Alexander Hamilton stood opposite Aaron Burr, pistols in hand, waiting for the command to fire. This was no firefight from the Wild West. This was 1804 and the political rivals stood on the plains of Weehawken, New Jersey, across the river from New York City waiting to defend their honor. After decades of rivalry, Burr and Hamilton would settle once and for all the matter of their reputations and legacies.
The duel on July 11, 1804, 207 years ago today, was a long time coming. Burr, the grandson of the great preacher Jonathan Edwards, was practically royalty in New England. Always the ambitious politician, Burr set his sights on the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, hoping to prove himself.
Hamilton bitterly opposed Burr, both politically and socially. Hamilton was born poor and illegitimate in the West Indies. He worked hard to overcome his background to rise to prominence in the early republic. Hamilton sought to prove himself and preserve his vision for the republic.
Over the years, both Burr’s and Hamilton’s supporters had written stinging pamphlets and letters published in the newspapers berating the other man’s morals and political opinions. By 1804, Hamilton could take it no longer. A number of venomous pamphlets against Burr had been published. Burr incorrectly assumed they had all been written by Hamilton. In order to protect his honor, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.
Now wait a minute, doesn’t that seem a little extreme? Shooting at each other hardly seems proper. But early politicians would disagree with our 21st century mentality. According to Joanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor, “duels were demonstrations of manner, not markmanship; they were intricate games of dare and counterdare, ritualized displays of bravery, military prowess, and—above all—willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s honor. “ To the founding fathers and aspiring politicians of the early American republic, their reputations and legacies mattered to them more than anything else. They had to be remembered for their contributions to the nation in the proper way.
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were no different, which is why Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel and why Hamilton agreed to it. Hamilton was reluctant, however. The night before the duel, he wrote an apologia explaining his decision for all posterity. No matter what happened, Hamilton wanted future generations to know his side of the story. He vowed not to fire at Burr; rather he would receive Burr’s fire and then would fire into the air. Hamilton wanted to maintain his honor by partaking in the duel, but did not want to injure Burr at all.
A great deal of speculation surrounds the duel. Did Hamilton or Burr fire first? Hamilton vowed not to fire first, but Burr and his second said they heard a shot issued from Hamilton first. Whatever the truth may be, Burr fatally wounded Hamilton. He was rowed across the river, while Burr was rapidly escorted away from the scene. (Though dueling was a common practice, it was still illegal.) The paralyzed Hamilton died the next morning, July 12.
While both men were dueling to maintain their reputations, both were tarnished by the duel. Burr’s political career suffered a great deal, never rising to the prominent positions he aspired to. Forever remembered for their infamous duel on July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fought to protect their legacies. What would you do to protect your memory for future generations? Would you be willing to duel for it? As for me, count me out!
Rachel Bradshaw is an intern at the National Constitution Center, where she is coordinating summer teacher workshops.