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The Burr–Hamilton duel was a duel between two prominent American politicians, the former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and sitting Vice President Aaron Burr, on July 11, 1804. At the Heights of Weehawkenmarker in New Jerseymarker Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton. Hamilton was carried to the home of William Bayard on the Manhattanmarker shore, where he died at 2 p.m. the next day.

Background

One of the most famous personal conflicts in American history, the Burr–Hamilton duel arose from a long-standing political and personal rivalry that had developed between both men over a course of several years. Tensions reached a bursting point with Hamilton's journalistic defamation of Burr's character during the 1804 New York gubernatorial race in which Burr was a candidate. Fought at a time when the practice of dueling was being outlawed in the northern United States, the duel had immense political ramifications. Burr, who survived the duel, would be indicted for murder in both New Yorkmarker and New Jerseymarker (though these charges were either later dismissed or resulted in acquittal), and the harsh criticism and animosity directed toward him would bring about an end to his political career and force him into a self-imposed exile. Further, Hamilton's untimely death would fatally weaken the fledgling remnants of the Federalist Party which, following the death of George Washington (1732-1799) five years earlier, was left without a strong leader.

The duel was the final skirmish of a long conflict between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. The conflict began in 1791 when Burr captured a Senate seat from Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law, who would have supported Federalist policies. (Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury at the time.) When the Electoral College deadlocked in the election of 1800, Hamilton's maneuvering in the House of Representatives caused Thomas Jefferson to be named President and Burr Vice President. In 1800, the Aurora published "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States," a document highly critical of Adams, which had actually been authored by Hamilton but intended only for private circulation. Some have claimed that Burr leaked the document, but there is no clear evidence for this, nor that Hamilton held him responsible.

When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York instead. Hamilton campaigned viciously against Burr, who was running as an independent, causing him to lose to Morgan Lewis, a Democratic-Republican endorsed by Hamilton.

Both men had been involved in duels in the past. Hamilton had been a principal in 10 shot-less duels prior to his fatal encounter with Burr, including duels with William Gordon (1779), Aedanus Burke (1790), John Francis Mercer (1792-1793), James Nicholson (1795), James Monroe (1797), and Ebenezer Purdy/George Clinton (1804). He also served as a second to John Laurens in a 1779 duel with General Charles Lee and legal client John Auldjo in a 1787 duel with William Pierce. In addition, Hamilton claimed to have had one previous honor dispute with Burr; Burr claimed there were two.

Additionally, Hamilton's son, Philip, was killed in a November 23, 1801 duel with George I. Eacker initiated after Philip and his friend Richard Price partook in "hooliganish" behavior in Eacker's box at the Park Theatre. This was in response to a speech, critical of Hamilton, that Eacker had made on July 3, 1801. Philip and his friend both challenged Eacker to duels when he called them "damned rascals." After Price's duel (also at Weehawken) resulted in nothing more than four missed shots, Hamilton advised his son to delope, and throw away his fire. However, after both Philip and Eacker stood shotless for a minute after the command "present", Philip leveled his pistol, causing Eacker to fire, mortally wounding Philip and sending his shot awry. This duel is often cited as having a tremendous psychological impact on Hamilton in the context of the Hamilton-Burr duel.

Election of 1800

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton first came into public opposition during the famed election of 1800. In the election, Aaron Burr ran as Vice-President on the Democratic-Republican Party ticket with Thomas Jefferson against John Adams (the incumbent Federalist). Electoral college rules at the time gave each elector two votes for president, with the candidate receiving the second most votes becoming vice president. The Democratic-Republican Party therefore planned to have 72 of their 73 electors vote for both Jefferson and Burr, with the remaining elector voting twice for Jefferson. However, the electors failed to execute this plan, so Burr and Jefferson tied with 73 votes each. As mandated by law in the event of no candidate winning a majority, the election was moved to the United States House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists, many of whom were loath to vote for Jefferson. Hamilton, however, regarded Burr as far more dangerous than Jefferson and used all his influence to ensure Jefferson's election. On the 36th ballot, the House of Representatives gave Jefferson the presidency, with Burr becoming vice president.

