Director of Photography
Hamilton portrayed by
Burr portrayed by
Unit Production Manager
Paul N.J. Ottosson
Post Production Sound by
Digital Sound Works
Edited at Rita Scott’s
Keith De Brunner
Annandale on Hudson, New York
The John Jay Homestead
Katonah, New York
American Antiquarian Society
Independence National Historical Park
Prints and Photograph Collection, The Library of Congress
Museum of the City of New York
The New Jersey Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society
Special Thanks to
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Rose Calabrese, Laser Pacific
St. Kitts and Nevis Dept. of Tourism
Mt. Nevis Hotel and Beach Club
Historic Hudson Valley
The Old Dutch Church, Tarrytown
Historical Documents Company, Philadelphia
Executive Producer for
Oregon Public Broadcasting
Executive in Charge for
Oregon Public Broadcasting
THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Lizard Lounge Graphics, Inc.
Series Theme Adaptation
Helen R. Russell
Daphne B. Noyes
Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting
and Red Hill Productions for
The American Experience
©2000 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
The Duel is the story of the conflict between Alexander Hamilton, an architect of the Constitution and designer of American capitalism, and Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States and the first modern politician. Drawing upon the techniques and style of feature filmmaking, The Duel brings to life this compelling, tragic tale from America's earliest years. The Duel is produced by Carl Byker; Linda Hunt narrates.
Born illegitimate in 1757 on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton began working in a trading company as a teenager. His brilliance with numbers caught the attention of a wealthy benefactor, who sent Alexander to America to attend college. During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton caught the eye of General George Washington, who made him a top aide. At Valley Forge, Hamilton saw his fellow soldiers battle cold, hunger, and disease with few provisions. The inability of the Continental Congress to equip the army enraged him. Just twenty-one years old, he began publicly attacking the weak federal government.
Unlike Hamilton, Aaron Burr was very much an insider, born into power and prestige. His father was the second president of The College of New Jersey (later Princeton), while his maternal grandfather was the prominent New England preacher Jonathan Edwards, known for raining hellfire and brimstone down upon his congregations. When the Revolutionary War began, Aaron immediately enlisted and distinguished himself in the battle of Québec.
After the war, both Burr and Hamilton moved to New York City and became lawyers. They worked on many of the same cases and socialized with many of the same people. But they gravitated to opposite sides of the political spectrum: Hamilton supported the party of the wealth and privilege, the Federalists, while Burr turned to the so-called party of the people, the Republicans.
Yet they were quite different. Burr was pragmatic and flexible in his beliefs -- he was never happy with the rigidities of the party system. Suspicious of human nature, Hamilton conceived of a strong central government, an economy based on industry, a strong central banking system, and a world-class military. He began to put some of these ideas into action as the nation's first secretary of the treasury.
Hamilton and Burr clashed for the first time when Burr's charm and savvy stole a seat in the U.S. Senate from Hamilton's father-in-law. It would not be their last clash; for the next twelve years, Hamilton would often attack Burr on grounds of character. "Mr. Burr is bold, enterprising, and intriguing," he wrote, "and I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career." Years later, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr took up positions thirty feet apart, loaded pistols in hand. When the signal was given, they had three seconds to fire.
The two seconds gave different accounts of what happened. According to Hamilton's second, Hamilton had decided that it would be morally wrong to aim at Burr. But according to Burr's second, Hamilton shot at Burr and missed.
Fatally wounded, Hamilton lay on the ground bleeding. He died at 3pm the following day.
Cast & Crew
NARR: Alexander Hamilton was born in 1757 on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis. He was the illegitimate son of a shiftless Scotsman and a Frenchwoman with a questionable reputation.
THOMAS FLEMING, AUTHOR: Hamilton’s mother was a very tempestuous woman. She threw two husbands out of her bed, at one point she was arrested by her first husband and thrown in jail for, as he put it, whoring with everyone, that was the charges that he made out.
NARR: When Hamilton was ten, his father abandoned the family. Four years later, his mother died. Left to fend for himself, he was forced to make a living in an economy based on slavery, which he believed was evil. By the time he was a young man, Alexander Hamilton had formed a dark view of human nature.
