In 1804, dueling wasn’t allowed in New York. Intrepid and determined souls had to cross the Hudson River to New Jersey to carry out their plans and even in the more lenient state, the stakes were high. Precautions, such as the pistols arriving aboard separate boats from their owners, had to be taken to ensure that all participants could plead plausible deniability if questioned. And so goes the story of how in the early morning hours, on a misty Summer’s day, two famed politicians, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, came to the banks of Weehawken with guns pointed at one another.
For over 200 years, historians have questioned what the motives could have been for two highly powerful and politically motivated men to take-up arms against each other and to fire shots that would mortally wound one of them. Hamilton and Burr’s conflicts were famous during their time, for several years the men fought political battles, many personal, but the custom of dueling during this time was for the shots to be “thrown away” or shot into the ground. Instead, Hamilton gave the first shot, over Burr’s shoulder into the trees prompting Burr to fire at his abdomen. On the boat back to New York, Hamilton’s doctor documents a weaken Hamilton as saying “I did not intend to fire at him.”
On the eve of the duel, Hamilton wrote in a statement “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” However, many modern scholars believe that Hamilton may have purposely baited Burr with his upward shot. Hamilton is thought to have been a manic depressive and the his insistence on using the same pistols with which his son three years earlier had been killed in a similar duel is an indication that Hamilton was not mentally stable at the time. Perhaps even, driven by grief, he wanted to die.
It is agreed though that Burr had every intention of obtaining full satisfaction from their encounter. This would prove a dismal mistake for the then sitting Vice President. He was charged with murder in both New Jersey and New York, though the charges were later dropped, and his political career ended. The blood Burr had on his hands was not soon forgotten and after serving his remaining time as Vice President, he fled west where rumors soon started to fly that he was building an empire in Louisiana. Charges of treason were brought against him and he spent the remainder of his days in New York, after finally being tried for the duel, as a lawyer, never apologizing to the Hamilton family.
Miraculously, the pistols which were used are still known and are on public display at:
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