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Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel 216 years ago

Illustration, "Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting b The duel took place in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. (Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund/Public Domain)
July 11, 2020

On July 11, 1804,  Alexander Hamilton and political rival Aaron Burr entered into a duel for which Hamilton was mortally wounded.

Hamilton, who served in the Continental Army during the American war for independence from England, and who was instrumental in the creation and passage of the U.S. Constitution was shot by Burr and died the next day, on July 12, 1804.

Hamilton was born in the Caribbean island of Nevis in either 1755 or 1757. In 1773, Hamilton immigrated to the American colonies, then under English rule. In 1776, Hamilton joined the Continental Army. According to documents collected by Mount Vernon.org, Hamilton earned a reputation for his military service and was eventually recruited by Gen. George Washington himself to serve as an aide.

Washington advertised directly to Hamilton through an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, running an ad that read “Captain Alexander Hamilton, of the New-York company of artillery, by applying to the printer of this paper, may hear of something to his advantage.” Over the course of four years serving Washington, Hamilton was in charge of communications to the Continental Congress, state politicians and other officers in the Continental Army.

In 1782, Hamilton was selected as a New York delegate to Congress under the Articles of Confederation and in 1787, Hamilton was one of the passionate proponents for the formation of the U.S. Constitution. Joining James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton co-authored the Federalist Papers, lobbying states to ratify the newly formed U.S. Constitution.

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Washington became the first U.S. President under the newly formed U.S. Constitution and during his time in office, he appointed Hamilton to serve as the very first Secretary of the Treasury.

Burr, who was born in 1756 in New Jersey also served in the Continental Army during the war and had various run ins with Hamilton and his family throughout his own time in office. In 1790, Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler, an incumbent U.S. Senator for the state of New York. According to History.com, Burr’s defeat of Schuyler is where the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr began.

Hamilton would grow to characterize Burr as a political opportunist and launched public criticism’s of Burr when Burr ran for vice president in 1796 on the Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party ticket. John Adams, the Federalist Party candidate, would go on to win the 1796 election, keeping Jefferson and Burr out of office for the time.

In the 1800 election, Burr sabotaged Adams’ reelection bid by publishing a confidential document written by Hamilton, in which he criticized his fellow Federalist Adams.

The original procedure for presidential elections had the winner of a presidential race being whoever had the most electoral votes on a ticket, which in 1800 Jefferson and Burr shared. The running mates received a tie in electoral votes, leaving uncertainty about who should be elected president.

Having seen his own Federalist Party candidate defeated in the election as a result of Burr’s sabotage, Hamilton lobbied electors deciding the race to vote in favor of Jefferson as the preferable candidate writing that Burr is “a man of extreme and irregular ambition; that he is selfish to a degree which excludes all social affections.” Jefferson was elected as the third U.S. president and Burr was relegated to the position of vice president.

In 1804, during the New York gubernatorial election, The Albany Register published a story claiming Hamilton had insulted burr at a private dinner. Burr lost the election and went on to personally confront Hamilton about the reported slight, during which he challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey.

There are conflicting accounts about the duel between Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton’s “second” in the duel claims Hamilton, questioning the moral cause for the duel, deliberately fired his pistol into the air instead of at Burr. By contrast, Burr’s second claimed Hamilton did fire at Burr but missed. Burr was able to accurately target Hamilton and shoot him in the stomach.

Hamilton died the next day, on July 12.

Following the duel, Burr was charged with murder, but he returned to Washington D.C. to serve out his Vice Presidential term where he avoided prosecution for the killing of Hamilton. Burr was later implicated in a conspiracy in 1807 to seize the Louisiana Territory and create his own independent country. Burr was charged with treason for the incident, but was acquitted. Though never charged, Burr’s reputation had been compromised and he fled to Europe.

Hamilton was memorialized on the ten dollar bill and later in the 2015 Broadway production “Hamilton.”