And yet for all of the misfortune of his childhood, Hamilton had one advantage: he was a genius. By the age of 15, his remarkable command of mathematics and finance enabled him to rise to head clerk of a shipping company. But his brilliance also made him restless and eager for a chance to seek his fame and fortune. To a friend Hamilton wrote . . .
HAMILTON: To confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is prevalent, so that I loathe the groveling condition of a clerk, to which my fortune condemns me. I may be justly said to build castles in the air. But I would willingly risk my life to exalt my station.
NARR: Hamilton’s first stroke of good fortune came in 1773, when two wealthy patrons sent him to college in America.
His next came three years later when he joined the Continental Army during the revolutionary war. His obvious intelligence and relentless energy brought him to the attention of General George Washignton. Lieutenant Hamilton became one of his top aids.
At Valley Forge, Hamilton saw his fellow soldiers battle cold, hunger and disease. In his eyes, the conditions were the fault of the Continental Congress — a weak, ineffective body whose members were doing a very bad job of running the government.
NARR: The dreadful condition of the army enraged Hamilton. Just 21 years old, he began publicly attacking the Continental Congress.
THOMAS FLEMING: Diplomatic he was not. A lot of people called him the little lion because of his combative streak. He had this big head, and he looked like he would love a fight.
NARR: His anger spurred Hamilton to do what he did best: think. Ideas poured into his mind about how to create a better system of government — one modeled after his own strong, efficient personality.
But the grim time spent at Valley Forge also took its toll on Hamilton, turning his view of human beings even darker.
HAMILTON: My friend, you cannot conceive in how dreadful a situation we are. I hate Congress and I hate the army and I hate the world and I hate myself.
NARR: Unlike Hamilton, Aaron Burr was born into one of the most prestigious families in America. His father, Reverend Aaron Burr, Senior, was the second president of Princeton University. His grandfather, Reverend JOnathan Edwards, was admired throughout New England for his ability to rain hellfire and brimstone down upon his congregations.
EDWARDS: The God that holds you over the pit of hell abhors you and is dreadfully provoked.
Aaron Junior was raised in a society with stern Puritanical views on how to live a moral life. His fellow New Englanders had no doubt about what happened to those who strayed from the Puritan path.
EDWARDS: You that are young men and women have an extraordinary opportunity - but if you neglect it, it will be with you as it is with those that spend away all the precious days of youth in sin! Let everyone fly out of Sodom! Haste and escape for your lives!
NARR: But as he grew older, Aaron Burr rebelled against his strict upbringing.
JOANNE FREEMAN, HISTORIAN: You get the sense with Burr that his background is shaping him because he's reacting against it. And part of the looming force that hovers over his life is religion. Because his family's just immersed in it. They're all reverends. And he clearly shows no interest in that at all.
NARR: While attending Princeton, Burr’s primary interest was in visiting the local taverns and meeting young women. He described one such evening.
BURR: They were drinking Cherry Rum when I entered the room, and I easily perceived that both the Males and the Females had had enough to keep them in high Spirits. The females looked too immensely good-natured to say no to anything.
NARR: When several women claimed to be pregnant after passionate encounters with Burr, he quipped . .
BURR: When a woman does me the honor to name me the father of her child, I shall always be too gallant to decline the honor.
THOMAS FLEMING: Charm is the leading edge of Aaron Burr’s character. He was also immensely attractive to women, and attracted to them, his intrigues as one of his friends said were innumerable. In fact, the friend said that it almost, troubled him, that it didn’t jibe all these innumerable intrigues, with a man who had such an elevated mind.
NARR: When the Revolutionary War began, the charismatic Burr immediately enlisted. Lieutenant Burr’s charm and intelligence made him a highly effective leader. His bravery made him one of the heroes of the battle of Quebec. Many who met him remarked that he had the air of a man who would go far.
NARR: After the war, both Burr and Hamilton moved to New York City and became lawyers. They worked on many of the same cases, socialized with many of the same people and were both very interested in politics. Yet for all their similarities, they had completely different goals.
Aaron Burr wanted to become rich and powerful. For those who criticized this self-centered approach, he had a ready reply.
