1804 200 Years Ago

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On June 18 Alexander Hamilton—a Revolutionary leader, then a Framer of the Constitution and a farsighted Treasury Secretary, and now a successful New York lawyer and politician—received a polite but peremptory note from Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States. Burr called Hamilton’s attention to a letter that had been published in an Albany newspaper two months earlier. That letter, from a physician named Charles D. Cooper, said that Hamilton had called Burr “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government” (Burr had been running unsuccessfully for governor of New York at the time) and that he had privately expressed “a still more despicable opinion” of the Vice President. Burr demanded to know: Was this true?

In his reply two days later, Hamilton declined to answer Burr’s question. Without being told exactly what he was accused of saying, Hamilton explained, he could not confirm or deny the charge. Burr was not satisfied with this response, and the two men’s correspondence grew increasingly testy. Burr issued a challenge; seconds were recruited; an appointment was made.

As the appointed day approached, both men put their affairs in order and drafted letters to their loved ones. On July 4 both Burr and Hamilton attended a festive meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, a patriotic organization. Hamilton, the group’s president, drank heartily and sang an old military song, while Burr was quiet and withdrawn.

On the morning of July 11 Burr and Hamilton met in a field in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same place where Hamilton’s son Philip had been mortally wounded in a duel three years before. At a signal from the seconds, Burr fired. A split second later Hamilton fired, too, but very wildly; his friends attributed it to an involuntary spasm after being hit. Hamilton died the next day.

Although Burr faced considerable hostility for the killing, as well as indictments in New York and New Jersey, many deemed it justified under the social code of the time. As late as 1857 the historian James Parton called it “as near an approach to a reasonable and inevitable action, as an action can be which is intrinsically wrong and absurd.” Still, Burr’s political career was clearly over, and subsequent events confirmed Hamilton’s assessment of him. In 1805 he got involved with a group of men hoping to establish a new nation in the Southwest, possibly by starting a war with Spain over the territory of Mexico. A few years later he offered to help France reclaim Canada from the British. When neither scheme panned out, he returned to the practice of law, which he pursued successfully (though his expenses always seemed to outpace his income) until his death in 1836.