A Tragic Duel
At dawn on the morning of July 11, 1804, political antagonists and personal enemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, to settle their longstanding differences with a duel. The participants fired their pistols in close succession. Burr’s shot met its target immediately, fatally wounding Hamilton and leading to his death the following day. Burr escaped unharmed. This tragically extreme incident reflected the depth of animosity aroused by the first emergence of the nation’s political party system.
Both men were political leaders in New York: Burr, a prominent Republican, and Hamilton, leader of the opposing Federalist Party. Burr had found himself the brunt of Hamilton’s political maneuvering on several occasions, including the unusual presidential election of 1800, in which vice-presidential candidate Burr almost defeated his running mate, presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson. In 1804, Hamilton opposed Burr’s closely fought bid for governor of New York. On the heels of this narrow defeat, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on the grounds that Hamilton had publicly maligned his character.
Once sanctioned by law and custom, dueling declined in the Northern states after the American Revolution, though it flourished longer in the American South. By 1804, it had been outlawed in New York, forcing Burr in the aftermath of his encounter with Hamilton to give up his political ambitions and flee the state to avoid a warrant for his arrest.
Discredited by the duel with Hamilton, Burr sought to regain political power by a filibustering adventure, which led instead to his indictment for treason. He was accused of leading an expedition to create an independent nation along the Mississippi River by separating territories from the United States and Spain. With Chief Justice John Marshall sitting as circuit judge, Burr was tried for treason in federal court in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807, although he was eventually acquitted. On June 13, 1807, a subpoena was served on Thomas Jefferson to testify at Burr’s treason trial.
- The Alexander Hamilton Papers consist of his personal and public correspondence, drafts of his writings, and correspondence among members of the Hamilton and Schuyler families. One of the highlights of the collection is a letter from Hamilton to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, July 4, 1804, written shortly before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. The collection documents Hamilton’s impoverished Caribbean boyhood; events in the lives of his family and that of his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton; his experience as a Revolutionary War officer and aide-de-camp to General George Washington; his terms as a New York delegate to the Continental Congress (1782-1783) and the Constitutional Convention (1787); and his careers as a New York state legislator, United States treasury secretary (1789-1795), political writer, and lawyer in private practice. Most of the papers date from 1777 until Hamilton’s death in 1804.
- Alexander Hamilton: A Resource Guide compiles links to digital materials related to Hamilton such as manuscripts, letters, broadsides, government documents, and images that are available throughout the Library of Congress Web site. In addition, it provides links to external Web sites focusing on Hamilton and a selected bibliography.
- Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five essays urging the citizens of New York to ratify the new United States Constitution. The essays originally appeared anonymously in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the pen name “Publius.”
- The George Washington Papers include more than three hundred letters with references to Hamilton. Of particular interest is a missive dated August 28, 1788, in which Washington writes Hamilton in praise of Publius’ latest installation of The Federalist:
As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my Library…When the transient circumstances and fugitive performances which attended this Crisis shall have disappeared, That Work will merit the Notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society.
George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, August 28, 1788. Series 2, Letterbooks 1754-1799: Letterbook 15, Feb. 22, 1788 – Nov. 14, 1788. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division
- Search on Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to read a wide variety of material concerning their involvement in the proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the United States Congress.
- See the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827 for more information on the formation of the early Republic and the lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Search on the terms Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr to see material related to these men.