A basic summary of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton states that both men shot each other, and that Hamilton was fatally wounded, dying the following day. Burr survived, but his political career and reputation did not. However, this does not capture the full story, which should be elaborated considering it is the most famous duel in American history.
Part of the job of historians is to challenge accepted versions of historical events, which can be misleading, oversimplified, or inaccurate. In this case, the accepted version is factually correct, but it does not convey all of the details and nuances of the duel, thus leaving readers with an incomplete picture of the event.
Aaron Burr left his home in Manhattan at dawn on July 11, 1804, having slept in his clothes. His “devoted disciple and protégé, William Van Ness, accompanied him to the duel. Alexander Hamilton, meanwhile, was accompanied by his doctor along with his “loyal associate,” Nathaniel Pendleton. Hamilton’s military rank, inspector general of the New Army, was higher than Burr’s. He was 49 years old, one year older than Burr. The two men had opposite coloring (Burr dark and Hamilton fair) and opposite personalities, with Burr subdued and Hamilton vivacious. Where Burr had an aristocratic heritage, Hamilton was an illegitimate child with “impoverished origins.”
This passage emphasizes Burr and Hamilton’s similarities as well as their differences. They are virtually the same age, both military men, and—although this isn’t explicitly specified—both members of the revolutionary generation. The fact that they both bring a “protégé” with them points to the fact that they are, at this point, of an older generation who will soon give way to new, younger leaders.
Hamilton was born on Nevis, an island in the West Indies. He approached political problems as “personal challenges,” and the fact that he chose to accept Burr’s invitation to the duel was characteristic of his eagerness to accept challenges. On the evening of July 10, Hamilton drafted his will and noted that he did not harbor any resentment toward Burr. He saw their dispute as purely political and wrote that he intended to “throw away” his first shot, hoping to give Burr a chance to reflect.
Although Ellis asserts that Hamilton saw his disagreement with Burr as purely political, the personal and political factors are clearly difficult to separate here. This is in part due to the fact that Hamilton treated political problems as “personal challenges,” and also because the revolutionary generation all had close interpersonal relationships with each other.
Burr arrived at the “narrow ledge” where the duel was to take place around 7:00 in the morning, followed shortly after by Hamilton. Dueling was illegal in New York, so the event had to be called an “interview,” and the oarsmen and doctor had to turn their backs so as not to witness it. The duelers used a pair of “custom-made” pistols belonging to Hamilton’s brother-in-law, which contained a hair-trigger device that meant only one pound of pressure was needed to shoot. Hamilton chose not to use the hair-trigger, meaning that, as was common at the time, neither participant was likely to be seriously injured in the duel.
Based on these details, it is difficult to assess how seriously either participant took the duel and what they expected to come of it. Hamilton’s decision not to use the hair-trigger device on his pistol suggests that his participation in the duel was really just for show, and that he didn’t intend to harm Burr in any way. At the same time, the fact that both men went to such lengths to engage in an act that was actually illegal suggests they did take it seriously.
Hamilton was allowed to choose which position to stand in and chose a poor one, in the sun’s glare. At the last minute, Hamilton put his glasses on, which—contrary to his own claim—seems to suggest he wanted to hit Burr. What happened next is unclear, and will be explored in detail later in the chapter. Two shots were fired, one striking Hamilton in the side, penetrating his liver. He told his doctor that he was fatally injured before falling unconscious. Burr appeared to immediately be filled with regret, though Van Ness hurried him away in order to avoid legal trouble, refusing to let him speak to Hamilton.
This passage shows that what was apparently supposed to be. a harmless, inconsequential event mysteriously turned into something serious and fatal. Burr’s regret and desire to speak to Hamilton after shooting him suggests either that he didn’t actually intend to harm Hamilton, or that he did intend to shoot him but immediately realized that it was a mistake.
As Hamilton was being taken home, he advised those around him to be careful with his pistol, claiming it was “still cocked.” This suggests he didn’t realize that he even fired a shot at Burr. He died the following afternoon, surrounded by his wife, children, and the Episcopal bishop of New York. His funeral was “an extravaganza of mourning” attended by enormous numbers of the country’s elite. Burr was vilified in the media; he was so ashamed he fled to Georgia, while Hamilton was memorialized as a martyr.