BURR: Great souls have little use for small morals.
NARR: Above all, Aaron Burr loved a good time. He regularly roamed the woods of New York on vigorous, one-man hunting expeditions. At home, an elegant evening with friends was often waiting.
ARNOLD ROGOW, AUTHOR: If I were attending a dinner party with Aaron Burr, I would expect to be entertained by Burr, I would expect to find him charming, scintillating, witty, to tell all sorts of anecdotes and jokes, to serve at his home the best of wines, possibly music as well. I would expect to have a very good time.
NARR: The one cause that Burr championed was a most unusual one for the day: the rights of women. His interest was kindled by his own highly intelligent wife. Burr confided to her . . .
BURR: It was a knowledge of your mind which first inspired me with a respect for those of your sex.
NARR: Burr made certain that his own daughter, Theodosia, was given all the advantages of any man.
BURR: I yet hope, by her, to convince the world what neither sex appears to believe: that women have souls!
JOANNE FREEMAN: He clearly enjoyed being with women, he was clearly very good at both listening to them, and treating them as though they were actually intelligent beings. And thus he really formed a lot of meaningful relationships with a number of different women. He also really clearly just loved life. He loved adventure, he just clearly enjoyed himself.
NARR: Alexander Hamilton’s goal in life was a lofty one: to make his vision of America a reality. He worked toward it with a relentless, single-minded passion. Those who sided with him became friends for life. Those who opposed him became mortal enemies. With Hamilton, there was no middle ground.
THOMAS FLEMING: Hamilton was a marvelous combination of a lot of personal charm when he wanted to turn it on, but also this combative streak which he could also turn on and become, a really ferocious antagonist. His tendency was to judge people rather harshly, and then act on it.
ARNOLD ROGOW: He was a flawed giant and I emphasize both of those words, because he was unquestionably one of the most brilliant men of his time, and a genius. He had enormous capacity for hard work. But he was severely flawed as a person, as a human being.
NARR: In a letter to his fiancée, Betsy Schuyler, Hamilton admitted that life had taught him to distrust people.
HAMILTON: I am restrained by the experience I have had of human nature. Some of your sex possess every requisite to delight and inspire friendship, but there are too few of this description. Do not however suppose that I entertain an ill opinion of your sex. I have a much worse one of my own.
NARR: It was Hamilton’s belief in the selfishness and greed of mankind that would lead to his greatest accomplishments. To prevent any one person from seizing power, he advocated a government with checks and balances. And he conceived of an economy regulated by the government but still free enough to allow citizens to become rich. It would become the American capitalist system.
In 1787 Hamilton's ideas were embodied in the American Constitution, and Hamilton began putting them into action as the first secretary of the treasury.
Yet even after the Constitution was ratified, America remained a work in progress. There were still intense disagreements among the founding fathers about what kind of country they should shape. And since there were as yet no powerful political parties, each disagreement had the potential to become a personal battle between two strong-willed, ambitious men — men like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It’s really important to understand the politics of this period, to remember the fact that you don’t have institutionalized national political parties at this time, and without parties, without team rules of fighting, politics ends up being very personal, based on character and reputation, and premised largely on the rules of honor, the code of honor. It’s very, very personal and thus very volatile. The personal and the political are mixed in with each other in a really interesting and ultimately dangerous kind of a way.
NARR: Hamilton and Burr clashed for the first time in a battle over a seat in the Senate. As secretary of the treasury, Hamilton was locked in a high stakes battle with senators who opposed his vision for the economy. To win his battle, Hamilton needed allies — and he was desperate for New York to elect his father-in-law to the U.S. Senate.
Then Aaron Burr entered the race.
NARR: Burr was a genius at political strategy. While Hamilton was re-inventing government, he was re-inventing politics: he avoided controversial issues, used his personal charisma to charm voters, and raised large sums of money from businessmen wanting favors. For Burr, politics was another way to acquire the good things in life.
THOMAS FLEMING: He liked good food, he liked beautiful women, and he liked political combat. He said that politics was a great game for fun, honor, and profit.
NARR: In the race for the Senate, Burr used his many political skills to secure the support of Hamilton’s enemies. When the votes were counted, Aaron Burr, not Hamilton’s father-in-law, became the new senator from New York.
