Directions: Read through the timeline that appears below and then be able to answer the questions that follow.
Aaron Burr accepts a position as Attorney General for New York after supporting Alexander Hamilton’s candidate. Hamilton questions Burr’s principles. (Ellis 40)
President George Washington appoints Alexander Hamilton to be Treasurer of the United States. Aaron Burr defeats Hamilton’s wealthy father-in-law for a U.S. Senate seat from NY. Burr opposes Hamilton’s economic plan as a Senator. (Ellis 40-41)
Alexander Hamilton urges people not to vote for Aaron Burr when he runs for the Office of Vice President. Burr lost. (Ellis 41)
Alexander Hamilton blocks Aaron Burr’s nomination as American minister to France. (Ellis 41)
Aaron Burr published a document written by Alexander Hamilton that is highly critical of his fellow Federalist, President John Adams. The document was never intended for public viewing and causes Hamilton a great deal of embarrassment.
The Presidential election of 1800 ends in a tie between two Republicans—Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Federalist Alexander Hamilton convinces his fellow Federalists to support Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson defeats Burr. (Ellis 41)
Alexander Hamilton urges people not to vote for Aaron Burr when he runs for governor of New York. Burr loses. (Ellis 41)
How would you describe the relationship between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton?
What do you think would be Burr’s point of view toward Hamilton by 1804?
What do you think would be Hamilton’s point of view toward Burr by 1804?
The Story: Tragedy at Weehawken
Aaron Burr Alexander Hamilton
At around 5:00 on the morning of July 11, 1804, the Vice-President of the United States and a former Treasurer of the United States were rowed in separate boats across the Hudson River from New York City to a secret location on cliffs near Weehawken, New Jersey. The Vice-President was 48-year-old Aaron Burr. The former Treasurer was the Vice-President’s longtime rival Alexander Hamilton. The two men went to Weehawken to duel. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel after he read an article that said Hamilton held a “despicable opinion…of Mr. Burr.” Since Burr challenged Hamilton, Hamilton got to select the weapons that would be used in the duel. He chose pistols.
Both Hamilton and Burr brought a “second” or trusted friend. The seconds’ responsibilities were to make sure that each man followed the rules for dueling and to help their friends if they were wounded. Alexander Hamilton brought Nathaniel Pendleton, while Vice-President Burr brought William Van Ness.
The two seconds were the only people to witness the duel because dueling was illegal. The men who rowed Hamilton and Burr as well as a doctor David Hosack who went in case of injuries had to stay below in the rowboats so that they could state honestly that they did not witness the duel and, therefore, not be able to testify against the duelists if they were charged with a crime. Sadly, even though duels were illegal in most states in 1804, they were not uncommon. Wealthy men, in particular, thought that dueling was the only way to defend their honor when that honor was seriously attacked.
Following the rules for dueling, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton stood 10 paces apart. Moments after the authorized second said “present,” shots rang out. Alexander Hamilton was hit on his right side and died the next day.
Abstract: In this lesson students split into two groups with each given the task of analyzing competing eyewitness accounts of the Burr/Hamilton duel. The students will not know that they are reading competing accounts written by the seconds in the duel. Their task is to determine what happened in the interval between receiving instructions to “present” and the discharge of weapons. The students will then pair off to jigsaw conclusions and debate (or duel) the question: which historical source is “best.”
Why are there different explanations of the same event in history?
Copies of Appendix – DOCUMENT (Excerpted Version): Statement of Aaron Burr’s second
Copies of Appendix – Document (Excerpted Version): Statement of Alexander Hamilton’s second
One copy of Appendix 1 – Bulls-Eyed Version of Pendleton’s Statement
One copy of Appendix 2 – Bulls-Eyed Version of Van Ness’s Statement
Copies of Appendix 3 – Graphic Organizer – Duel Interpretations
Note: Complete versions of both documents are provided for the teacher.
DOCUMENT (Complete Version for Teacher)
Document (Complete Version for Teacher)
Duel, second, eyewitness, account, “holes in the evidence”
Jigsaw: Tell students that they are going to read an eyewitness account of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Split the class into equal halves. Place students in both halves into groups of 3–4. Distribute the handout entitled “DOCUMENT” (upper case) to one-half of the groups and Document (lower case) to the other half, making sure that an equal number of students get each of the two documents. The documents are labeled with capital/lower case lettering to distinguish them for the teacher and to conceal the differences from the students. You will want students to assume that they are getting the same document. Try to seat the students with competing documents far enough apart to reduce the likelihood that their conversations will be overheard by those with competing documents.
Reading Buddies: Pair more with less accomplished readers. Have the students read, analyze, and discuss the document they are given. Ask the students to demonstrate comprehension of the document by writing a brief description of what happened on July 11, 1804, in their own words. Tell them to include information relating to the following question: who fired the first shot?
Pair-Share: Couple the students who analyzed the handout entitled “DOCUMENT” (capital letter account) with a student who analyzed the competing “Document” (lower case account). Ask each of the two students in the paired groups to read their descriptions of what happened on July 11, 1804, to the person with whom they are now sitting.
After the students share and respond to each other’s descriptions ask:
Were your descriptions similar or different? (They contain competing accounts of the same event) Why? (They read different sources)
Who authored each document? What do you know or what can you infer about each author? (Pendleton was Hamilton’s friend and his second at the duel with Burr; Van Ness was Burr’s friend and his second at the duel with Hamilton)
How would you define the term point of view?
What was Mr. Van Ness’s point of view?
What was Mr. Pendleton’s point of view?
Why might there be two different accounts of the Burr-Hamilton duel?
