Today, July 11, marks the 209th anniversary of the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. I think a lot of popular knowledge of Hamilton is shaped by the duel, which is unfortunate considering the far-reaching scope of his legacy, but understandable given the drama surrounding the duel. The duel between prominent politicians captivated the popular imagination and stirred up popular hatred of Burr. Two careers were ruined in the course of the duel- Hamilton’s by an untimely death, and Burr’s by a descent into humiliation and treason.
Here’s the initial firsthand account by the two seconds to the duel, Nathaniel Pendleton and William Van Ness:
Col Burr arrived first on the ground as had been previously agreed. When Genl Hamilton arrived the parties exchanged salutations and the Seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position as also to determine whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the Second of Genl Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took their stations. The Gentleman who was to give the word, then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing which were as follows:
The parties being placed at their stations – The Second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready – being answered in the affirmative, he shall say “present” after which the parties shall present & fire when they please. If one fires before the opposite shall say one, two, three, fire, and he shall fire or loose his fire.
And asked if they were prepared, being answered in the affirmative, he gave the word present as had been agreed on. And both of the parties took aim & fired in succession. The intervening time is not expressed as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell, Col Burr then advanced toward Genl H—n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew….
The August 11, 1804 Coroner’s Report stated:
Aaron Burr…not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the devil, on the eleventh day of July in the year last aforesaid, which force and Arms…feloniously wilfully and of his Malice aforethought, did make an Assault, and…Mortal[ly] Wound…the said Alexander Hamilton.
For further reading, check out this article on Dueling as Politics by Joanne B. Freeman in the New York Journal of American History.
Reminder- if you’re in or near New York City, come out to the AHA Society’s series of events in NYC and Northern New Jersey starting today and going through Sunday! Tonight is a debate between Jefferson and Hamilton at the Museum of American Finance. Register here. Hope to see you all there!