Furious with Burr, Hamilton sent letters to a number of senators, attacking a man he considered nothing more than an opportunist.
HAMILTON: I fear Mr. Burr is unprincipled, both as a public and a private man. In fact, I take it he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest and ambition.
NARR: Hamilton’s words were especially harsh because he was convinced that allowing a man like Burr, with so many political skills and so few principles, to rise to power would be extremely dangerous.
JOANNE FREEMAN: This is the core of what really makes Hamilton so crazed, so really frantically panicked at the idea of Burr in office. It’s that Burr is as ambitious as Hamilton is, but there's no restraint. He doesn't appear to be thinking about anything other than what does this opportunity hold? So there’s nothing holding him back.
NARR: Hamilton continued his attacks when Burr became a candidate for vice president, after just two years in the senate.
Mr. Burr is determined, as I conceive, to climb to the highest honors of the state. He is bold, enterprising, and intriguing, and I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.
NARR: Hamilton’s written attacks on Burr’s character were part of a concerted effort to destroy Burr’s career. Such one on one battles were typical of the bitterly personal nature of early American politics. The fighting was so nasty that politicians even published pamphlets and newspapers filled with allegations about the corruption and sexual misconduct of their enemies.
THOMAS FLEMING: The founding fathers thought that character would rise above politics, it would be above faction, it would be the crucial reason why a man was asked to hold a political office. And, unfortunately, as, political parties developed, character took on another context: it became a reason to keep a man out of office, by finding flaws in his character.
NARR: Hamilton not only fired off such attacks, he was a target of them.
THOMAS FLEMING: So they accused Hamilton for instance, of stealing money from the government, they accused him of being a would-be Caesar, or a monarchist, that was the really smear word of the era.
NARR: When a politician was targeted by such attacks, his political survival depended on mounting an effective counterattack.
JOANNE FREEMAN: In essence, there were a number of different political tools. And if your character was attacked, you would select among these different tools; the right audience, the right tone, the right amount of proof that was necessary for you to counteract whatever damage you were afraid was being done. So you might write for the newspapers, a certain audience. You might write a pamphlet, a different audience. You might cane someone in the street, a very different audience. You might undertake some sort of a gossip campaign. Or the ultimate end of the spectrum, you might end up fighting a duel.
NARR: To respond to the frenzy of character assassination, American politicians began turning to the political duel. Many of the great men of the day had their own set of dueling pistols custom made.
These "affairs of honor" had far more to do with playing politics than with actually shooting anyone.
JOANNE FREEMAN: You were not necessarily counting on the fact that you were actually gonna end up with a gun in your hand shooting at someone. You were counting on the fact that you were gonna have a chance to prove that you were willing to die to defend your character! So the code of honor really is being manipulated as a political tool among national politicians in this period, to a really extraordinary degree.
NARR: The more combative a politician, the more likely he was to be involved in duels. And no one was as combative as Alexander Hamilton. He was involved in eleven affairs of honor. One of his early duels was a window into the world of sex, politics and dueling among America’s founding fathers.
The duel was triggered by an adulterous affair of Hamilton’s. Hamilton himself described what happened the first time he went to visit a young woman named Mariah Reynolds..
HAMILTON : I inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shown upstairs. At the head of the stairs she met me and conducted me into the bedroom. After this I had frequent meetings with her.
NARR: When Mrs. Reynolds husband, James, learned that Hamilton was sleeping with his wife, he blackmailed Hamilton. Hamilton paid a huge sum of money to buy his silence - and more visits to his wife.
But then James Reynolds was arrested for using Hamilton’s money in a shady business deal. To prove he wasn’t involved in the shady dealing, Hamilton was forced to publish his own account of the affair.
HAMILTON : The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper monetary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife. This confession is not made without a blush.
JOANNE FREEMAN: He basically argues that, yes he's an adulterer. But that's what he's done as a private man. As a public man in office he's never been dishonest and he's trustworthy. So what he's done should have no bearing on his public career because in public office he's fine. Whatever he does outside of office, well, may be unfortunate, but it has no impact on you, and you can continue trusting me as a public servant.
