Events Leading up to the Duel
Aaron Burr is born on February 6 in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Reverend Aaron Burr, is the president of the College of New Jersey, which would later be renamed Princeton. Burr’s maternal grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, was a prominent theologian and philosopher who helped ignite New England’s Great Awakening. By age 3, Burr was an orphan. Raised by his uncle, Timothy Edward Burr, Aaron shows the hallmarks of a brilliant mind from a very early age.
Alexander Hamilton is born on January 11 in Nevis, British West Indies, at the epicenter of the sugar and slave trade. The date of Hamilton's birth, which some historians give as 1755, is still in dispute; Hamilton's parentage is not. He was the son of James Hamilton, an itinerant trader from Scotland, and Rachel Fawcett Lavine, a French woman who was married at the time to another man, merchant John Michael Lavine. Lavine had cast his wife out of his house for her adulterous behavior. She and James Hamilton lived as man and wife until Hamilton abandoned them in 1765.
At the time of Alexander Hamilton's birth, most still considered illegitimacy a stain on one's character. Yet with the help of two men, Nicholas Cruger and Reverend Hugh Knox, Hamilton will rise beyond his station.
Nicholas Cruger, a St. Croix businessman, gives eleven-year-old Alexander Hamilton a job as a clerk in his counting house. The boy proves himself an effective and reliable employee. Cruger was not the only person to recognize Alexander's potential. He collaborated with a minister, the Reverend Hugh Knox, to send young Hamilton to America for an education.
At the tender age of 13, Aaron Burr is accepted for advanced placement as a sophomore at the College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton. His grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, had entered the college at the same age; later Edwards served a brief stint as the institution's president.
Aaron Burr graduates from college. He also inherits 10,000 pounds from his father, a modest sum. Throughout his life, Burr will evince a fondness for the finer things in life. Soon, he will begin a legal career that will enable him to increase his already substantial wealth. For most of his life, Burr will live like a rich man, although he will experience extreme poverty as well. Often, owing to his ability to juggle debts, he will live beyond his means.
Sixteen-year-old Alexander Hamilton enters New York's King's College, which will be renamed Columbia after the war. Hamilton had been rejected by the College of New Jersey, which had just a year before given a diploma to sixteen-year-old Aaron Burr.
Hamilton enters the fray of revolutionary politics, writing "A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress." The pamphlet defends the First Continental Congress' proposal to embargo trade with Great Britain. In the document, Hamilton posits that if the colonies continued to be taxed without representation, they would descend to a condition of slavery. As he writes, Hamilton draws on his intimate knowledge of a number of philosophers, including John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, nineteen-year-old Aaron Burr presents himself to George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Burr asks for a commission, but Washington has none to spare. A disappointed Burr ends up joining Benedict Arnold's expedition north to attack British strongholds in Canada. At the battle of Quebec, at great risk to his own life, Burr will attempt to carry the dead body of General Richard Montgomery from the field. This brave action will hasten Burr's rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Alexander Hamilton raises a company of men and is commissioned as a captain in the Continental Army. Soon, he will prove that his courage extends from the field of public debate to the field of battle. On December 26, Hamilton's artillery company will support Washington's successful attack on Trenton, New Jersey.
In June, Burr receives a post he has long coveted -- he is named to General Washington's staff as military secretary. But he and Washington do not get along and Burr's tenure will be brief. The next year he will take command of a regiment, which will distinguish itself at the battle of Monmouth. In 1779, exhausted and ill from years of extraordinary effort for the Revolutionary cause, Burr will retire.
George Washington promotes Alexander Hamilton to the rank of lieutenant colonel and names him to his staff. A lifelong friendship begins. Hamilton will watch Washington struggle to hold together the underfunded, disorganized Continental Army. He will recognize that the problems that plague the Army -- a lack of central organization and a source of collecting revenue to fund operations -- will have to be solved if a free American nation is to survive.
Aaron Burr meets the woman who will become one of two true loves of his life -- Theodosia Prevost. The widow of a British officer and the mother of 5, she possesses an intellect that leaves Burr transfixed. The two will marry in July, 1782. Theodosia will give birth to four children; only one, named after her mother, will survive. When his wife dies in 1794, young Theodosia will become the most important woman in Burr's life.
Alexander Hamilton marries Elizabeth Schuyler. A daughter of Philip Schuyler, head of a powerful Dutch family from upstate New York, Elizabeth links Hamilton to the political power structure there. Alexander and Elizabeth's marriage will not be perfect. Later, Hamilton will publicly admit to adultery, and his closeness to Elizabeth's sister Angelica will prompt speculation about the nature of their relationship. Historians have not yet conclusively proven or refuted such speculation.
As a New York delegate to the Continental Congress, Alexander Hamilton is already active as a supporter of a strong central government. Above all others, he admires the British system -- even though his nation is currently at war with Britain.
Aaron Burr is admitted to the New York bar. His skill as an attorney is universally admired, and he commands substantial fees. Burr will soon be known for his handsome carriages, well-appointed residences, elegant clothing, and lavish entertaining, although he will live much of his life heavily in debt.
Alexander Hamilton opens a law practice in New York City. Curiously, among the first cases taken by this American revolutionary will be defending Loyalists sued under the Trespass Act for occupying and damaging homes of rebels during the war. Hamilton's powerful defense of Loyalists will help establish principles of due process and ensure the Trespass Act's repeal. These first cases will make Hamilton little money, and make him some enemies as well, but they will establish his reputation as a highly skilled attorney.
