Deadly Duel: Vice President Aaron Burr Mortally Wounds 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. 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.

Portrait: Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull, 1806
Portrait: Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull, 1806. Credit: Washington University Law School; Wikimedia Commons.

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 much 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.

Portrait: Aaron Burr, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1793
Portrait: Aaron Burr, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1793. Credit: New Jersey Historical Society; Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Photo: the Wogdon pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel
Photo: the Wogdon pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel. Credit: Chase Manhattan Archives, New York; Wikipedia.

There were only two witnesses to the encounter, and they both turned their backs so that they could honestly say they saw no guns fired, and therefore not be implicated in the duel. 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 tore apart Hamilton’s internal organs and smashed into his spine, paralyzing him and leaving little doubt the wound was mortal. After much suffering, he died the next day.

The following four newspaper articles report on the Burr-Hamilton duel, and show how Hamilton was held in high esteem.

An article about the Hamilton-Burr duel, United States’ Gazette newspaper article 12 July 1804
United States’ Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 July 1804, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

Distressing Intelligence

The afflicting intelligence of the death of General Hamilton, in a duel with Col. Burr, is unhappily so confirmed by letters from New York, as to leave no room to hope that the fatal catastrophe has not happened. The following are extracts from letters which we have seen.

New York, July 11th, 1804.

General Hamilton was this morning mortally wounded in a duel with Col. Burr. What the particular cause of this very unfortunate affair was, has not yet transpired. Poor Hamilton received the ball in his groin. About an hour after, he was supposed dying, and no doubt by this time he is no more.

P.S. I have just heard that Hamilton is dead.

New York, July 11.

Gen. Hamilton is mortally wounded. It is at this moment reported at the coffeehouse, that he is really dead. Col. Burr and the general fought a duel this morning in consequence, it is said, of a political dispute. Gen. Hamilton was wounded in the stomach of which, it is said, he has died. They fought at Hoboken, New Jersey. He was brought over to Mr. Bayard’s country seat two or three miles from town. N. Pendleton, Esq. was, it is said, second to General H. and W. P. Van Ness, Esq. second to Col. Burr. It is a melancholy circumstance that the general should fall on the same ground on which his son was killed a short time since.

P.S. General Hamilton is no more! His death is confirmed!

New York, Wednesday morning.

This morning a duel was fought between Mr. A. Burr and General Hamilton, in which the general was shot through the body. His recovery is uncertain. It is whispered that he is dead.

Wednesday 11 o’clock.

An event has occurred this morning to be deplored by every friend to the true interest of this country. General Hamilton was shot in a duel with Col. Burr. The ball penetrated the right breast. He is lying at Mr. Bayard’s about two miles from town, and his surgeon entertains but feeble hopes of his recovery. My information is from the fountainhead. Never did I witness so general a sensation of sorrow as pervades our city. Every countenance you meet is clouded with grief.

An obituary for Alexander Hamilton, Columbian Courier newspaper article 13 July 1804
Columbian Courier (New Bedford, Massachusetts), 13 July 1804, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

July 13.

Died, yesterday afternoon: General Alexander Hamilton, of a wound which he received on the morning of the preceding day, in a duel with Col. Burr. Never was a death more sincerely and justly lamented; and his loss will be sensibly felt throughout the United States. In him were united the most splendid talents and the strictest political integrity. There was no man more universally beloved by those who knew him, and in whom such unbounded confidence was placed. The circumstances which occasioned the melancholy event of his death, and deprived this country of its first citizen, will no doubt be fairly and fully stated; the public voice demands it.

July 14.

This day the remains of the illustrious General Hamilton will be interred with every mark of respect which affection and esteem can suggest. On account of the mournful offices of the day there will be a general suspension of business through the city. Yesterday the vessels in the harbor wore their colors half-mast high; the French frigates did so also, and fired half-hour guns during the day.

The Committee of Arrangements, appointed at the meeting, at the Tontine Coffee-House, on the 12th instant, in conformity to the sense of the meeting expressed on that occasion, request their fellow citizens in general to wear crape on the left arm for thirty days, as a testimony of their regard for the integrity, virtues and patriotism of General Alexander Hamilton.

An article about the death of Alexander Hamilton, Columbian Courier newspaper article 13 July 1804
Columbian Courier (New Bedford, Massachusetts), 13 July 1804, page 3

Here is a transcription of this article:

On the subject of the distressing event of General Hamilton’s death, the following letter has been received from the Right Rev. Bishop Moore:

Thursday evening, July 12, 1804.

