The Duel That Rocked the Nation

Imagine a scenario in which, after a series of increasingly nasty tweets, Vice President Mike Pence shot and killed former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. And, for good measure, after killing Geithner, imagine Pence, who was publicly known for having committed the deed, never being prosecuted for the offense. If that seems like a far-fetched scenario, perhaps you have become comfortable with the relatively non-violent version of political affairs in the United States, where the electoral process is considered rancorous and nasty if someone’s feelings get hurt. But, in 1804, the nation, and its approach to resolving political disputes, was a much different place—one where the concept on honor and the need to defend one’s reputation could have deadly consequences, rather than a harshly-worded op-ed in a national newspaper.

Vice President Aaron Burr, who had served with President Thomas Jefferson for more than three years, had a long-running feud with Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. Both men had served in the Continental Army, and developed close relationships with Washington. Burr, who distinguished himself in several battles, reached the rank of Colonel, but eventually resigned his command due to declining health. Hamilton had his first opportunity to lead in combat at Yorktown, but was later appointed a Major General in the Army by President John Adams, during the Quasi-War with France. Each of these proud men fancied himself to be a man of impeccable honor (despite incidents in both of their personal and political lives to the contrary), and both had a very touchy disposition. Their political rivalry eventually turned into a deep personal loathing, with each determined to ruin the other at any cost. Thus, when Burr declared his independent candidacy for the governorship of New York, Hamilton immediately began to work on behalf of his rival. His efforts to undermine Burr included a letter-writing campaign and a willingness to disparage him in public settings. One such incident came to Burr’s attention, and when an account of Hamilton’s remarks was published, Burr demanded Hamilton confirm or deny what had been said. Hamilton refused to do either, claiming that because he could not remember the precise verbiage, he would not offer a new account of his remarks. The letters between Burr and Hamilton, delivered by intermediaries, demonstrate an increasing level of attacks and escalation. For his part, Burr demanded to know precisely which insults Hamilton might have lobbed against him. Hamilton’s responses included the passive-aggressive habit of referring to himself as “General Hamilton” and Burr as “Colonel Burr,” regardless of the fact that each had achieved high political office in civilian life. (Naturally, Hamilton refused to acknowledge that Burr held the second-highest office in the executive branch—even though Burr was in that position at the time of their exchanges.)

Eventually, exasperated by the situation, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, on the grounds that his personal honor had been impugned, and the only way to achieve satisfaction would be delivered by the blood of his rival. Hamilton accepted, as he had no other real choice if he would not retract his insults. But, he publicly vowed that in any duel, he would waste his shot—meaning he would fire his gun away from his opponent, thus satisfying the requirements of honor, but with no intention of killing Burr. Such a public vow would allow Burr to follow suit, meaning both could walk away from the confrontation with honor intact, and without a need to commit murder.

By 1804, most states had outlawed the practice of dueling, in large part because it had claimed a substantial number of the most able military and political leaders of the day. But, the prohibitions notwithstanding, gentlemen of the era were quite familiar with the code duello, a series of rules established to ensure that every duel was fought on an equal basis. The code required that the participants utilize the same weapons, under the same conditions, and that every effort was made to create a fair fight. Of course, it had no way to account for certain aspects of the participants—physical characteristics, dueling experience, acquired skills such as fencing or marksmanship, and the like. For that reason, individuals issuing a challenge to duel were put at somewhat of a disadvantage, lest the most physically gifted utilize dueling as a means to eliminate their intellectual superiors. In general, the challenger forfeit the selection of weapons to his opponent. In one relatively obscure duel, a British officer with a reputation for marksmanship and more than two dozen kills under his belt challenged a shortsighted American ensign over a very minor slight, fully intending to kill him without facing any personal risk. The ensign, who knew he had literally no chance of winning the duel, but felt required by honor to accept the challenge, did so. And then promptly determined that the duel would be fought using shotguns, at three paces. (The British officer withdrew the challenge, and never fought another duel.) Other elements of the duel were negotiated by men serving as “seconds,” each of whom sought to obtain any advantage possible for his combatant. When negotiations failed, the seconds drew lots to determine the questions of the day, akin to a coin flip before a modern sporting event.

On the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr were rowed across the Hudson River to their chosen place, the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey. The rowers helped to clear the undergrowth from the dueling ground, and then withdrew, turning their backs to the affair (and thus not bearing witness to what transpired.) Hamilton’s second, Judge Nathaniel Pendleton, produced a matched pair of dueling pistols from Hamilton’s personal collection. Burr’s second, lawyer William Peter Van Ness, inspected the arms, and chose which one Burr was to employ in the duel. When they cast lots to determine positions, Pendleton won, and selected the northern end of the grounds. After a second cast, Pendleton was selected to give the orders to commence the duel. At that point, the accounts of the duel begin to differ—there is no clear indication of which duelist fired first (both were free to fire as soon as the command was given). What is undeniable is that Hamilton’s shot was well above Burr’s head, while Burr lined up his shot and aimed for Hamilton’s torso. When he fired, the heavy lead ball pierced Hamilton above the hip, pierced several of his organs, and lodged in his spine. Perhaps Burr fired first—in which case, Hamilton’s retaliatory shot might have been intended to kill Burr, but missed on account of the shock of being shot. Or, perhaps Hamilton fired first, but instead of firing into the ground (signaling his intentions) he chose to frighten Burr by firing in his general direction.

Regardless of Hamilton’s intentions, there is no doubt Burr deliberately shot to kill—and although Hamilton survived the initial injury, there was nothing that nineteenth century medicine could hope to do to save his life. He was carried back to New York, to the home of William Bayard Jr. There, he bade farewell to his wife, children, and more than a dozen friends, and died the following day. Burr was initially brought up on charges of murder in both New York and New Jersey—but successfully proving the charges in court proved a much more difficult matter. Because everyone involved in the duel had turned their backs upon the proceedings, there was technically no witness to the fatal shot. Immediately after Hamilton was struck, Burr’s second blocked any view of Burr with a large umbrella, making it impossible for anyone to testify that they were certain Burr had fired upon Hamilton. Surprisingly, Hamilton made no dying declaration regarding Burr’s guilt—and thus missed one last opportunity to destroy his rival.

Of course, Burr did not know for certain how any trial might turn out—and thus, despite being the sitting Vice President of the United States, he fled to Georgia to avoid any prosecution. Eventually, when it became clear that the charges would not be pursued by either state, Burr returned to Washington, where he closed out the duties of his office by presiding over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. His farewell address to the Senate, which he delivered the day after that body acquitted Chase, included a powerful homage to the role of the legislative body. He stated, the Senate “is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here—it is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.” Even his most ardent rivals within the chamber responded to his speech by weeping at his departure.