NARR: But in the1790’s, that argument was not enough to save Hamilton’s reputation. To restore his honor, Hamilton challenged a man who had attacked his character — Virginia Senator James Monroe — to a duel.
JOANNE FREEMAN: A duel was really a sort of game of dare or counter dare. It really was a case in which one man would step forward and say I'm willing to die to defend my name and the other man would have to step forward and say, I will meet you. And that, as a matter of fact, that was a phrase that they would use. Ritualistic phrase. I will meet you as a gentleman.
NARR: For Hamilton, the goal was to make a dramatic public statement in defense of his honor, not to shoot Monroe. In fact, once tempers cooled, the vast majority of affairs of honor were resolved before ever reaching the dueling ground. Such was the case with Hamilton and Monroe.
But while this duel of Hamilton’s turned out to be for show, there was another on the horizon, with a man far more determined to fight.
NARR: Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton’s second clash was triggered by Burr’s strange bid for the White House.
In the election of 1800, Thoms Jefferson was the heavy favorite for president. Jefferson chose Burr to run as his vice president.
But due to the bizarre rules that governed presidential elections at that time, Burr unexpectedly tied Jefferson for president.
The choice between Jefferson and Burr fell to the House of Representatives — controlled by Hamilton’s party called Federalists.
Now, Aaron Burr had to make a very hard decision.
THOMAS FLEMING: The tie of eighteen hundred was the most, fateful moment of Aaron Burr’s life. He had, was faced with a very difficult choice. Should he go to Washington and, politic with the Federalist Party, and, throw Jefferson out of office? Should he deny, any interest whatsoever in becoming president - after all he had received as many votes as Jefferson, from the Electoral College so theoretically or legally he was entitled to be president. So Burr was in a terrifically difficult position - and he made the choice of remaining silent.
NARR: Burr had made his choice. Now Hamilton had to make one. He could either side with the majority of his party, which favored Aaron Burr, or throw his support to Thomas Jefferson, whose belief in a weak national government made him one of Hamilton’s fiercest foes.
But in Hamilton’s eyes, at least Jefferson had integrity.
HAMILTON : There is no doubt but that upon every virtuous and prudent calculation Jefferson is to be preferred. He is by far not so dangerous a man and he has pretensions to character.
NARR: On February 11th, 1801, the first vote between Burr and Jefferson was taken inside the Capitol. The vote was deadlocked and it remained deadlocked through five days and thirty-five ballots.
NARR: Finally, on the 36th ballot, Hamilton’s side prevailed. The House chose Thomas Jefferson, not Aaron Burr, to be the third president of the United States.
NARR: Having lost the election, Aaron Burr had the consolation of being vice president.
But because he had nearly taken the presidency away, Jefferson treated him as a mortal enemy and completely cut him off. Suddenly and surprisingly powerless, Burr spent most of his time at his home outside New York.
"He is an isolated man," one insider wrote, "wholly without influence."
NARR: For Hamilton, too, the years after the election were bitter ones. Though he had supported Jefferson, the two men had very different visions of America. Now Hamilton saw much of what he had worked for swept away.
Worse was to come. In 1802, Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip fought a duel against a man who had insulted his father. Philip was killed.
After his son’s death, Hamilton fell into a deep depression about his life and his adopted country.
HAMILTON: What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.
NARR: For two years, both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr remained in political exile. But then, in 1804, they clashed for a third and final time over Burr’s plan for returning to power.
Burr announced that he was switching parties and was running for governor of New York as a member of Hamilton’s Federalist Party.
Outraged, Hamilton returned to the political fight. He rode across the state, telling any Federalist who would listen that they should vote for the devil himself before they voted for Burr.
Burr lost the Federalist nomination.
Desperate, he ran for governor anyway, as an independent. In response, both the Federalists and the Jeffersonians began printing malicious gossip about Burr.
THOMAS FLEMING: He was hammered, to an unbelievable degree, they smeared him in every way you could think of. On the day that the polls opened, the paper published a list of twenty prostitutes, who said that Aaron Burr was their favorite customer. It was the dirtiest political campaign I think probably in the history of the country in terms of personal political attacks.