The public mind being extremely agitated by the melancholy fate of that great man, Alexander Hamilton, I have thought it would be grateful to my fellow citizens, would provide against misrepresentation, and, perhaps, be conducive to the advancement of the cause of Religion, were I to give a narrative of some facts which have fallen under my own observation, during the time which elapsed between the fatal duel and his departure out of this world.

Yesterday morning, immediately after he was brought from Hoboken to the house of Mr. Bayard, at Greenwich, a message was sent informing me of the sad event, accompanied by a request from General Hamilton, that I would come to him for the purpose of administering the Holy Communion. I went; but being desirous to afford time for serious reflection, and conceiving that under existing circumstances, it would be right and proper to avoid every appearance of precipitancy in performing one of the most solemn offices of our religion, I did not then comply with his desire. At one o’clock I was again called on to visit him. Upon my entering the room and approaching his bed, with the utmost calmness and composure he said, “My dear Sir, you perceive my unfortunate situation, and no doubt have been made acquainted with the circumstances which led to it. It is my desire to receive the Communion at your hands; I hope you will not conceive there is any impropriety in my request.” He added, “It has for some time past been the wish of my heart, and it was my intention to take an early opportunity of uniting myself to the church, by the reception of that holy ordinance.” I observed to him, that he must be very sensible of the delicate and trying situation in which I was then placed; that however desirous I might be to afford consolation to a fellow mortal in distress, still, it was my duty, as a minister of the Gospel, to hold up the law of God as paramount to all other law; and that, therefore, under the influence of such sentiments, I must unequivocally condemn the practice which had brought him to his present unhappy condition. He acknowledged the propriety of these sentiments, and declared that he viewed the late transaction with sorrow and contrition. I then asked him, “Should it please God to restore you to health, Sir, will you never be again engaged in a similar transaction? And will you employ all your influence in society to discountenance this barbarous custom?” His answer was, “That, Sir, is my deliberate intention.”

I proceeded to converse with him on the subject of his receiving the Communion; and told him that with respect to the qualifications of those who wished to become partakers of that holy ordinance, my inquiries could not be made in language more expressive than that which is used by our Church: “Do you sincerely repent of your sins past? Have you a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of the death of Christ? And are you disposed to live in love and charity with all men?” He lifted up his hands and said, “With the utmost sincerity of heart I can answer those questions in the affirmative – I have no ill will against Col. Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm – I forgive all that happened.” I then observed to him, that the terrors of the divine law were to be announced to the obdurate and impenitent; but that the consolations of the Gospel were to be offered to the humble and contrite heart; that I had no reason to doubt his sincerity, and would proceed immediately to gratify his wishes. The Communion was then administered, which he received with great devotion, and his heart afterwards appeared to be perfectly at rest. I saw him again this morning, when with his last faltering words he expressed a strong confidence in the mercy of God through the intercession of the Redeemer. I remained with him until 2 o’clock this afternoon, when death closed the awful scene – he expired without a struggle, and almost without a groan.

By reflecting on this melancholy event, let the humble believer be encouraged ever to hold fast that precious faith which is the only source of true consolation in the last extremity of nature. Let the Infidel be persuaded to abandon his opposition to the Gospel which the strong, inquisitive, and comprehensive mind of a Hamilton embraced, in his last moments, as the truth from Heaven. Let those who are disposed to justify the practice of dueling be induced, by this simple narrative, to view with abhorrence that custom which has occasioned an irreparable loss to a worthy and most afflicted family; which has deprived his friends of a beloved companion, his profession of one of its brightest ornaments, and his country of a great statesman and a real patriot.

An article about the Hamilton-Burr duel, Democrat newspaper article 18 July 1804
Democrat (Boston, Massachusetts), 18 July 1804, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

The duel which has lately taken place at New York, between Col. Burr and Gen. Hamilton, and which terminated in the death of the latter, appears to be one of those wonderful events which Providence permits to take place, to answer a design, perhaps, which is quite beyond the power of short-sighted mortals to fathom. While every friend to the prosperity and happiness of our country must deplore the cause which should induce men so far to infringe the duties they owed their families and their country, as to violate the sacred mandate of God, which expressly declares “thou shalt not kill”; yet circumstances intermingle in this affair, which induce a hope that consequences, ultimately beneficial, may arise from it.

It is a remarkable circumstance, that the general should fall on the same ground on which his son was killed a short time since.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Have you found any stories about your ancestors from the early days of the United States? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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