“THIS IS A MORTAL WOUND, DOCTOR”(Alexander Hamilton)
At 7:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, several men strode into a clearing in the woods on the high palisades, called Weehawken, which overlook Manhattan Island. Two men were there to defend their honor. These two exchanged salutations. They cast lots to determine a choice of position; then loaded their pistols within each other’s gaze. The duelist’s seconds tried to settle the matter amicably, which protocol demanded, but without success. The men faced each other at a distance of ten full paces. Each duelist is asked if he was ready. “Present!” was the reply by both. Each man fired in succession. The first man fired his weapon but hit nothing. The second fired and the other dropped to the ground.
It was July 11, 1804, and the two combatants were Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton; two important founding fathers of America. Aaron Burr, 48, was the sitting Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson; Alexander Hamilton, 47, was the former Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.
Their relationship had been fueled by political rivalry and personal animosity for the prior dozen years. Hamilton was a Federalist, Burr was a Republican, and their philosophies could not have been more different. In 1791, Burr successfully won the U.S. Senate seat for New York from Hamilton’s father-in-law. Burr gloated while Hamilton bristled.
By 1800, Alexander Hamilton was an influential presence in the administration of John Adams (also a Federalist). But Hamilton cared little for Adams, and he put his criticisms of Adams into writing. Burr got a hold of Hamilton’s essay, intended to be kept private, and published it causing a rift between Adams and Hamilton which never mended. In that year’s presidential election, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in the balloting so Congress had to vote to break the tie. Hamilton lobbied Congress to decide the election in Jefferson’s favor, which it did (after 36 ballots). Aaron Burr became Vice President. Hamilton gloated while Burr bristled.
Four years later, it became clear to Burr that Jefferson might not ask him to run on the party’s ticket. So, Burr decided to seek the governorship of New York which horrified Hamilton, a New Yorker. Hamilton despised Burr and worked hard to see him defeated. Burr was crushed in the general election. Again Hamilton gloated. During that campaign, Hamilton had made numerous derogatory remarks about Burr’s character at a dinner party. Word got out. Hoping that a victory in the duel might revive his political career, Aaron Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel of honor. Hamilton wanted to avoid the duel but he had little choice. If he apologized for his statements about Burr, he would lose his honor. If he refused to apologize, he would lose his honor.
On that fateful morning in July, the two met. Before the duel, Hamilton told his seconds that he would “throw away his shot,” meaning he would intentionally miss his target, which was historically a way for two men to retain their honor and their lives. But Hamilton fired into the air instead of into the ground as is usually done. This gave Burr justification to aim and shoot Hamilton. The bullet struck him in the abdomen and lodged near his spine, doing damage to his internal organs. As the attending physician rushed to aid him, Hamilton said, “This is a mortal wound, doctor,” which it was. To everyone, he appeared lifeless. His respiration was not perceptible. Aaron Burr and his seconds disappeared into the trees. Hamilton’s people moved him to a waiting barge and crossed the river to Manhattan. When they were about fifty yards from shore, Alexander Hamilton began to breathe and sigh once more. The men carried him to his house. He lingered until the next day, then died.
The next day, Burr said that Hamilton had in fact tried to shoot him, and that there was no “throwing away” of his shot. Aaron Burr was charged with murder in New Jersey and New York, but he fled to South Carolina and no trial was ever initiated. He later returned to Washington to finish his term as Vice President. The death of Alexander Hamilton ended Burr’s political career. Jefferson dropped him from the ticket for the 1804 election. Burr never held office again. Aaron Burr lived another 32 years. Alexander Hamilton died the day after he met Burr for the last time.