The rivalry between Founding Fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton stretched much further than the legendary duel where sitting Vice President Aaron Burr shot and fatally wounded former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.
Both were orphans. Both fought in the American Revolution. And both found political success at an early age. But the two men couldn’t be more different. The confident, cocky and energetic Hamilton rushed through life, while, as immortalized in the award-winning musical Hamilton, the more cautious Burr was “willing to wait for it.”
As Hamilton’s star eclipsed Burr’s, tensions between the two men worsened, almost inevitably leading them to a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804, in what would become the most famous duel in American history.
Whether or not Hamilton did indeed “throw away his shot” is a question that’s puzzled people ever since. In the aftermath of the duel, Alexander Hamilton was lionized for his achievements, while Aaron Burr lived in his foe’s shadow, enmeshed in a series of scandals that ended his once promising career. Burr’s duel with Hamilton forever changed his legacy.
Burr’s lineage meant he was destined for the top of society.
Aaron Burr entered adulthood with a bright future. Like Hamilton, he had been orphaned—both of Burr’s parents died before his second birthday. But unlike the impoverished Hamilton, who worked tirelessly as a clerk, Burr relied on his influential family lineage. Burr’s grandfather was one of the most notable preachers in American history who ushered in an era of religious rival known as the First Great Awakening.
John Sedgwick, author of War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Duel That Stunned a Nation says, “Burr was orphaned, but was as high born a character as you could find. It was John Adams who noted that almost nobody in American life was as much of a shoo-in to the very top as Burr.”
While forming a new government, Burr took progressive positions.
Burr graduated from college at just 16 years old and served as an aide-de-camp to Colonial General Richard Montgomery during the American Revolution, receiving a Congressional commendation for bravery in action.
In the years after the war, Burr worked alongside his fellow founders as they created a government for the new nation. And while Hamilton’s role in that creation is well known, history has often overlooked many of Burr’s contributions, such as his defense of a free press and early abolitionist views.
He fought for electoral representation for average citizens, not just property owners, and defended the rights of immigrants who were under attack from Hamilton’s Federalist Party. Burr was also ahead of his time when it came to women’s rights, extolling the virtues of British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and introducing a New York state assembly bill that would have granted women the right to vote.
Burr’s Election to Senate in 1791 fueled his rivalry with Hamilton, who began to actively work against him.
The more ideologically principled Hamilton grew then more he deeply distrusted Burr, who he saw as an opportunist who would shift his political beliefs and allegiances to advance his career. As Sedgwick says, “There is such a thing as Hamiltonianism, there’s Jeffersonianism. There isn’t Burrism. Burr was not an ideologist. He was a total opportunist, who would go whichever way proved the greatest advantage to him. And to Hamilton, that was absolutely unconscionable.”
The relationship worsened in the swirl of electoral politics when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler in the U.S. Senate race in 1791. Eight years later, Hamilton helped engineer Burr’s defeat in the presidential election of 1800, advising his fellow Federalists to vote for Thomas Jefferson instead of Burr.
Hamilton may have hated Jefferson’s politics, but he distrusted Burr more. Burr became vice president, but when he was dumped from the ticket before the election of 1804, he decided to run for governor of New York. His fellow New Yorker, Hamilton, once again manipulated his defeat, and Burr lost by a large margin.
Fed up with Hamilton attacking his character, Burr demanded an apology.
After his gubernatorial defeat, Burr learned of Hamilton’s remarks about his character and demanded his apology for every slanderous thing ever said about him. Hamilton refused to apologize, and the pair exchanged a series of letters which eventually culminated in arrangements for a duel.
Though the events of the duel are unclear, Burr received the brunt of the blame.
The actual events of the Burr-Hamilton duel have been mired in controversy for more than 200 years. Some historians believe Hamilton never intended to fire at Burr, or to “throw away his shot.” Some believe Burr fully intended to kill Hamilton, others disagree.
What is known, is that Hamilton traveled across the Hudson River to Weehawken early on the morning of July 11. New Jersey was chosen as the location because even though dueling was illegal there, officials were less likely to prosecute duelists than in New York. No one else actually saw the duel, as others present turned their backs to maintain deniability about their involvement and later disagreed over who fired first and when.
What is known is that Burr’s shot mortally wounded Hamilton, who was rowed back to New York and died 36 hours later.
After killing Hamilton, Burr’s career never recovered.
Burr returned to New York City expecting a hero’s welcome for defending his honor. Instead, he faced public outcry for killing Hamilton. Facing potential murder charges, he fled to the South. With the help of his powerful friend, the charges were dropped, and he returned to Washington to finish his term as vice president.
In 1807, he faced treason charges for conspiring to plan the secession of several western states. He fled to Europe, returning to New York after his acquittal. His professional and personal life remained in tatters until his death in 1836.
More than 200 years since duel, Hamilton’s complicated legacy has been positively restored, most notably through the award-winning musical, Hamilton. Also his reputation was, in a large part, helped by the vast amount of writing he left behind, while Burr only left two small volumes. Many of the personal writings that could have saved his reputation were lost in an 1813 shipwreck.
Burr’s political achievements are largely overshadowed by his duel with Hamilton.