Charles Cooper's letter

On April 24, 1804, a vitriolic letter originally sent from Charles D. Cooper to Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law was published in the Albany Register in the context of opposing Burr's candidacy. It claimed to describe "a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr" at a political dinner. In a letter delivered by William P. Van Ness, Burr demanded "a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertion of Dr. Cooper". Hamilton's reply on May 20 indicated that he could not be held responsible for Cooper's interpretation of his words. Burr's reply on May 21, also delivered by Van Ness, stated that "political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum". Hamilton replied that he had "no other answer to give than that which has already been given". This letter was delivered to Nathaniel Pendleton on May 22 but did not reach Burr until May 25. The delay was due to negotiation between Pendleton and Van Ness in which Pendleton submitted the following paper:

The delivery of Hamilton's second letter, a second paper submitted by Pendleton further offered "in relation to any other language or conversation or language of General Hamilton which Colonel Burr will specify, a prompt or frank avowal or denial will be given." This offer was not accepted and a challenge was formally offered by Burr and accepted by Hamilton.

Many subsequent historians have considered the causes of the duel to be flimsy and have thus either characterized Hamilton as "suicidal", Burr as "malicious and murderous," or both.

The duel

In the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed by separate boats from Manhattanmarker and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawkenmarker in New Jerseymarker, a popular dueling ground below the towering cliffs of the Palisadesmarker. Hamilton and Burr agreed to take the duel to Weehawken because dueling had been outlawed in New York (the same site was used for 18 known duels between 1700 and 1845.). In an attempt to prevent the participants from being prosecuted, procedures were implemented to give all witnesses plausible deniability. For example, the pistols were transported to the island in a portmanteau, enabling the rowers (who also stood with their backs to the duelists) to say under oath that they had not seen any pistols.

Burr, William P. Van Ness (his second), Matthew L. Davis, and another (often identified as Samuel Swartwout) plus their rowers reached the site first at half past six, whereupon Burr and Van Ness started to clear the underbrush from the duelling ground. Hamilton, Judge Nathaniel Pendleton (his second), and Dr. David Hosack arrived a few minutes before seven. Lots were cast for the choice of position and which second should start the duel, both of which were won by Hamilton's second who chose the upper edge of the ledge (which faced the city) for Hamilton. However, according to historian and author Joseph Ellis, since Hamilton had been challenged, he had choice of both weapon and position. Under this account, it was Hamilton himself that chose the upstream or north side position.

All first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired; however, Hamilton and Burr's seconds disagreed on the intervening time between the shots. It was common for both principals in a duel to fire a shot at the ground to exemplify courage, and then the duel could come to an end. Hamilton apparently fired first, and into the air, though it is not clear whether this was intentional, much less that Burr perceived him to be "throwing away his fire" (as it did not follow the standard protocol). Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The musket ball ricocheted off Hamilton's second or third false rib—fracturing it—and caused considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm before becoming lodged in his first or second lumbar vertebra. According to Pendleton's account, Hamilton collapsed immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward Hamilton in a speechless manner (which Pendleton deemed to be indicative of regret) before being hustled away behind an umbrella by Van Ness because Hosack and the rowers were already approaching.

It is entirely uncertain which principal fired first, as both seconds' backs were to the duel in accordance with the pre-arranged regulations of the duel (and also so the men could later testify that they "saw no fire"). After much research to determine the actual events of the duel, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Joseph J. Ellis gives his interpretation:
Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first.
But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr's location.
In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge.
Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton's gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear.
According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.


