Born illegitimate in 1757 on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton began working in a trading company as a teenager. His brilliance with numbers caught the attention of a wealthy benefactor, who sent Alexander to America to attend college. During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton caught the eye of General George Washington, who made him a top aide. At Valley Forge, Hamilton saw his fellow soldiers battle cold, hunger, and disease with few provisions. The inability of the Continental Congress to equip the army enraged him. Just twenty-one years old, he began publicly attacking the weak federal government.
Unlike Hamilton, Aaron Burr was very much an insider, born into power and prestige. His father was the second president of The College of New Jersey (later Princeton), while his maternal grandfather was the prominent New England preacher Jonathan Edwards, known for raining hellfire and brimstone down upon his congregations. When the Revolutionary War began, Aaron immediately enlisted and distinguished himself in the battle of Québec.
After the war, both Burr and Hamilton moved to New York City and became lawyers. They worked on many of the same cases and socialized with many of the same people. But they gravitated to opposite sides of the political spectrum: Hamilton supported the party of the wealth and privilege, the Federalists, while Burr turned to the so-called party of the people, the Republicans.
Yet they were quite different. Burr was pragmatic and flexible in his beliefs -- he was never happy with the rigidities of the party system. Suspicious of human nature, Hamilton conceived of a strong central government, an economy based on industry, a strong central banking system, and a world-class military. He began to put some of these ideas into action as the nation's first secretary of the treasury.
Hamilton and Burr clashed for the first time when Burr's charm and savvy stole a seat in the U.S. Senate from Hamilton's father-in-law. It would not be their last clash; for the next twelve years, Hamilton would often attack Burr on grounds of character. "Mr. Burr is bold, enterprising, and intriguing," he wrote, "and I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career." Years later, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr took up positions thirty feet apart, loaded pistols in hand. When the signal was given, they had three seconds to fire.
The two seconds gave different accounts of what happened. According to Hamilton's second, Hamilton had decided that it would be morally wrong to aim at Burr. But according to Burr's second, Hamilton shot at Burr and missed.
Fatally wounded, Hamilton lay on the ground bleeding. He died at 3pm the following day.