Aaron Burr is elected to the New York State Assembly. His tenure will be a relatively uneventful one. During the legislature's brief first session, he seldom attends debates and introduces no legislation. During the second, the Assembly will debate the abolition of slavery. Burr will introduce an unsuccessful amendment to abolish slavery immediately.
Delegates gather in Philadelphia to correct weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. Among them is Alexander Hamilton, one of three delegates from New York. Hamilton is committed to casting aside the Articles completely and crafting a new government, the key feature of which is a strong federal branch. Yet he does not play a large role in the debate over the Constitution or its writing. His proposal for a new government, which includes provisions for a president and senators elected for life and gives little power to the states, has little chance in a nation that has recently cast off a king. Unlike the other two New York delegates, Hamilton will sign the Constitution. Soon, he will rise to its defense.
Writing under the pseudonym "Publius," Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison begin to publish a series of 85 essays urging ratification of the Constitution. Known collectively as "The Federalist," the essays present an eloquent defense of the document. Hamilton will write more than two-thirds of the essays, which appear in newspapers until May, 1788.
Again asked to represent New York in an important matter of government, Hamilton exhibits his persuasive powers. At New York's ratifying convention, the Constitution's opponents overwhelmingly outnumber its supporters. But with his incredible command of logic and his remarkable oratory skills, Hamilton helps to turn the tide. In the end, the document is ratified.
Newly-elected President George Washington appoints Alexander Hamilton his secretary of the Treasury. No man is better prepared for the post than Hamilton, who had been privately working on a plan for funding the new nation since his time on Washington's staff during the war. Hamilton's proposals, which call for the federal government to make good on federal war debts, assume state debts, and set up import tariffs, face opposition in Congress, but are eventually approved. The system probably saves the nation from economic collapse.
Republican Aaron Burr wins a US Senate seat from Federalist Philip Schuyler. Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law, had been elected to represent New York in the US Senate for its first session in 1789. To take the seat, Burr will use the support of the powerful Clinton and Livingston families, who are enemies of Hamilton and Schuyler.
Alexander Hamilton's affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds gets a public airing. In his "History of the United States for the Year 1796," James T. Callender reveals details of Hamilton's infidelity and attempts to link it to a scheme by Reynolds' husband to illegally manipulate federal securities for profit. To clear his name, Hamilton publishes letters he had written to Maria Reynolds. He rightfully proclaims innocence of any illegal schemes and apologizes for the affair. While some undoubtedly admire his candor, Hamilton' s power begins to wane.
Aaron Burr publishes a document written by his political enemy, Alexander Hamilton. This document titled "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States" attacks Adams and his presidency. Hamilton had intended this lambasting of his fellow Federalist for private circulation only. It proved an act of colossal political misjudgment. The document causes an irreparable rift in the Federalist Party -- and increases the enmity between Hamilton and Burr.
Hamilton helps decide the outcome of the deadlocked presidential election. Burr, Jefferson's vice-presidential candidate, used his influence in New York to deliver the state's electoral votes to himself and Jefferson. But either by the manipulations of Burr or by simple accident, Burr and Jefferson tied in the total number of electoral votes. Congress will vote to decide who should be president. Hamilton, like most Federalists, is opposed to Jefferson. But he also deeply distrusts Burr, and Burr has attacked him politically. Burr, hoping to avoid the criticism that would result from a blatant power play, refuses to campaign for himself. Hamilton campaigns against Burr, but his efforts have little impact. Still, Congress votes to make Jefferson president.
George I. Eacker and Alexander Hamilton's son Philip duel at Weehawken. Eacker, a 27-year-old lawyer, had made a speech accusing Alexander Hamilton of being willing to overthrow Thomas Jefferson's presidency by force. On November 20, nineteen-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price confronted Eacker about the speech. After Eacker insulted them, the men challenged Eacker to a duel.
Eacker and Richard Price took the field first at Weehawken, on November 22. They exchanged shots, but no one was injured; according to convention, honor was satisfied. Philip Hamilton stood next against Eacker, on November 23. Hamilton fell to a ball from Eacker's smoothbore dueling pistol. Eacker was uninjured; Philip Hamilton died a day later.
February: His political power dwindling, Alexander Hamilton tries to convince New York Federalists not to support Aaron Burr in the New York governor's race. If Burr gains control of New York, he will gain great power — something that Hamilton deeply fears.
Hamilton's attacks on Burr have little effect on the governor's race. Burr loses the general election to Republican Morgan Lewis by a landslide, largely as a result of slanderous public attacks by George and DeWitt Clinton, the powerful New York Republicans who backed Lewis. Furious over remarks allegedly made by Hamilton during the campaign and anxious to repair his failing career, Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton reluctantly accepts the challenge.
March: Thomas Jefferson names New York Governor George Clinton as his running mate for the 1804 presidential elections. Burr helped provide the New York electoral votes that Jefferson needed to win the presidency in 1800, but Jefferson has effectively driven Burr out of the Republican Party. The slight undoubtedly hurts Burr's chances in the New York governor's race.
July: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr meet to fight a duel. The men have been enemies for years, but in the end, the duel is touched off by a minor slight.
The men meet on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey on the morning of July 11. Each fires a shot from a .56 caliber dueling pistol. Burr is unscathed. Hamilton is mortally wounded, and dies the next day.