Dr. David Hosack's account

Dr. David Hosack, the physician, wrote his account on August 17, about one month after the duel had taken place. Hosack testified that he had only seen Hamilton and the two seconds disappear "into the wood", heard two shots, and rushed to find a wounded Hamilton when his name was called. Hosack also testified that he had not seen Burr, who had been hidden behind an umbrella by Van Ness, his second. In a letter to William Coleman, Dr. Hosack gives a very clear picture of the events:

Dr. Hosack goes on to say that in a few minutes Hamilton had revived, either from the hartshorn or fresh air. Hosack finishes his letter:

Statement to the press

Pendleton and Van Ness issued a press statement about the events of the duel. The statement printed out the agreed upon dueling rules and events that transpired, that being given the order to present, both participants were free to open fire. After first fire had been given, the opposite's second would count to three and the opponent would fire, or sacrifice his shot. Pendleton and Van Ness disagree as to who fired the first shot, but concur that both men had fired "within a few seconds of each other" (as they must have: neither Pendleton nor Van Ness mention counting down).

In Pendleton's amended version of the statement, he and a friend went to the site of the duel the day after Hamilton's death to discover where Hamilton's shot went. The statement reads:

Hamilton's intentions

In Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr, a letter that Hamilton wrote the night before the duel, Hamilton stated that he was "strongly opposed to the practice of dueling" for both religious and practical reasons and continued to state:

When Burr later learned of this, he responded: "Contemptible, if true."

In addition, after being mortally wounded, Hamilton, upon regaining consciousness told Dr. Hosack that his gun was still loaded and that "Pendleton knows I did not mean to fire at Col. Burr the first time". This is evidence for the theory that Hamilton intended not to fire, honoring his pre-duel pledge, and only fired accidentally upon being hit.

However, 20th century historians have debated to what extent Hamilton's statements and letter represent his true beliefs, and how much of this was a deliberate attempt to ruin Burr once and for all should worse come to worst and Hamilton fall. An example of this may be seen in what some historians have considered to be deliberate attempts to provoke Burr on the dueling ground, specifically that:

In addition, Hamilton had been reported as having severe mood swings, characteristic of a manic-depressive disorder, starting as early as 1800. If Hamilton was indeed manic-depressive, his intentions for dueling with Burr may have been psychologically delusional.

This, along with Hamilton's conspicuous choice of dueling pistols (the same pair which had once shot a button off Aaron Burr's coat some five years earlier during a duel with Hamilton's brother-in-law), has caused many historians in recent years to re-examine the circumstances of the engagement and Hamilton's true intentions on the morning of the 11th of July.

Burr's intentions

Burr was reputed as not being a very good shot, but there is little doubt that he had every intention of seeking full satisfaction from Hamilton by blood. The afternoon after the duel, Burr was quoted as boasting that had his vision not been impaired by the morning mist, he would have shot Hamilton in the heart. According to the account of Jeremy Bentham, who met with Burr in 1808 in England (four years after the fact), Burr claimed to have been certain of his ability to kill Hamilton, and Bentham concluded that Burr was "little better than a murderer."

Towards the end of his life, Burr remarked: "Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me."

There is, however, much evidence in Burr's defense. Had Hamilton apologized for his "despicable opinion of Mr. Burr", all would have been forgotten. However neither principal could avoid the confrontation honorably and thus each was forced into a duel: Burr to regain his honor and Hamilton to sustain his.

Furthermore it should be noted that Burr was unsure of Hamilton's intentions (as historians still are today). Watching Hamilton's shot soar through the air into the brush above his head, Burr could not be sure if Hamilton had thrown his shot or just missed. According to the principles of the code duello Burr was entirely justified in taking aim at Hamilton. Furthermore, it is not even clear that Burr did more than reacting to hearing Hamilton fire, before he had any time to observe where it went.

The pistols

Others have attributed Hamilton's apparent misfire to the hair-triggered design of the Wogdon duelling pistols, both of which survive today. Only Hamilton, familiar with the weapons, would have known about and been able to use the hair-trigger. However, when asked by Pendleton before the duel if he would have the "hair-spring" pistol, Hamilton reportedly replied "not this time." The "hair-spring" pistol provided an advantage because it took less time to fire, being more sensitive to the movement of the trigger finger.

