There are many accounts of this event of July 11, 1804, some 209 years ago. But some basic facts remain incontrovertible: That Aaron Burr, a sitting American vice president, challenged Alexander Hamilton, a former Secretary of the Treasury, to a gun duel which claimed the life of the latter.
Their animosity towards each other got to a head via a letter written by Hamilton casting aspersions on Burr who had seen the former as a dangerous political enemy.
Were President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and former President Olusegun Obasanjo to transport themselves to America’s 1804, perhaps, a gun duel would have come in handy to settle their political differences.
Just last Monday, the inventor of AK-47, the assault rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, died and was laid to rest. Taking a cue from how Obasanjo feels strongly on issues, he would have wanted an AK-47 for the duel (but the assault weapon was not invented as at that time).
Jonathan, who hails from the land of militancy, would have wanted something simpler, may be supported by native power (mind you, Obasanjo is no stranger to African magic).
Seriously, this is the story of Burr and Hamilton as captured by Wikipedia:
The duel was the final skirmish of a long conflict between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. The conflict began in 1791 when Burr captured a United States Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, who would have supported Federalist policies. (Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury at the time.) When the Electoral College deadlocked in the election of 1800, Hamilton’s maneuvering in the House of Representatives caused Thomas Jefferson to be named president and Burr vice-president.
In 1800, the Philadelphia Aurora printed extracts from a pamphlet Hamilton had earlier published, “Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States,” a document highly critical of Adams which had actually been written by Hamilton but intended only for private circulation. Some have claimed that Burr leaked the document, but there is no clear evidence for this, nor that Hamilton held him responsible.
Hamilton’s animosity toward Burr was severe and well-documented in personal letters to his friend and compatriot James McHenry. The following quotation from one of these letters on January 4, 1801, exemplifies his bitterness: “Nothing has given me so much chagrin as the Intelligence that the Federal party were thinking seriously of supporting Mr. Burr for president. I should consider the execution of the plan as devoting the country and signing their own death warrant.
Mr. Burr will probably make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and will break them the first moment it may serve his purpose.”
In a more extensive letter written shortly afterward, Hamilton details the many charges he has against Burr, calling him a “profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme”, that he corruptly served the views of the Holland Land Company while a member of Legislature, criticized Burr’s military commission and accused him of resigning under false pretenses, and many more serious accusation.
In the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed by separate boats from Manhattan and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey a popular dueling ground below the towering cliffs of the Palisades.
Hamilton and Burr agreed to take the duel to Weehawken because although dueling had been prohibited in both states, New York more aggressively prosecuted the crime (the same site was used for 18 known duels between 1700 and 1845). In an attempt to prevent the participants from being prosecuted, procedures were implemented to give all witnesses plausible deniability.
For example, the pistols were transported to the island in a portmanteau, enabling the rowers (who also stood with their backs to the duelists) to say under oath that they had not seen any pistols. Burr, William P. Van Ness, (his second), Matthew L. Davis, and another (often identified as Samuel Swartwout) plus their rowers reached the site first at half past six, whereupon Burr and Van Ness started to clear the underbrush from the dueling ground.
Hamilton, Judge Nathaniel Pendleton, (his second), and Dr. David Hosack arrived a few minutes before seven. Lots were cast for the choice of position and which second should start the duel, both of which were won by Hamilton’s second who chose the upper edge of the ledge (which faced the city) for Hamilton. However, according to historian and author Joseph Ellis, since Hamilton had been challenged, he had choice of both weapon and position. Under this account, it was Hamilton himself who chose the upstream or north side position.
All first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired; however, Hamilton and Burr’s seconds disagreed on the intervening time between the shots. It was common for both principals in a duel to fire a shot at the ground to exemplify courage, and then the duel could come to an end. Hamilton apparently fired first, and into the air, though it is not clear whether this was intentional, much less that Burr perceived him to be “throwing away his fire” (as it did not follow the standard protocol).
Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The musket ball ricocheted 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. According to Pendleton’s account, Hamilton collapsed immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward Hamilton in a speechless manner (which Pendleton deemed to be indicative of regret) before being hustled away behind an umbrella by Van Ness because Hosack and the rowers were already approaching.
It is entirely uncertain which principal fired first, as both seconds’ backs were to the duel in accordance with the pre-arranged regulations of the duel (and also so the men could later testify that they “saw no fire”). After much research to determine the actual events of the duel, historian Joseph J. Ellis gives his best guess:
Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr’s location.
In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge. Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton’s gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear. According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.
But did he? What is possible, but beyond the reach of the available evidence, is that Burr really missed his target, too, that his own fatal shot, in fact, was accidental.
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