Deadly Duel: Vice President Burr Kills Alexander Hamilton

The remarkable life and brilliant career of one of America’s leading Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was cut short in the early morning hours of 11 July 1804 when he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president of the United States.

portrait of Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull

Portrait: Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Although the men had been bitter political and personal enemies for years, the exact cause of their fatal disagreement—as well as the circumstances of the actual duel—remain vague and uncertain. What is indisputable is that Hamilton was struck in the lower abdomen and died around 2:00 p.m. the next day, robbing America of one of its keenest political and legal minds.

painting of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, by J. Mund

Painting: an imaginative depiction of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, by J. Mund. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)

Hamilton had been the senior aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War; Washington later rewarded his service by appointing Hamilton the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. An economist and philosopher, Hamilton played a leading role in shaping the federal government during its formative years, and later became the leader of the Federalist Party. Other highlights of his career included being elected to the Continental Congress, founding the Bank of New York, and authoring many of the Federalist Papers. As is often the case with powerful and influential men, Hamilton had many admirers and supporters, and more than a few enemies—none more so than Aaron Burr.

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Hamilton vs. Burr

The animosity between the two men began in 1791, when Burr won the Senate seat occupied by Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. In 1800, Hamilton played a key role in ensuring that the House of Representatives chose Thomas Jefferson as president instead of Burr, who had tied Jefferson in the Electoral College vote. Then, in 1804, Burr—knowing Jefferson would not favor him to continue as vice president—campaigned to become New York governor, but Hamilton again played a key role in his defeat, endorsing Burr’s opponent and the eventual winner, Morgan Lewis. The sense of rivalry and disdain between Hamilton and Burr was sharp and did not need much of a spark to ignite into deadly conflict.

That spark came quickly after the New York election. Burr took offense at some remarks Hamilton allegedly had made during a dinner party and demanded an apology. What those exact remarks were is not certain, and Hamilton said he could not recall them and refused to apologize. Burr “demanded satisfaction” and a duel was arranged for the morning of 11 July 1804.

There were only two witnesses to the fatal duel, and they both turned their backs so that they could honestly say they saw no guns fired, and therefore not be implicated in the incident. Two shots rang out, although who fired first is uncertain. Hamilton had said the night before that he would deliberately miss Burr, and in fact his shot struck a tree above his opponent’s head. Burr, however, did not miss—his bullet cut through Hamilton’s internal organs and smashed into his spine, paralyzing him and leaving little doubt the wound was mortal. After much suffering, he died from the shot the next day.

article about Alexander Hamilton being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, United States’ Gazette newspaper article 12 July 1804

United States’ Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 July 1804, page 2

GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

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Fourth of July Trivia: Quiz Your History IQ

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to add to your Fourth of July celebrations, Mary presents a fun quiz of Independence Day and Founding Fathers trivia.

As 4th of July celebrations are more American than apple pie, I thought our GenealogyBank Blog readers might enjoy an Independence Day trivia quiz.

photo of fireworks behind the Washington Monument, 4 July 1986

Photo: fireworks behind the Washington Monument, 4 July 1986. Credit: Lono Kollars; Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the more historical-minded genealogists already know the answers, but if not, try figuring out these questions about July 4th on your own. Some answers may surprise you. (The answers are shown below.)

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1) What year were fireworks first used to celebrate the 4th of July?

A) 1776
B) 1777
C) 1826
D) 1876

2) Why were captured enemy Hessians allowed to participate in the celebrations at Philadelphia on the 4th of July in 1777?

A) The American troops wished to raise morale by humiliating them.
B) They were waiters who served food to the American officers.
C) They were talented musicians.
D) Their capture and subsequent parading through Philadelphia was reenacted.

3) How many rockets were shot in celebration on that glorious day in 1777?

A) 10
B) 13
C) 16
D) 20

4) What saying was reiterated three times on 4 July 1777?

A) Hip, Hip, Hurray!
B) Long live America!
C) Long live Congress!
D) The Glorious Fourth of July!

5) Which of these presidents died on the 4th of July (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and/or James Monroe)?

A) Adams & Jefferson
B) Adams & Monroe
C) Jefferson & Monroe
D) Adams, Jefferson & Monroe

6) Who died first, Adams, Jefferson or Monroe?

A) Adams
B) Jefferson
C) Monroe

7) What were Jefferson’s last words?

A) “God bless America.”
B) “No, doctor, nothing more.”
C) “May God have mercy on America.”

8) Another Founding Father died on the 4th of July. He was known as the penman of our Bill of Rights. Who was he?

A) Fisher Ames
B) William Blount
C) Thomas Fitzsimmons
D) Robert Morris

9) Which of these persons was not born on the 4th of July?

A) Tom Cruise
B) Malia Obama
C) Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips (Abigail Van Buren, aka “Dear Abby”)
D) Neil Simon (playwright)

10) Why do some people insist that the 2nd of July is our true Independence Day?

A) It was the day the resolution was passed in Congress to declare our independence.
B) It was the day we won a major victory against the British.
C) It was the day the peace treaty was signed ending the war.

Searching for the Answers

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Here are the answers to the Fourth of July trivia questions. I came up with many of these questions and answers based on research in old newspapers. An online collection, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is a great way to learn more about our Colonial and Revolutionary ancestors—and the times they lived in. For example, this 1777 newspaper article provides answers to the first four trivia questions.

article about Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia in 1777, Virginia Gazette newspaper article 20 July 1777

Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Virginia), 20 July 1777, page 2

The answer to the fifth trivia question can be found in this 1907 newspaper article.

Three Presidents Died on the Fourth of July, Grand Rapid Press newspaper article 4 July 1907

Grand Rapid Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 4 July 1907, page 3

The Answers

  • Question 1: B. 1777 was the first year that America celebrated its Declaration of Independence with fireworks.
  • Question 2: C. The Hessian band was used to entertain the troops.
  • Question 3: B. Thirteen rockets were shot in honor of the thirteen Colonies.
  • Question 4: D. “The Glorious Fourth of July” was repeated three times.
  • Question 5: D. Presidents Adams and Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of 4 July 1776 (1826) and President Monroe died on 4 July 1831.
  • Question 6: B. Jefferson. Shortly before he died, Adams reportedly said “Thomas Jefferson survives,” but he was mistaken—as Jefferson had passed away earlier that same day.
  • Question 7: B. These are Jefferson’s recorded last words, refusing the laudanum being offered by his doctor.
  • Question 8: A. Fisher Ames (9 April 1758 – 4 July 1808) was a Representative to Congress from the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts.
  • Question 9: A. Although he appeared in the movie Born on the 4th of July, Tom Cruise was actually born on July 3 in 1962.
  • Question 10: A. July 2 was the day that the Declaration of Independence resolution passed Congress. July 4 was the official date printed on the document.

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