Today in History: July 11
A Tragic Duel
Photograph of a Fresco in the U.S. Capitol,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959
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.
Avenue under the oaks,
Old Duelling Grounds,
New Orleans, Louisiana,
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
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. The Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years collection contains the June 13, 1807, subpoena served on Thomas Jefferson to testify at Burr’s treason trial.
Learn more about Burr and Hamilton in American Memory:
- Read about Alexander Hamilton's life and legacy in "Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey," an 1897 address included in African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907.
- 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 at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799, 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.
- Search the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 on Hamilton and treasury, Hamilton and Jefferson, or Hamilton and party to explore Washington's correspondence with and about Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the treasury.
- Search on Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 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. For example, this collection contains the September 2, 1789, entry in the House Journal which notes President Washington's approval of an "Act to establish the Treasury Department."
- See The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress for more information on the formation of the early Republic and the lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Search on the terms Hamilton or Burr to see material related to these men.
- The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820 contains eleven documents related to Aaron Burr’s treason trial.