People & Events
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr's Duel
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On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, to fight the final skirmish of a long-lived political and personal battle. When the duel was over, Hamilton would be mortally wounded, and Burr would be wanted for murder.
Hamilton was a Federalist. Burr was a Democratic-Republican. The men clashed repeatedly in the political arena. The first major skirmish was in 1791, when Burr successfully captured a United States Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's powerful father-in-law. Hamilton, then Treasury secretary, would have counted on Schuyler to support his policies. When Burr won the election, Hamilton fumed.
In 1800 Burr published a Hamilton paper titled "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, President of the United States.," a document highly critical of Adams who like Hamilton was a Federalist. Hamilton, its author, had intended it for private circulation. Its publication proved highly embarrassing to Hamilton and caused fighting within the Federalist Party. That same year when Republicans Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in balloting for the presidency, Hamilton lobbied Congress to decide the election in Jefferson's favor which caused Burr to become the Vice-President.
It was the New York governor's race of 1804, however, that pushed the two men to violence. In that election, Burr turned his back on the Republicans and ran as an independent. Burr believed that if he won, he would regain power. The prospect of Burr leading New York mortified Hamilton, who despised and mistrusted Burr completely. In early 1804, Hamilton tried to convince New York Federalists not to support Burr.
Although Hamilton's campaign was probably not the deciding factor, the Burr campaign failed. Burr was crushed in the general election by Morgan Lewis, the Republican candidate, who was supported by George and DeWitt Clinton, powerful New York Republicans.
The battle for New York had been a bruising one, but in the end, a relatively minor slight precipitated the Burr-Hamilton duel. In February, 1804, a New York Republican, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, attended a dinner party at which Alexander Hamilton spoke forcefully and eloquently against Burr. Cooper later wrote a letter to Philip Schuyler in which he made reference to a particularly "despicable opinion" Hamilton expressed about Burr. The letter was published in a New York newspaper the "Albany Register."
Hoping that a victory on the dueling ground could revive his flagging political career, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton wanted to avoid the duel, but politics left him no choice. If he admitted to Burr's charge, which was substantially true, he would lose his honor. If he refused to duel, the result would be the same. Either way, his political career would be over.
After Hamilton's and Burr's seconds tried without success to settle the matter amicably, the two political enemies met on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey on the morning of July 11. Each fired a shot from a .56 caliber dueling pistol. Burr was unscathed; Hamilton fell to the ground mortally wounded. He died the next day.
Instead of reviving Burr's political career, the duel helped to end it. Burr was charged with two counts of murder. After his term as vice president ended, he would never hold elective office again. And his next plot to gain power would end with charges of treason when he tried unsucessfully to raise an army to conquer Spanish lands in the west.
After reading the information on on the duel, answer the following questions below.
Who were the two participates in the duel?
How did Aaron Burr first anger Alexander Hamilton?
Why did the paper that Aaron Burr published upset Alexander Hamilton
What did Hamilton do to anger Burr in the election of 1800?
In 1804 what happened that led the two men to violence? Why was Hamilton’s dinner speech important?
What did Burr do after he lost the New York Governors race to revive his career?
What problems did Hamilton face when it came to the duel? Why was he basiclly forced to participate in it?
What happened to Hamilton at the duel?
What happened to Burr after the duel? What happened to his career?
The fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr shocked the nation. But it was the identity of the man killed, not the fact of the duel itself, that produced such dismay. By 1804, dueling had become an American fixture. And for another thirty years or more, its popularity would continue to grow.
Like many early American customs, dueling was imported. Starting in the Middle Ages, European nobles had defended their honor in man-to-man battles. An early version of dueling was known as "judicial combat," so called because God allegedly judged the man in the right and let him win. Numerous authorities, including heads of state and the Catholic Church, banned dueling -- with little effect.
In 1777, a group of Irishmen codified dueling practices in a document called the Code Duello. The Code contained 26 specific rules outlining all aspects of the duel, from the time of day during which challenges could be received to the number of shots or wounds required for satisfaction of honor. An Americanized version of the Code, written by South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson, appeared in 1838. Prior to that, Americans made do with European rules.
In a typical duel, each party acted through a second. The seconds' duty, above all, was to try to reconcile the parties without violence. An offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the weapons and the time and place of the encounter. Up until combat began, apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied.
Most duelists chose guns as their weapons. The large caliber, smoothbore flintlock pistols Hamilton and Burr used in their encounter typified the American dueling weapons. Many American men owned a pair of such pistols, and, from about 1750 to 1850, many were called to use them.
The chance of dying in a pistol duel was relatively slim. Flintlocks often misfired. And even in the hands of an experienced shooter, accuracy was difficult. Generally, pistols had to be discharged within three seconds; to take aim for a longer time period was considered dishonorable.
In an 1802 duel, DeWitt Clinton was challenged by John Swartwout, a friend of Aaron Burr. Swartwout accused Clinton of trying to ruin Burr with political smears. The men exchanged five rounds. After each round, as the code provided, seconds encouraged the combatants to mend their differences. Clinton adamantly refused to sign a letter of apology. Swartwout, despite being shot in the thigh and ankle, refused to quit. Unwilling to continue shooting at a wounded man, an exasperated Clinton left the field. Surgeons standing at the ready tended Swartwout's wounds.
Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were among the most prominent Americans to condemn dueling. Franklin called duels a "murderous practice…they decide nothing." And Washington, who undoubtedly needed all the good soldiers he could get, congratulated one of his officers for refusing a challenge, noting that "there are few military decisions that are not offensive to one party or another."
Religious and civic officials worked hard to stop duels. But diatribes such as Reverend Mason Weems' illustrated pamphlet "God's Revenge Against Dueling" did little to change public sentiment. Anti-dueling ordinances also failed to stop the flow of blood. Duelists ignored or evaded such laws. In fact, the most popular dueling ground in America was at Bladensburg, Maryland, near the nation's capital. Dueling was banned in Washington, but not in Maryland, which was a short carriage ride away. Irate legislators could simply shuttle out to Bladensburg and fire at will.
By the time of Hamilton and Burr's deadly encounter, dueling had begun to decline -- at least in the North. In the South dueling remained the preferred way to defend one's honor -- or even to commit murder.
For every man who gloried in the duel, there were many others who feared it. A word or two passed in private company on a Friday night could well mean a challenge on Saturday morning and death on Sunday. Avoiding a challenge wasn't easy. Particularly in the South, where men who refused to duel would be "posted." A statement accusing them of cowardice would be hung in public areas or published in a newspaper or pamphlet.
By the time of the Civil War, dueling had begun an irreversible decline, even in the South. Not surprisingly, public opinion, not legislation, caused the change. What once had been a formal process designed to avoid violence and amend grievances had deteriorated into cold-blooded murder. People at last were shocked by it, and they showed their disdain. It may have been too late to save Alexander Hamilton. But if American was to become a truly civilized nation, the publicly sanctioned bloodshed would have to end.
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