On this date in 1804, former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was shot in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.
Here are some things you may not have known about the duel.
Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies and was orphaned as a child. His intelligence impressed local businessmen, who sent him to what is now Columbia University in New York City. During the American Revolution, he became a senior aide to General George Washington.
Following the war, he was elected to the Confederation Congress, which was the governing body of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to the United States Constitution.
He went on to write 51 of the 85 articles in the Federalist Papers, which was a collection of essays written in favor of the ratification of the Constitution.
Following the ratification, he became the first Secretary of the Treasury and created the monetary system the country uses today, in addition to founding what came to be known as the U.S. Coast Guard.
He also served as a top adviser to President George Washington, including on matters not pertaining to the treasury. He left his post at Treasury in 1795.
Hamilton was the founder of the first political party, the Federalists. The Federalists stood for a strong national government, centralized banking system, good relations with Great Britain, and against the French Revolution.
They were opposed by the Democratic-Republican Party, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The party stood for states’ rights and the importance of farmers.
The election to succeed Washington as president was between Jefferson and John Adams. Also running were Thomas Pinkney of the Federalists, and Aaron Burr of the Democratic-Republicans.
At the time, the person who received the most votes from the electoral college was elected president and the person with the second most votes was elected vice president. This means that the person chosen as vice president was forced to run for president, meaning that each party ran two candidates.
Adams was the Federalists’ intended presidential candidate and Pinkney was to be his running mate. Jefferson was at the top of the Democratic-Republican ticket with Burr running for vice president.
Hamilton and Adams didn’t care much for each other, despite both being Federalists. Hamilton worked to undermine Adams by having Pinkney receive more votes and win the presidency with Adams as his vice president. However, his fellow Federalists found out about his plan and northern federalists voted for Adams but not Pinkney, which put Jefferson into office as Adams’ vice president.
Adams held over the members of Washington’s cabinet, until firing them in 1800 after discovering they were obeying Hamilton and not the president.
In the 1800 election, Hamilton again tried to have Adams defeated by another Federalist. This time, however, it led to Democratic-Republicans Jefferson and Burr tying for the highest vote total.
Because the two men were tied, the House of Representatives had to pick which would be president. For the first 35 ballots, Jefferson was denied a majority, until Hamilton threw his support behind Jefferson. Hamilton, who didn’t like Jefferson, viewed him as the lesser of two evils. Burr had defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1791, and Hamilton referred to Burr as a “mischievous enemy” to the past administration. Some thought Hamilton’s true desire was to prevent his own party from making deals with a relatively moderate Burr.
The entire episode destroyed Hamilton’s credibility with his own Federalists and led to the party’s downfall.
Jefferson would come to view Burr as a political threat as well and dropped him from the ticket for the 1804 election. Burr, instead decided to run for governor of New York.
Hamilton, never one to let time heal all wounds, worked to help defeat Burr, including offering “a still more despicable opinion” of Burr at an upstate dinner party. Burr, still stinging from the defeat in the April gubernatorial race, demanded an apology in writing from Hamilton. Hamilton said he didn’t remember insulting Burr and, therefore, was not able to apologize. On June 27, 1804, through go-betweens, the men agreed to a duel.
The night before the duel, Hamilton wrote out his reasons for participating. He said viewed his role as a husband and father as reasons not to duel, but could not apologize for statements that he couldn’t recall making. He said he intended to intentionally miss his shot, which Burr would then reciprocate.
At dawn on the morning of July 11, 1804, the men and their seconds, friends chosen to advocate for each man during the duel, arrived on the west bank of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. The two men took their places, and fired almost simultaneously. Hamilton’s shot sailing far above Burr’s head and hitting a tree branch; Burr’s shot hitting Hamilton in the lower abdomen. The bullet hit ricocheted off one of Hamilton’s false ribs, which then tore through his liver and diaphragm, before booming lodged in his lower back.
Hamilton was paralyzed. He was brought back to a friend’s home in Greenwich Village, where he died the next day at the age of 47.
There is no firm evidence as to which man shot first, but historians seem to agree that Burr had no intention of missing Hamilton. After the duel, Burr was quoted as saying that had his vision not been affected by the morning mist, he would have shot Hamilton in the heart.
Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but the case never went to trial. He served out the remainder of his term as vice president. He was later arrested and tried for treason as part of a plot to create a new country in the Louisiana territory, but he was acquitted of all charges. He returned to New York in 1812 and lived the rest of his life in obscurity. He died in 1836 at the age of 80.
Hamilton’s life story has been turned into one of the most popular Broadway musicals of the last decade, by writer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Our question: Who directed the famous 1990s “Got Milk” television commercial that featured the Hamilton-Burr duel?
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