The pistols belonged to Hamilton's brother-in-law, John Barker Church, who was a business partner of both Hamilton and Burr. He purchased the pistols in London in 1797. They had previously been used in a 1799 duel between Church and Burr, in which neither man was injured. In 1801, Hamilton's son, Philip, used them in the duel in which he died. The pistols reposed at Church's estate Belvideremarker until the late 19th century. In 1930 the pistols were sold to the Chase Manhattan Bank, now preserved by JPMorgan Chase & Co. The guns are on display in the Executive Conference center of 277 Park Avenuemarker in Manhattan.

For the United States Bicentennial anniversary in 1976, Chase Manhattan allowed the pistols to be removed and loaned to the U.S. Bicentennial Society of Richmond. When the original pistol was examined, the concealed hair trigger was discovered.

Aftermath

A mortally wounded Hamilton died the following day and was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattanmarker (Hamilton was an Episcopalian). Gouverneur Morris, a political ally of Hamilton's, gave the eulogy at his funeral and established a private fund to support his widow and children.

Burr was charged with murder in New Yorkmarker and New Jerseymarker, but neither charge reached trial. In Bergen County, New Jerseymarker, a grand jury indicted Burr for murder in November 1804, but the New Jersey Supreme Courtmarker quashed the indictment on a motion from Colonel Ogden.

Burr fled to South Carolinamarker, where his daughter lived with her family, but soon returned to Washington, D.C.marker to complete his term of service as Vice President. He presided over the Samuel Chase impeachment trial "with the dignity and impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a devil." Burr's heartfelt farewell speech in March 1805 moved some of his harshest critics in the Senate to tears.
An 1841 map showing the location of a Hamilton Monument.
With his political career apparently over, Burr went west, where he became involved in "filibuster" plans, which some later claimed were intended to establish a new independent empire carved out of the Louisiana territory. However, after General James Wilkinson, who had worked with Burr, backed out of their plans and William Eaton accused Burr to President Jefferson, Burr was charged with treason after being detained in Missouri in the process of recruiting for his coup. He was later acquitted, as the government had a weak case.

Years later, Burr returned to New York Citymarker to practice law and was tried and acquitted for his role in the duel. He died in 1836 in Staten Islandmarker, New Yorkmarker, never having apologized to Hamilton's family.

Monuments

The first memorial to the duel was constructed in 1806 by the Saint Andrew Society, of which Hamilton was formerly a member. A 14 foot marble cenotaphmarker, consisting of an obelisk topped by a flaming urn and a plaque with a quote from Horace surrounded by an iron fence, was constructed approximately where Hamilton was believed to have fallen. Duels continued to be fought at the site and the marble was slowly vandalized and removed for souvenirs, leaving nothing remaining by 1820. The memorial's plaque survived, turning up in a junk store and finding its way to the New York Historical Societymarker in Manhattanmarker, where it still resides.
From 1820 to 1857, the site was marked by two stones with the names Hamilton and Burr placed where they were thought to have stood during the duel. When a road from Hobokenmarker to Fort Leemarker was built through the site in 1858, an inscription on a boulder where a mortally wounded Hamilton was thought to have rested—one of the many pieces of graffiti left by visitors—was all that remained. No primary accounts of the duel confirm the boulder anecdote. In 1870, railroad tracks were built directly through the site, and the boulder was hauled to the top of the Palisades, where it remains today. In 1894, an iron fence was built around the boulder, supplemented by a bust of Hamilton and a plaque. The bust was thrown over the cliff on October 14, 1934 by vandals and the head was never recovered; a new bust was installed on July 12, 1935.

The plaque was stolen by vandals in the 1980s and an abbreviated version of the text was inscribed on the indentation left in the boulder, which remained until the 1990s when a granite pedestal was added in front of the boulder and the bust was moved to the top of the pedestal. New markers were added on July 11, 2004, the 200th anniversary of the duel.

