to his mother Rachel Faucett and James Hamilton. Early in his childhood, Hamilton lost both parents: his father abandoned the family while his mother succumbed to yellow fever in 1768, leaving Alexander and his brother, James Jr., orphaned. Hamilton subsequently worked for a trading company, until a hurricane devastated the island in 1772. Community members collected funds to send Hamilton to the colonies for further education. Hamilton immigrated to the United States in 1773 and studied at King’s College (now Columbia University) until British occupation of New York forced the college to suspend its classes. In 1775, Hamilton joined a volunteer New York militia, the Corsicans.
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1756 to Aaron Burr Sr., the second president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and Esther Edwards Burr. Like Hamilton, Burr was orphaned early in his life; his father died in 1757 and in 1758 Burr’s mother, grandmother, and grandfather had all died. At age thirteen Burr was admitted to Princeton and earned his Bachelor of Arts at sixteen. At nineteen, Burr went to Connecticut to study law but, after hearing of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, decided to enlist in the Continental Army instead.
War and Politics
Both Hamilton and Burr distinguished themselves through their service in the Revolutionary War and served in the Continental Convention that followed. Both men entered the political arena, where their relationship worsened.
Hamilton served for four years as chief of staff to George Washington during the war effort. After the war, Hamilton was admitted to the New York Bar and appointed to serve as a delegate in the Continental Convention, where Hamilton fervently advocated for the creation of a strong, centralized government. In 1789, Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury and Hamilton created a monetary system to support America’s new economy. As political parties emerged, Hamilton was considered a leader of the Federalist Party.
Likewise, Burr proved his skill as a soldier, notably in the Battle of Quebec, and served in combat for the majority of the war. Burr was admitted to the New York Bar in 1782 and served in the New York State Assembly from 1984-1885. Burr was a defender of free press, sought to abolish slavery after the war, and supported extending the right to vote to women. In 1970, Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in a race for the Senate.
Hamilton and Burr’s relationship worsened in the subsequent years, particularly during the election of 1796. Hamilton generally disregarded Burr and spoke negatively about him, but intensified his sentiments when Burr joined Thomas Jefferson’s election ticket. Hamilton maneuvered support away from Burr and Jefferson, both of whom Hamilton disliked, by launching a series of criticisms against Burr’s character and by calling him an opportunist. Hamilton’s attacks ultimately paved the way for another candidate, John Adams, to win the election.
A similar scenario occurred again in the election of 1800, where Jefferson and Burr became running mates again. The pair published a document that exposed Hamilton criticizing President John Adams, a Federalist, intending to split the Federalist party and win the election themselves. The tactic didn’t quite work as the vote split evenly at 73 ballots each for Burr and Jefferson. Under procedural technicality the tie-break went to the House of Representatives, where the vote tied again. Hamilton proved to be decisive in swaying the vote after he- along with a group of closely aligned Federalists- casted their vote for Jefferson, whom Hamilton regarded as the lesser of two evils. Burr became Vice President and his relationship with Jefferson grew estranged.
A group of Federalists sought to elect Burr as governor in 1804, which proved to be the final tipping point in the Hamilton-Burr rivalry. Hamilton made public comments against Burr, attacking his character, causing him to lose both the Federalists’ support and the election as a whole. Burr, enraged at the attacks against his character, demanded an apology from Hamilton, who refused. The tension culminated in Burr challenging Hamilton to a duel, or an “affair of honor”.
Dueling was illegal in New York in 1804 and the penalty was death. Duelling was similarly outlawed in New Jersey, but the penalty was less severe and officials were less likely to pursue legal action. Thus, Burr and Hamilton agreed to duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Historians and witnesses of the duel alike disagree on what transpired next. Witnesses had their backs turned from Burr and Hamilton (a common practice to maintain deniability about their involvement) when the shots were fired. What is known is that Hamilton was shot, the bullet passing through his stomach and settling by his spine, and was rowed back to New York, where he died the next day.
There is controversy among witnesses over Hamilton’s shot; Hamilton’s second maintained that he deliberately shot in the air while Burr’s second maintained that Hamilton had missed. After the duel , Burr faced numerous charges, along with murder charges in both New York and New Jersey. Burr fled to the South. Still Vice President, Burr went to Washington D.C. (where he was immune from prosecution) to serve the remainder of his term. Burr was never tried for the murder charges in either New York nor New Jersey.
Citations & Resources
History.com Editors (Ed.). (2009, November 24). Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton Duel. History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/burr-slays-hamilton-in-duel.
Maranzani, B. (2018, July 10). Burr's Political Legacy Died in the Duel with Hamilton. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/burr-hamilton-duel-political-legacy-died.
NCC Staff. (2020, July 11). The Burr vs. Hamilton Duel Happened on this Day. National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/burr-vs-hamilton-behind-the-ultimate-political-feud.
Sedgwick, J. (2016). War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation. New American Library.
All photos are courtesy of History.com