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The Burr-Hamilton duel was a duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and is considered one of the most famous duels between the 17-18th centuries.

Details

Challenge: Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel.

Time: Dawn on July 11, 1804

Place: Weehawken, New Jersey, United States of America

Engagers: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton

Seconds: William P. Van Ness (Burr), Nathaniel Pendleton (Hamilton)

Reason

Burr had been illegitimate in all he did, changing political parties at will to seize personal opportunities and frustrating Hamilton with the fact that he didn't stand by his beliefs. When Burr switched parties solely to overthrow Senator Philip Schuyler's seat in the Senate, he was now against the entire Schuyler family, including Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton was convinced Burr did not stand for anything, and as result could fall for anything, making it a very dangerous choice if he were to be elected for President. Hamilton endorsed Thomas Jefferson in an attempt to prevent Burr from becoming the President, in which he essentially succeeded. In a rage, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, convinced Hamilton had taken everything away from his entire political success.

Morals

Hamilton had never wanted to hurt Burr in the duel, as he thought it as immoral and him as undeserving of a wound. Before the duel, he stated that he would "throw away his shot" and leave Burr unharmed. However, his shot came close to Burr's head, and Burr was unsure of whether he had really thrown away his shot or it had just barely missed. According to the code duello, this was enough to shoot back at Hamilton—Burr did so and mortally wounded Hamilton above his left thigh.

Hamilton died of infection and blood loss the following day; it is still uncertain whether Hamilton threw away his shot so close to Burr, enough to provoke him, solely to ruin Burr's career if he was killed, or if he really meant to throw it away and the mere distance between the shot and Burr's head was accidental. However, when Burr found out about Hamilton's thoughts, he merely scoffed and called him a coward for throwing away his shot.

Hamilton vs History

According to Nathaniel Pendleton's account of the duel, Hamilton depicts this duel very accurately, with only the letters being dramatized and the time-frame of Hamilton's death being rushed through.

  • The Burr-Hamilton duel originated when tension rose with Hamilton's journalistic defamation of Burr's character during the 1804 New York vice-presidential race, in which Burr was a candidate.
 
"When all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none."
— Alexander Hamilton, "The Election of 1800"
  • Charles D. Cooper wrote a letter to Philip Schuyler telling him what had happened, and said that he could defame Aaron Burr further if wanted to, calling him despicable.
  • The Albany Register published this letter
  • Aaron Burr blamed Alexander Hamilton for this further defamation of character, to which Hamilton took no responsibility, but did not disavow Cooper's words or take back his own.
 
"I stand by what I said, every bit of it"
— Alexander Hamilton, "Your Obedient Servant"
  • Burr insisted on Hamilton explaining why Cooper would say this, to which Hamilton responds with a letter that tells him that he and Cooper had had dinner together almost a year prior and they had discussed Aaron's political position.
 
"Answer for the accusations I lay at your feet or prepare to bleed, good man"
— Aaron Burr, "Your Obedient Servant"
  • While Hamilton did not give any specifics, Burr took this as enough evidence that it was Hamilton's doing that caused Cooper's defamation.
    • While in the Hamilton canon, none of this is necessarily untrue, it is not depicted and all correspondence leading up to the duel is exchanged only between Hamilton and Burr
 
"I look back on where I failed and in every place I checked, the only common thread has been your disrespect"
— Aaron Burr, "Your Obedient Servant"
  • Burr takes this new information as reason enough to challenge Hamilton to a duel. Historians have considered the causes of the duel to be flimsy and have thus characterized Hamilton as suicidal. However, Hamilton felt he could not deny this duel because of what he knew he had said about Burr.
    • In Hamilton, Hamilton seems to be a bit more forward as if he were challenging Burr to challenge him.
 
"Stand, Alexander. Weehawken. Dawn. Guns. Drawn"
— Aaron Burr, "Your Obedient Servant"
  • In the early morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed from Manhattan by separate boats and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, the same spot that duel that killed Hamilton's eldest son Philip Hamilton took place.
 
"We rowed across the Hudson at dawn"
— Aaron Burr, "The World Was Wide Enough"
 
"We were near the same spot your son died"
— Aaron Burr, "The World Was Wide Enough"
  • All first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired, although the seconds disagreed on the intervening time between them. It was common for both principals in a duel to fire a shot at the ground to exemplify courage, and then the duel could come to an end. Hamilton apparently fired a shot above Burr's head. Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The large-caliber lead ball ricocheted off Hamilton's third or second false rib, fracturing it and causing considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm, before lodging in his first or second lumbar vertebra. According to Pendleton's account, Hamilton collapsed almost immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward him in a speechless manner before being hustled away behind an umbrella by Van Ness because Hosack and the rowers were already approaching.
 
"I strike him right between his ribs. I walk towards him, but I am ushered away. They row him back across the Hudson"
— Aaron Burr, "The World Was Wide Enough"


The Ten Duel Commandments

1. Agree to the duel

In Your Obedient Servant, Burr tries to egg Hamilton into challenging him to the duel. When he doesn't, he tells Alexander the where and when. While Alexander agrees, this is the first instance of someone not offering a duel, rather just telling the opponent that its happening.

2. Assign a second-in-command

Burr tells us about both his and Hamilton's lieutenants. Burr assigns William Peter Van Ness and Hamilton assigns his friend Nathaniel Pendelton.

3. Have your seconds meet

Once again, unheard peace-talks are unfruitful and the challenge carries on

4. Organise weapons and medical help

The pistols are handed off to each dueler. Hamilton brought Dr. David Hosack which had already been established in the reading of Commandment 2. This was the same doctor that was present at Philip's duel.

5. Duel before dawn

This step was completed, in a previous song, Your Obedient Servant, when Burr issues the duel."Weehawken. Dawn.".

6. Leave a message

Again, this was completed in a previous song, this time in Best of Wives and Best of Women, in which Hamilton is seen writing his final correspondence, Whether or not Burr wrote a letter is unknown.

7. Pray.

Burr uses this opportunity to "confess his sins", telling the audience that he's a terrible shot. Hamilton is not seen to take advantage of this.

8. Have your seconds meet again

While the final peace-talks take place, Burr observes Hamilton wearing his glasses. Evidently, these talks were not productive.

9. Take your places. 

Hamilton has already taken his place long ago and is waiting for the duel to commence. Burr shouts the commandment in part verbatim.

10. Fire

As Burr takes his shot, time slows down and Hamilton is allowed his final monologue. Hamilton aims his pistol at the sky.

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