between Alexander Hamilton
and Aaron Burr
took place on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey
. Burr fired his first shot into Hamilton's stomach, giving him a fatal
wound. The duel was inspired by a long history of slander
between the two.
The straw that broke the camel's back for Burr was the incident that happened when he decided to run for Governor of New York with the political party Hamilton had founded, the Federalists. Hamilton encouraged every Federalist not to vote for Burr, so Burr ran as an independent candidate. Burr received very few votes and was disgraced. He intended to challenge Hamilton to a duel to restore his honor, and after a few letters of correspondence, Hamilton agreed. The two agreed to battle on July 11 on the shore of the Hudson River, and according to the rules of the Code Duello, the standard rules for dueling in that day and age.
Duels in this time were hardly ever fatal. Often, duels were simply set up to make it look like each person was risking their life for what they believed in. Beforehand, the duelers would often secretly agree to miss each other on purpose, thus escaping with their lives and a better reputation. Many duels were genuine, however. Even in the genuine duels people were rarely injured. The technology of the pistols of the time was very shoddy. The pistols frequently broke upon firing. Even if they didn't break, the pistols were not very accurate. Also, it was considered dishonorable to aim at one's opponent for more than three seconds; this was essentially based on the tradition that God would assist the person who was right. These reasons made it very likely that neither Burr nor Hamilton would receive a fatal wound that day.
In duels, each dueler would bring a second whose duty was primarily to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Should they fail, seconds would enforce the rules of the engagement. Hamilton's second for the affair was Judge James Pendleton, and Burr's was William van Ness. Hamilton and Burr took their places twenty feet from each other. The seconds later disagreed upon what happened here: Pendleton insisted that Hamilton had decided not to shoot Burr, while van Ness said that Hamilton stood ready to fire. Nevertheless, there is no disagreement over Burr's action: he delivered a perfect shot to his target. Many historians believe that Burr's shot disrupted Hamilton's nervous system and may have caused him to fire wildly. Since the bullets traveled so quickly, this would provide the illusion that the shots were fired simultaneously -- exactly what was observed by the seconds.
Hamilton was victim to one of the most excruciating deaths known to man: slowly dying from a gunshot wound to the stomach. Hamilton died the next day in the company of his family in New York. The original intent of Burr's challenge was to restore his honor, but killing Hamilton further tarnished his reputation. Burr was charged with murder, fled into New York, and was eventually exiled to Europe. Dueling continued to be a common practice until it died out in the middle of the 19th century.