Many have wondered what actually went down between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on that July morning, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey. There were two there who wrote about what they saw of the famous duel and its aftermath.
Considering how it all ended, it’s not surprising to find out that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr began their relationship as law partners. The animosity that was built there stoked the fires of resentment that flared up later in their careers. When Burr won a Senate seat that had belonged to Hamilton’s father-in-law, though, things got really tense between the two.
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Burr walked away from the vice presidency in 1804, and ran a campaign for New York governor. He was unliked by many besides Hamilton, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He’d developed a reputation for being untrustworthy and had a tendency to court any political party that would put him ahead. Many people were willing to try almost anything to make sure he didn’t win the New York governor’s race; Hamilton among them. Burr soon became the victim of a vicious smear campaign led by Hamilton. When accursed by Burr of leading the slanderous attack, Hamilton refused to acknowledge it, much less apologize for the role he played. Burr, then, challenged Hamilton to a duel.
One just didn’t show up for a duel unaided. Hamilton, like many other duel participant, brought a Second – a guy who prepared the guns, tended wounds and assisted the duelers with various tasks.
Hamilton’s Second, Nathanial Pendleton, and Burr’s Second, W.P. Van Ness, collaborated on a summary in the aftermath of the event. Not long after, they published this account:
He then asked if they were prepared; being answered in the affirmative, he gave the word present, as had been agreed on, and both parties presented and fired in succession. The intervening time is not expressed, as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. The fire of Colonel Burr took effect, and General Hamilton almost instantly fell. Colonel Burr advanced toward General Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to General Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret; but, without speaking, turned about and withdrew, being urged from the field by his friend, as had been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognized by the surgeon and bargemen who were then approaching. No further communication took place between the principals, and the barge that carried Colonel Burr immediately returned to the city. We conceive it proper to add, that the conduct of the parties in this interview was perfectly proper, as suited the occasion.
Accompanying Alexander Hamilton to the duel on that day was physician David Hosack. When Hamilton fell, it was Hosack who attended to his injuries. This is what he remembered:
When called to him upon his receiving the fatal wound, I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, “This is a mortal wound, doctor;” when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless. I immediately stripped up his clothes, and soon, alas I ascertained that the direction of the ball must have been through some vital part. His pulses were not to be felt, his respiration was entirely suspended, and, upon laying my hand on his heart and perceiving no motion there, I considered him a irrecoverably gone. I, however, observed to Mr. Pendleton, that the only chance for his reviving was immediately to get him upon the water. We therefore lifted him up, and carried him out of the wood to the margin of the bank, where the bargemen aided us in conveying him into the boat, which immediately put off. During all this time I could not discover the last symptom of returning life. I now rubbed his face, lips, and temples with spirits of hartshorn, applied it to his neck and breast, and to the wrists and palms of his hand and endeavored to pour some into his mouth.
When we had got, as I should judge, about fifty yards from the shore, some imperfect efforts to breathe were for the first time manifest; in a few minutes he sighed, and became sensible to the impression of the hartshorn or the fresh air of the water. He breathed; his eyes, hardly opened, wandered, without fixing upon any object; to our great joy, he at length spoke. “My vision is indistinct,” were his first words. His pulse became more perceptible, his respiration more regular, his sight returned. I then examined the wound to know if there was any dangerous discharge of blood; upon slightly pressing his side it gave him pain, on which I desisted.
Soon after recovering his sight, he happened to cast his eye upon the case of pistols, and observing the one that he had had in his hand lying on the outside, he said, “Take care of that pistol; it is undischarged, and still cocked; it may go off and do harm. Pendleton knows” (attempting to turn his head towards him) “that I did not intend to fire at him.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Pendleton, understanding his wish, “I have already made Dr. Hosack acquainted with your determination as to that.”
He then closed his eyes and remained calm, without any disposition to speak; nor did he say much afterward, except to reply to my questions. He asked me once or twice how I found his pulse; and he informed me that his lower extremities had lost all feeling, manifesting to me that he entertained no hopes that he should long survive.
The next day, Hamilton was dead. But that’s not the end of the sordid tale.
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Burr’s “victory” meant that he was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey. He became a social and political pariah.
He didn’t let it stop him, though . . . . Within a few years, Burr was caught red-handed organizing a private army so that he could go and conquer portions of both Mexico and Louisiana, probably to set up his own kingdom. Although he never officially stated his purpose, Burr wrote to his co-conspirator General James Wilkinson of his intentions, “The gods invite us to glory and fortune; it remains to be seen whether we deserve the boon.” Wilkinson, in the end, ratted him out to President Thomas Jefferson, but thanks to a legal technicality, Burr escaped being convicted of treason.
Soon after, he fled to Europe, hoping to leave his reputation behind, he did so successfully, but he soon wound up in serious debt. To avoid debtor’s prison there, he had to come back home to New York.
The murder charges were eventually dropped, and Burr managed to rekindle his career as a lawyer, but the legacy he built over his lifetime never really left him. He lived a life “severed from the human race,” as he put it, and died forgotten in 1833 at the age of eighty.
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