Anti-dueling movement in New York state

In the months and years following the duel, a movement started to end the practice. Eliphalet Nott, the pastor at an Albany church attended by Hamilton's father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, gave a sermon that was soon reprinted, "A Discourse, Delivered in the North Dutch Church, in the City of Albany, Occasioned by the Ever to be Lamented Death of General Alexander Hamilton, July 29, 1804'. In 1806, Lyman Beecher delivered an anti-dueling sermon, later reprinted in 1809 by the Anti-Dueling Association of New York. The covers and some pages of both pamphlets:Image:AntiDuelingPamphletEliphaletNott1804.jpg|1804 Anti-dueling sermon by an acquaintance of Alexander HamiltonImage:EliphaletNottSermonDeathOfAlexanderHamiltonPartialText1809.jpg|Opening text of 1804 sermonImage:TheRemedyForDuelingSermonLymanBeecherPamphlet1809.jpg|Anti-Dueling Association of New York pamphlet, Remedy, 1809Image:AntiDuelingAssocOfNYResolutions1809.jpg|Resolutions, Anti-Dueling Association of N.Y., from Remedy pamphlet, 1809Image:AntiDuellingAssocOfNYAddressToNY1809.jpg|Address to the electorate, from Remedy pamphlet

Notes

References

  • Berg, Al and Sherman, Lauren. 2004. " Pistols at Weehawken." Weehawken Historical Commission.
  • Coleman, William. 1804. A Collection of Facts and Documents, relative to the death of Major-General Alexander Hamilton. New York.
  • Cooke, Syrett and Jean G, eds. 1960. Interview in Weehawken: The Burr-Hamilton Duel as Told in the Original Documents. Middletown, Connecticut.
  • Cooper to Philip Schuyler. April 23, 1804. 26: 246.
  • Cooper, Charles D. April 24, 1804. Albany Register.
  • Demontreux, Willie. 2004. " The Changing Face of the Hamilton Monument." Weehawken Historical Commission.
  • Flagg, Thomas R. 2004. " An Investigation into the Location of the Weehawken Dueling Ground." Weehawken Historical Commission.
  • Flemming, Thomas. 1999. The Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. New York: Perseus Books. ISBN 0-465-01736-3
  • Frazier, Ian. February 16, 2004. " Route 3." The New Yorker.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. 1996. " Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton duel." The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 53 (2): 289-318.
  • Hamilton, Alexander. "Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr," [June 28-July 10], 26: 278.
  • Hamilton, Alexander. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Harold C. Syrett, ed. 27 vols. New York: 1961-1987
  • Lindsay, Merrill. 1976. "Pistols Shed Light on Famed Duel." Smithsonian, VI (November): 94-98.
  • McGrath, Ben. May 31, 2004. " Reënactment: Burr vs. Hamilton." The New Yorker.
  • New-York Evening Post. July 17, 1804. " Funeral Obsequies." From the Collection of the New York Historical Society.
  • Ogden, Thomas H. (1979). "On Projective Identifications," in International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60, 357. Cf. Rogow, A Fatal Friendship, 327, note 29.
  • PBS. 1996. American Experience: The Duel. Documentary transcript.
  • Reid, John. 1898. " Where Hamilton Fell: The Exact Location of the Famous Duelling Ground." Weehawken Historical Commission.
  • Rorabaugh, W.J. 1995. "The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton." Journal of the Early Republic. 15:1-23.
  • Sabine, Lorenzo. Notes on Duels and Duelling. Boston.
  • Van Ness, William P. 1804. A Correct Statement of the Late Melancholy Affair of Honor, Between General Hamilton and Col. Burr. New York.
  • William P. Ness vs. The People. January 1805. Duel papers, William P. Ness papers, New York Historical Society.
  • Wilson, James Grant. 1869. " The Weehawken Dueling Ground." Literature, Science, and Art, 1 (11): 339-340.
  • Winfield, Charles H. 1874. History of the County of Hudson, New Jersey from Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. New York: Kennard and Hay. Chapter 8, " Duels." pp. 200-231.


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