Attention is now keenly focused on the presidential election campaign in the United States of America, but over 200 years ago differences of opinion were decided in more traditional ways. On Saturday 11th August 1804, The Times newspaper in London carried the following story:
‘We yesterday received sets of the New York Papers up to the 14th of last month. The intelligence which may be considered of most importance in them respects the death of General Hamilton, who was to have succeeded the present American Ambassador at Paris [Robert Livingston]. He died on the 12th of July, at two in the afternoon, in consequence of a wound received in a duel on the morning of the preceding day. His antagonist was Colonel Burr, who fills the office of Vice-President of the United States. The causes which led to this unhappy catastrophe are not stated in the American newspapers.’
The American newspapers also lacked precise information, though there was a great deal of speculation. On 27th July, more than two weeks after the duel, the Gettysburg Sprig of Liberty newspaper carried various versions of the incident, including this one:
‘The accounts respecting the affair of Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton, esquires, are so contradictory, that we cannot possibly determine which is correct; they all agree however, that Mr. Hamilton was wounded, and died of the wound. But as to the occasion of the duel, not two of them agree: Some say the intrigue at the presidential election – others say, a piece which was published at Albany, and republished at New York, in which it was said Burr was a dangerous man, &c. and it is further said (without reference to either,) that the cause was political.’
Aaron Burr was Vice-President of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton was a former Secretary of the Treasury. Burr had apparently been insulted in a letter written by Dr Charles D. Cooper to Hamilton’s father-in-law. This letter contained defamatory remarks about Burr that had been attributed to Hamilton, but Hamilton would not give a categoric repudiation or apology. He merely pointed out that he was not responsible for Dr Cooper’s interpretation of what had been said. It seems that neither Hamilton nor the offended Burr would back down, and a confrontation was inevitable.
The root of the argument was a long-running rivalry dating back at least four years, to the bitter presidential campaign of 1800. The Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr had defeated the Federalist candidates, meaning that one of them would become President and one Vice-President (this was before the Twelfth Amendment that changed how the President and Vice-President were elected). Because they received an equal number of votes, the contest passed to the House of Representatives. Hamilton was already known for his dislike and distrust of Burr, and he engaged in intense political manoeuvring that ended in Jefferson becoming President and Burr the Vice-President.
The actual duel between Burr and Hamilton took place early on the morning of 11th July 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr was not wounded, but Hamilton was hit by a ball and died the next day.
Immediately after the duel, there were warrants out for Burr’s arrest, and from then on he was a disgraced political leader. He became involved in an attempt to create a separate territory west of the Mississipi, for which he was arrested and charged with treason. He was acquitted and went to live in Europe for a few years, returning in 1812. He died in 1836.
More than two centuries after that duel, another hotly contested race for the Presidency is likely to give rise to the kind of animosity that led Hamilton and Burr to their fatal encounter. However, duelling is illegal in America (as it was in New Jersey in 1804), so the animosity is likely to be expressed as a war of words.