While on the surface Hamilton obviously lost the duel and suffered the greatest consequences, in truth neither man emerged victorious. Furthermore, from the perspective of history and legacy, Hamilton’s tragic death made him seem even more like a hero.
Following the duel, the two witnesses—Pendleton and Van Ness—initially published a “Joint Statement” asserting that the proper rules of dueling were followed (even though the whole thing was illegal). Pendleton and Van Ness agreed that both Burr and Hamilton fired their weapons, and that a few seconds passed between the shots. Yet according to the “Hamiltonian” version of the story, the shots must have occurred almost at the same time, as this version held that Burr’s initial shot caused Hamilton to fire back involuntarily as he was hit by the bullet.
Pendleton and Van Ness’ initial “Joint Statement” suggests that they originally wanted to put any conflict and antagonism that existed between their mentors behind them. For a moment, it seemed that those involved in the duel had learned their lesson from the tragic, deadly turn of events. Yet sadly this reconciliation did not last long.
Van Ness confidently testified that Hamilton shot first, and that it seemed as if Burr was hit, when in fact, Burr had only sprained his ankle on a rock. Yet this does not align with Hamilton’s own assertion that he did not fire (and did not intend to). Also, those returning to the site found a branch that had fallen to the side of Burr, suggesting that Hamilton had shot the branch, intentionally missing Burr. Ultimately, both the pro-Burr side and the pro-Hamilton side likely twisted the truth in order to make the man they supported seem more honorable and less guilty.
In his initial description of the duel, Ellis emphasizes that the actual moment at which both men fired happened so quickly that it is impossible to know exactly what happened. Although the witness testimonies and site of the duel were both carefully scrutinized, the truth of what happened in those brief moments is lost forever.
Ellis’ own interpretation is that Hamilton fired his gun on purpose and did so first, aiming to miss Burr. Burr, not knowing that this miss was intentional, was “perfectly justified” in shooting Hamilton with intent to kill. We can never know whether this was actually Burr’s plan, but it is true that he had “nothing to gain and everything to lose” from killing Hamilton, and details of the event suggest that Burr did not seek to seriously hurt his opponent. On the other hand, his hatred for Hamilton might have suddenly led him to act rashly. We will never know what was going on in his mind.
Not only is it impossible to know what occurred in the minds of Hamilton and Burr during the duel, it is possible that even these men themselves were not aware of their own reasoning in the quick, fateful moment in which they fired their shots. They may have approached the duel with a certain plan in mind, but their actions in the moment could have been based on sudden indecision, reflex, or a surge of emotion.
Stepping back, what led Burr to challenge Hamilton to the duel in the first place? The two men had a long history of mutual hostility and hatred. While Burr was running for governor of New York in February 1803, Hamilton publicly expressed his low opinion of Burr’s qualifications. In June 1804, Burr confronted him about this. Instead of apologizing, Hamilton refused to confirm or deny what he had said, and gave Burr a patronizing lecture about language and meaning. Burr eventually wrote to demand that Hamilton publicly disavow all the “derogatory” statements he’d made about him.
Up until this point, Ellis has depicted Hamilton and Burr as two well-intentioned, reasonable men who committed a serious mistake in engaging in a duel. However, this passage suggests that both men were more hostile, egotistic, and petty than they might initially seem. Their political ambitions and pride led them to feel threatened and resentful of one another, revealing that their rivalry was both political and personal.
Pendleton got involved, and encouraged Hamilton to make an apology in which Hamilton clarified that all of his criticisms were of a political, rather than personal nature. This should theoretically have ended the dispute, but instead further enraged Burr. Speaking on behalf of Burr, Van Ness demanded a full and unequivocal apology. After Hamilton once again refused to comply, Burr got so frustrated that he invited him to the duel. Following this invitation, both men made arrangements for the event that the duel should end in their death.
Again, confusion between the personal and the political dramatically raised the stakes of the conflict between Burr and Hamilton. Hamilton seemed to think he could use the distinction between the personal and political in order to avoid responsibility for undermining Burr. For Burr, the conflation of these two spheres made him take his political conflict with Hamilton personally.