NARR: Burr finished last and his reputation was completely destroyed.
THOMAS FLEMING: After Burr lost this unbelievably dirty governorship election, he was a deeply depressed man. We know from his letters to his daughter, that he holed up at his estate, Richmond Hill, and saw nobody, he was isolated.
NARR: To restore his reputation, Burr needed to make a dramatic public stand in defense of his honor. And nothing could be as dramatic as challenging Alexander Hamilton, who had been attacking him for fifteen years, to a duel.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Our image of the duel is that someone says a hasty word, and someone slaps someone else, and instantly they run off to the field of honor. But the fact of the matter is, that they were very deliberately provoked, and very often in this period, they were provoked after elections by either the person who lost the election, or one of his friends as a way of making up for the damage to their reputation in having lost.
NARR: According to the code of honor, Burr could not challenge Hamilton without concrete evidence that Hamilton had attacked his character.
Then a friend gave Burr a newspaper, which contained a letter from a Doctor Cooper. In it, Cooper said that he had heard Hamilton declare Burr ‘to be a dangerous man.’ Cooper went on to say that he could "detail a still more despicable opinion which Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr."
This eyewitness account gave Burr the evidence he needed to confront Hamilton.
BURR: Sir, I send for your perusal a letter signed by Charles. D. Cooper. You must perceive, Sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.
I have the honor to be Your Obedient Servant, Aaron Burr.
JOANNE FREEMAN: When Hamilton receives Burr's letter alarm bells had to go off. Because basically Burr's letter is absolutely the model of the ritualistic first letter you send when your private character has been attacked and you're initiating an affair of honor. So he knows, okay, now we're on the edge of an affair of honor here. And what that means is at that moment, now every word must be considered, now every action must be considered, because now a wrong move means the dueling ground.
NARR: Hamilton was in a difficult spot. He wanted to resolve the affair short of a duel, as he had done in the past. But he could not bring himself to apologize to Burr. He sent a carefully crafted reply.
HAMILTON: Sir - The language of Doctor Cooper affirms that I have expressed some opinion "still more despicable," without however mentioning to whom, when, or where. 'Tis evident, that the phrase "still more despicable" admits of infinite shades, from very light to very dark. How am I to judge of the degree intended?
I trust, on more reflection, you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstance, and must abide the consequences.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Hamilton's letter is essentially lecturing Burr: Number one, this is not how you start and affair of honor. Number two, let's talk about the meaning of the word despicable. So, it sort of seems to equivocate. And then because Hamilton doesn't want to fight, but he doesn't want to seem cowardly, he ends with this sort of a blustering statement that if things don't work out, he's ready to face the consequences. So, he's already said well, if you want a duel, I'm there. So, it's the worst possible letter that he could have written. And Burr is rightfully offended by that letter and writes back a more offensive letter to Hamilton.
BURR: Sir - The common sense of Mankind affixes to the epithet adopted by Dr. Cooper the idea of dishonor. The question is not whether he has used it with grammatical accuracy, but whether you have uttered expressions derogatory to my honor.
Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, then Hamilton is rightfully offended. And in essence, things begin to spiral to the point where both men feel that they can't turn back.
NARR: Hamilton wrote a final letter offering to settle, but adamantly refusing to apologize. Angry and insulted, Burr fired back an ultimatum.
THOMAS FLEMING: Burr became so enraged, that he said to Hamilton, I’m not gonna be satisfied with an apology for this one particular insult. I want a general apology from you. I want you to apologize and say that you’re sorry forever insulting me before anybody in your entire life. This was ultimate humiliation, and Hamilton simply couldn’t swallow it, if he was going to remain a public man.
NARR: With negotiations at an impasse, the code of honor required that Hamilton and Burr meet, as gentlemen, on the dueling ground. Failure by either man to appear would mean public humiliation and political death.
The place chosen was the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River. The date chosen for the duel was July 11th, 1804.
Both men kept the duel secret from their families, but Burr wrote his daughter a letter to be read in case he was killed.
BURR: I am indebted to you, my dearest Theodosia, for a very great portion of the happiness which I have enjoyed in this life. You have completely satisfied all that my heart and affections had hoped or even wished. Adieu. Adieu.
