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Americans politics can sometimes be a cut-throat business, but modern-day political feuds pale in comparison to the animosity between sitting U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers and a close ally of George Washington, the first U.S. president.
This month marks the 211th anniversary of the 1804 duel between the two men. They met on the fields of Weehawken, New Jersey, overlooking New York City. Hamilton shot first, but he missed. Burr then fired the deadly shot, making Hamilton the most famous American ever to be killed in a duel.
Hamilton, former secretary of the U.S. treasury, was 49 when he died. It was not either man’s first involvement in a duel. Some accounts have Hamilton taking part in 11 previous affairs of honor. And, four years earlier, Burr dueled with Hamilton’s brother in law, but neither man was injured.
When thinking of old-time gunfights, most people might think of cowboy gunslingers in the American West, but the truth is that formal duels were not unusual in the United States. Many respectable men — senators, congressman, local legislators and even, in the case of Burr, the vice president of the United States — took part in these bouts.
The practice of dueling in the United States began during the Revolution and occurred most often in the South. Duels were fought to defend a gentleman’s personal honor and although the bouts were illegal, few people involved were ever arrested and even fewer were convicted.
Dueling was common in Europe, but duels in America were unique in that they were usually the result of some political insult and were fought to defend one’s political honor.
Burr and Hamilton had a long history of political and personal animosity leading up to their deadly final encounter.
Both fought for General George Washington against the British during the American War of Independence. Hamilton, a favorite of the general’s, was promoted, while Burr’s request to be made a general was denied by Washington.
The two men also butted heads in New York where Hamilton was once a prominent politician. However, Burr managed to defeat Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father in law, in an election for a U.S. Senate seat. Burr’s rise in New York politics looked to have surpassed Hamilton’s, but six years later, Burr lost reelection to Schuyler and blamed Hamilton for the defeat.
The deepest cut of all was probably Hamilton’s political interference during the hotly-contested election of 1800 that played a role in Burr becoming vice president rather than president. Thomas Jefferson and Burr were running mates, but Burr decided to go after the top job after the two men tied in the Electoral College (a body of delegates representing the U.S. states that officially casts the votes to elect the president and vice president). Hamilton campaigned heavily to see Jefferson installed as president. It probably didn’t help matters that, as commander in chief, Jefferson pretty much ignored Vice President Burr.
Things came to a head after a newspaper article quoted Hamilton disparaging Burr and his character. Burr demanded an apology. When Hamilton declined to offer one, Burr challenged him to a duel.
Hamilton died of his wounds 36 hours after being shot. His supporters accused Burr of killing Hamilton in cold blood, when he’d had a chance to spare his life. Hamilton’s death by duel triggered a public outcry, but Burr kept a low profile and managed to complete his term as vice president.
It was not the first time Hamilton’s family was devastated by a duel. Three years earlier, Hamilton’s son, Philip, 19, died on the same dueling ground defending his father’s honor in a bout with a Burr ally. Hamilton’s daughter, Angelica, suffered a nervous breakdown after her brother’s death and never fully recovered.
Hamilton, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which established America’s national government and fundamental laws, is probably America’s most notorious dueling casualty. But other prominent Americans have also met at dawn to settle matters of honor.
In 1806, long before he became president, Andrew Jackson was shot and wounded before killing a man in a duel for insulting Jackson’s wife.
As an Illinois state legislator, Abraham Lincoln was challenged to a duel for allegedly insulting a fellow state official. However, the affair was settled before any shots were exchanged.
By the 1850s, duels had become less formal confrontations as they moved westward and, while affairs of honor were still fought in the South, the American public started to lose its taste for this particular brand of violence. Anti-dueling laws were enforced and men’s honor became less important than how much cash they had in the bank.
These days, grievous insults are not settled on a field of honor, but rather in an official courtroom in the form of a libel or slander suit. There’s no telling what Hamilton or Burr would have thought of that.