Dueling Documents: Tell the pairs that they are now going to play a game of Dueling Documents in which their “duel” focuses on deciding which source is “best.” Explain that they have excerpted reproductions of two primary source documents. Their task is to decide which document should win the document duel (or be considered more accurate). Ask them to discuss the following questions as they decide which document wins the duel:
Which document won the duel and why?
Is one source “better” than the other?
What might make one piece of historical evidence “better” than another?
What might make one account of the past better than another?
Which account of the Burr-Hamilton duel should appear in our history textbooks? Why?
“Holes in the Evidence”
Ask students what it means when someone says that there are “holes in a story?” (The story is suspect) Tell students that evidence, just like stories, can have holes in them and that the class is now going to play a game of “Holes in the Evidence.”
Ask the two students who played the role of “seconds” in the Battle of the Bells to come up to the front of the room. Give one of the students Appendix 1 with a piece of tape. Give the other student Appendix 2 with a piece of tape. Ask the two students to stand back-to-back then count off 10 (small based on room size) paces. Ask them to tape their documents on the chalkboard (or wall) where they complete their 10 paces then return to their seats.
Write Pendleton or Hamilton’s Second under Appendix 1. Write Van Ness or Burr’s Second under Appendix 2. Draw attention to the bulls-eyes on each document.
Remind students that the overarching question in this lesson is who fired first—Burr or Hamilton. Write the question, “Which piece of evidence (or document), if either, has holes in it and why”? in large letters between the two documents. Tell the students that you now want them to offer reasons why one document has holes in it, i.e., is less believable or not as “good” as the other in terms of answering the question, “what happened at Weehawken on July 11, 1804.” If a student offers a compelling challenge to one of the documents, use a pencil to place a dot symbolizing a hole on the bulls-eye in the document the student critiqued (pencil recommended in case another student effectively refutes the challenge to the document). If the reason is not as compelling, place a hole outside the bulls-eye symbolizing a less accurate “shot.” The further from the bulls-eye, the less persuasive the argument. Once the students exhaust reasons, decide which document loses the document duel.
Why might historians arrive at different conclusions about the past? (Explain that history is filled with different interpretations. One reason for the different interpretations is that historians often rely on different pieces of evidence to construct their accounts. Another is that people have different points of view that are influenced by factors such as friendships, shared beliefs e.g. political, shared opinions, e.g., about other individuals.)
Knowing that there can be different interpretations of the past, what are some questions you should be asking of any historical account or piece of historical evidence (e.g., a document) as you read/interrogate it?
What makes some pieces of evidence stronger than other pieces of evidence?
Further explain that most accounts of the past involve interpretations built on evidence that varies in strength. To think historically involves questioning texts, including their textbooks and encyclopedias, rather than accepting them as facts.
Check for Understanding
Distribute copies of Appendix 3 – Graphic Organizer – Duel Interpretations and have students fill in information that responds to the prompts in the 4 boxes.
Paper Thoughts: Have students read an excerpt from a history textbook and record what they are thinking as they read. Check to see if they are interrogating the text or treating it as authoritative.
(Excerpted Version for Students)
…Mr. P[endleton] expressed a confident opinion that General Hamilton did not fire first – and that he did not fire at all at Col. Burr…
General Hamilton’s friend thinks it to be a sacred duty…to publish to the world such facts and circumstances as have produced a decisive conviction in his own mind. That he cannot have been mistaken in the belief he has formed on these points.
1st. General Hamilton informed Mr. P[endleton]…he had made up his mind not to fire at Col. Burr the first time, but to receive his fire, and fire in the air. 2d. His last words before he was wounded he was asked if he would have the hair spring set? His answer was, “Not this time.” 3rd. After he was wounded, and laid in the boat, the first words he uttered: “Pendleton knows I did not mean to fire at Col. Burr the first time.” 5th. The pistol that had been used by General Hamilton…after having been some time in the boat, one of the boatmen took hold of it to put it into the case. General Hamilton observed this, said “Take care of that pistol – it is cocked. It may go off and do mischief.” This shews he was not sensible of having fired at all.
6. Mr. P[endleton]…determined to go to the spot where the affair took place, to see if he could not discover some traces of the course of the ball from Gen. Hamilton.
He took a friend with him the day after General Hamilton died, and after some examination they fortunately found what they were in search of. They ascertained that the ball passed through the limb of a cedar tree, at an elevation of about twelve feet and a half, perpendicularly from the ground, between thirteen and fourteen feet from the mark on which General Hamilton stood, and about four feet wide of the direct line between him and Colonel Burr, on the right side; The part of the limb through which the ball passed was cut off and brought to this city,
Statement by Nathaniel Pendleton
Alexander Hamilton’s Second
July 19, 1804 (Hamilton: Writings);
July 16, 1804 (Freeman p 192)
(Excerpted Version for Students)
…it becomes proper for the gentleman who attended Col Burr to state also his impressions with respect to those points on which their [sic] exists a variance of opinion.
The parties met…& took their respective stations as directed: the pistols were then handed to them by the seconds. Gen Hamilton elevated his, as if to try the light, & lowering it said I beg pardon for delaying you but the direction of the light renders it necessary, at the same time feeling his pockets with his left hand, & drawing forth his spectacles put them on. The second asked if they were prepared which was replied to in the affirmative. The word present was then given, on which both parties took aim. The pistol of General Hamilton was first discharged, and Col Burr fired immediately after, only five or six seconds of time intervening. On this point the second of Col Burr has full & perfect recollection. He noticed particularly the discharge of G H’s pistol, & looked at Col B on the discharge of G H’s pistol he perceived a slight motion in his person, which induced the idea of his being struck. On this point he conversed with his principal on their return, who ascribed that circumstance to a small stone under his foot, & observed that the smoke of G H’s pistol obscured him for a moment in the interval of their firing.
Statement by William P. Van Ness