NARR: Hamilton wrote to Eliza, his wife of 25 years and the mother of his six children.
HAMILTON: This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the duel, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone decisive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me. Ever yours AH.
NARR: Early on July 11th, Aaron Burr and his second, William Van Ness, arrived on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson. At that same moment, Alexander Hamilton reached a dock on the New York shore. He brought with him a doctor and his second, Judge Pendleton, who carried the pistols.
At 7a.m. Hamilton’s party reached New Jersey and set out for the woods. In a clearing, Burr was waiting.
Judge Pendleton described what happened next.
JUDGE PENDLETON; When Hamilton arrived at the parties exchanged salutations. The seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces. They cast lots for the choice of position. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others' presence.
NARR: Once Hamilton and Burr had loaded pistols in hand, the rules mandated that they take up positions 20 feet apart. When the signal was given, they had three seconds to fire.
It was at this point that the two seconds gave completely different accounts of Hamilton’s actions. According to Judge Pendleton, Hamilton had made a fateful decision: that it would be morally wrong to shoot at Burr.
JUDGE PENDLETON: He had made up his mind not to fire at Burr, but to fire in the air.
NARR: But according to Burr’s second, William Van Ness, Hamilton showed every sign of intending to shoot his rival.
VAN NESS : While his second was explaining the rules, Hamilton raised and leveled his pistol. He then drew from his pocket a pair of spectacles & observed that he was ready to proceed.
NARR: Van Ness claimed that Hamilton shot at Burr but missed.
NARR: Whatever Hamilton’s actions, both seconds agreed that after Hamilton fired, Burr stood unhurt. Now, Hamilton’s fate was in Burr’s hands.
JUDGE PENDLETON: The fire of Burr took effect, and Hamilton almost instantly fell. Burr then advanced toward Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to be expressive of regret, but without speaking turned about and withdrew. .
NARR: The doctor was not optimistic about Hamilton's condition
DR. HOSACK: His look of death I shall never forget. I observed to Mr. Pendleton, that the only chance of reviving him was to immediately get him upon the water.
NARR: In the hours after the duel, Aaron Burr returned home and, according to his maid, ate a hearty breakfast. Then he sent a note to the doctor to inquire after Hamilton’s health.
NARR: Burr had shot Hamilton in the stomach and the bullet had lodged next to his spine. He lingered 36 hours in excruciating pain, with his family and the doctor at his side.
DR. HOSACK : His mind retained all its usual strength and composure. The great source of his anxiety seemed to be in his sympathy with his half distracted wife and children. He alone could calm the frantic grief of the mother. "Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian" was the expression with which he frequently, with a firm voice, addressed her. His words and the tone in which they were uttered will live forever in my memory.
NARR: Then, at 2 p.m. on July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton died.
NARR: News of Hamilton’s death sparked nationwide outrage. Ironically, shooting Hamilton, which Burr thought would restore his reputation, instead destroyed it forever.
JOANNE FREEMAN: The few instances among these political duels when someone actually is killed, ended up being very bad for the for the person who's done the killing. Instead of appearing to be a noble man defending his honor, he instead appears to be bloodthirsty and somehow vicious. He’s crossed a line.
NARR: Aaron Burr was one of the first duelists charged with murder. To avoid prosecution, he would be forced to flee New York, leaving behind his mansion and all his possessions. In the years to come, he would lead a foolhardy attempt to invade Mexico, be tried for treason, and be forced into exile in Europe. He would never return to the pinnacle of power.
Yet not until he reached old age did Burr admit to having second thoughts about killing Hamilton. Throughout his life, he had kept two books in his library. One, which was written by the philosopher Voltaire, advocated a ruthless response to all insults. The other was the novel "Tristam Shandee" by Lawrence Stern, in which a man is about to kill a fly, but suddenly stops, and, instead, helps it out the window
BURR: If I had read more Stern and less Voltaire, perhaps I would have realized that the world was large enough for both Hamilton and me.
NARR: In 1836, at the age of 80, Aaron Burr died. But his name would live on, forever linked with that of his rival Alexander Hamilton, with whom he fought "The Duel."