Dueling In America - How Alexander Hamilton Lost His Life!

By Don Vitale

Historians say it's the most famous duel in American History. I agree....definitely one for the history books.

The Scene: Sunrise on the morning of July 11, 1804.

The Place: A popular dueling ground at the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey above the Hudson River.

The Duelers:  Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

They stand facing each other. Ten paces apart. Each with their pistol ready to aim and shoot.

In a word, it's Daniel Come To Judgment time.

Both characters in this drama were two prominent politicians in America's early beginnings. Alexander Hamilton a financial genious...appointed Secretary of the Treasury...putting his stamp on the new country...advocating banking and financial reforms.

Aaron Burr started out by holding a number of minor political positions, served in the Revolutionary War, practiced law in New York. In 1791 he ran for the office of Senator and was elected. He ran for President against Jefferson in 1800 but lost out in a tie vote. Jefferson was named president, Burr vice-president.

Over the years a bitter relationship festered between Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton voiced his opposition to the prospect of Burr becoming president in the 1804 election.He wasn't shy about voicing what he called double dealing and less than honorable actions he attributed to Burr.

At a private dinner with friends, Hamilton made critical comments of Burr. The comments went public. Hamilton added to those charges, accusing Burr of corruption as a Senator, along with a number of serious allegations of conflicts of interest. When it was apparent Jefferson was going to drop Burr from re-election in 1804, Burr decided to bolster his personal reputation and political standing by running for Governor of New York State. Hamilton actively campaigned against Burr and Burr lost decisively. It was then that he challenged Hamilton to a duel. Back To The Duel: All first-hand accounts agree that two shots were fired.

Here's an account of the event by famed historian Joseph JEllis:
"Hamilton did fire his weapon intentially, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball  into into the tree above and behind Burr's location. The bullet only skimmed Burr's ear.  In so doing he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge (not to shoot Burr). Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton's gun whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear....Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill."
Quoting an observer: "Burr reurned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The musket ball rechocheted off Hamilton's second or third false rib-- fracturing it-- and caused considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm before becoming lodged in his first or second lumbar vertebra...Hamilton collapsed immediately..."

Hamilton died the next day at 2 p.m. at the age of 49.

Okay, I'm reading your mind. You always thought dueling was something the aristocrats did in London Town. Like in those old movies, right? The hero takes out his perfumed handkerchief, gently brushes it across his opponent's cheek and tells him to meet him on the dueling grounds at ten in the morning. And don't forget to bring your weapons!

While no question, dueling was serious business, it wasn't necessarily all that dramatic. I should tell you that not every man who was in a duel wound up shot full of holes like Hamilton. Many duelers settled their grievances by shooting their fire into the ground...or high and wide of the mark. Family honor restored.

When the first settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock, so did dueling. Plain and simply, it was all about codes of honor. If you or your family were publicly insulted or defamed in any way, you were bound to proclaim your "honor" by issuing a challenge to your opponent to a duel. If you didn't, it was a blot on your family escutcheon!

Were duels barbaric? Some said yes, others felt they avoided endless feuds.  According to one official:

"...dueling...is not quite so bad as its substitute-- revolvers, bowie knives, and street assassinations under the pretext of self-defense."

In the late 18th century others began to criticize dueling. Benjamin Franklin denounced the practice as unnecessarily violent. And George Washington admonished his officers to refuse challenges, especially during the Revolutionary War.

I was surprised to learn that a number of America's prominent figures participated in duelists. Andrew Jackson was a veteran of at least 13 duels. America's twelfth president was known to add violence in defense of his honor. He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. [Side note: It's been said of Jackson's showdowns that his body was filled with so much lead people said he "rattled like a bag of marbles."]

Then there was Secretary of State Heny Clay...and Mark Twain...and wait a minute, my friends, let us not forget, of course....Abraham Lincoln. All involved in duels at some time in their lives.

Am I glad we're beyond this dueling business? You got that right!

Strange Ending Dept: Two years before Hamilton's death, Hamilton's son Philip was killed in a duel at the same site at the Heights of Weehawken above the Hudson River....using the same weapons his father used in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.--dv