At the 1804 Independence Day dinner held by the Society of Cincinnati, Hamilton and Burr sat at the same table. While Burr was gloomy and quiet, Hamilton was jolly, and sang a military song whose lyrics eerily foreshadowed his imminent death. The day before, Hamilton had held a dinner party and invited Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary, as well as the daughter and son-in-law of John Adams and Abigail Adams. Jefferson and Adams were both political rivals of Hamilton’s, so this dinner suggests Hamilton was demonstrating his ability to put aside political differences. During this time, Hamilton also produced a piece of writing for his eldest son about the dangers of having too many enemies.
Hamilton’s behavior suggests that while Burr’s duel invitation may have prompted him to reflect on the dangers of having enemies, this reflection was not particularly serious. His joyous singing and desire to show off his ability to have friends across political difference suggests that he remained confident and somewhat unrepentant about his behavior.
Hamilton likely didn’t think he was going to die in the duel, but the invitation nonetheless made him pause and reflect. However, he stood by what he had said about Burr, which is why he refused to apologize. The consequence of the duel was that Hamilton came to be seen as “a martyr to the dying cause of Federalism,” and Burr was vilified. A new crackdown on dueling in the North also followed. The Burr-Hamilton duel is remarkable in part because it was the exception to the otherwise peaceful post-Revolutionary moment. Across history, revolutions usually end in leaders violently turning on each other. The only time this happened in the American Revolution was the duel.
The events of 1776 were closely followed by two other major revolutions: the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. Both of these involved significant violence. As Ellis has established, the American Revolution and its aftermath were not without conflict. So why did this conflict almost never turn violent? This is one of the questions under investigation in the book.
Hamilton and Burr had been undermining one another’s political ambitions since 1789. Yet Burr was not even Hamilton’s main political enemy—Thomas Jefferson was (followed closely by John Adams). Yet Hamilton’s criticisms of Burr were nonetheless exceptionally harsh. He claimed that Burr was “unprincipaled, both as a public and private man” and that he only cared about advancing his own career. He declared that Burr was “beyond redemption,” comparing him to Caitiline, a notorious figure whose wicked betrayal “nearly destroyed the Roman Republic.”
This passage demonstrates that Hamilton had a flair for drama. Despite his late-in-life expression of regret over having so many enemies, his list of powerful nemeses suggests that on some level he enjoyed maintaining hostile relations with political opponents.
It is hard to know if Hamilton’s accusations were justified, as Burr had a habit of giving vague answers and destroying his own correspondence. Burr was enormously skilled at maneuvering disputes without choosing a side, and was adamantly non-partisan. He would only ever pick the side that offered him “the bigger tribute.” When Burr learned that the Republicans planned to drop him as the vice presidential candidate during Jefferson’s run, he ran for governor as a Federalist, which was the incident that led Hamilton to call him unprincipled. Yet a group of Federalists actually recruited Burr as part of their plan for northern states seceding from the rest of the nation (a plan Hamilton opposed).
Hamilton and Burr represent two extremes, and comparing them suggests that it is best to be neither too rigid in one’s principles nor too adaptable. While flexibility and non-partisanship can be a positive thing in politics, Burr’s trajectory suggests that this can veer too far into self-interest. Meanwhile, as we have seen, Hamilton’s intensely partisan nature led him to have many enemies.
There were some similarities between Hamilton and Burr’s personalities, insofar as they were both talented, energetic, and ambitious. In fact, Hamilton’s fear was that Burr’s talent would be put to use in a way that would endanger the republic. In this sense, it is true that Hamilton did not attack Burr’s personality traits (such as his overspending and womanizing)—it was Burr’s politics than Hamilton worried about.
Hamilton’s reaction to Burr may have seemed paranoid and extreme, but that is because we, unlike Hamilton, know the United States survived and flourished after this period. Both Burr and Hamilton knew that they were part of a remarkable generation. Yet by 1804, both of their political careers were behind them. Their duel was “a dramatic final statement” about the era in which they lived. Soon the United States would develop institutions robust enough to override human corruption, trickery, and clumsiness. Yet for now “it still required honorable and virtuous leaders to endure.”
Again, Ellis emphasizes the importance of viewing events in their proper historical context in order to understand why the figures of the time behaved as they did. We should not judge Hamilton’s behavior from our own contemporary perspective, but rather seek to understand Hamilton’s own view of the world around him before reaching conclusions about whether his treatment of Burr was reasonable.