Thanks, in part, to the blockbuster success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical Hamilton, the lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr have sparked the interest of millions around the world. Their legendary rivalry was born in the bruising world of early American politics and ended on a dueling ground in New Jersey, forever entwining their lives and fates.
Both men were orphans — but were born into very different circumstances
Hamilton was born c. 1755 on the British West Indies island of Nevis. His parents never married, and Hamilton’s father, James, soon abandoned the family, leaving them impoverished. Hamilton’s mother, Rachel, died before Hamilton entered his teens. The precocious, largely self-educated orphan soon impressed his bosses at a local import-export business, who gathered the funds to send their prodigy to the American colonies to further his education in 1772. Hamilton hoped to attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), but was unable to gain admittance, instead enrolling at what is today’s Columbia University.
Had he gone to Princeton, Hamilton would have followed in the recent footsteps of his future rival, Burr. While Hamilton had been born poor, Burr was the scion of a prominent colonial family. His maternal grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, a famed preacher and theologian, and his father, Aaron Burr Sr. was a minister and educator who had founded the College of New Jersey in 1746, 10 years before Aaron Jr.’s birth.
But tragedy struck the Burr household when both of Burr’s parents died before his second birthday. He was raised by wealthy relatives and entered the College of New Jersey aged just 13, graduating in three years. Despite his being orphaned, his wealth, background and social pedigree gave him an enormous advantage over the illegitimate, poor immigrant from the West Indies.
Their rivalry began in the contentious political climate of post-Independence New York.
Both Hamilton and Burr eagerly joined the colonial army during the Revolutionary War. Burr fought in New York and New Jersey, survived the legendary winter encampment at Valley Forge, and served until ill health forced him to resign in 1779. Hamilton spent much of the war as an aide to General George Washington, who had taken the brilliant youngster under his wing, before finding his long-sought fame on the battlefield at Yorktown.
After the war, both Burr and Hamilton settled in New York City, where they established themselves as lawyers (even teaming up on a sensational murder trial) and began their entry into the political world. Hamilton served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and gained fame as one of the co-authors of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays extolling the possibilities of the new U.S. Constitution.
In 1789, Hamilton was chosen as America’s first treasury secretary by newly-inaugurated President Washington. His bold thinking and successes in establishing a new American economy (one built on a strong central government and business-friendly economic policies) earned him plaudits from some, but the enmity of others. While few disputed his brilliance, his ambition, arrogance and willingness to attack his enemies proved dangerous. While he continued to have the support of Washington, he quarreled with both members of his own Federalist Party and those of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, who saw in Hamilton a threat to the states’ rights-focused, agrarian society they envisioned for America.
Meanwhile, Burr was climbing the political ladder, serving in the NY State Assembly and as state attorney general. While Hamilton and Burr had differed over politics before, it was an election in 1791 that fueled the flames of their rivalry. Burr, one of the Democratic-Republican’s rising stars, used his influence with the state’s legislature to win appointment as U.S. senator. His opponent? Hamilton’s father-in-law, incumbent Senator Philip Schuyler, to whom Hamilton was quite close. The Hamilton-Schuylers were outraged.
Hamilton didn't trust Burr's ever-changing political beliefs
Burr unsuccessfully ran for president in 1796, and then again in 1800, this time with Jefferson, who hoped Burr could deliver New York’s crucial votes. Burr outmaneuvered Hamilton, helping to flip the NY state legislature to the Democratic-Republican slate and ensuring their electoral support.
But when the national votes were tallied, Jefferson and Burr were tied, forcing the U.S. House of Representatives to decide the outcome of the election. By this time, Hamilton’s political career was on the decline. He’d left the government and had openly feuded with his fellow Federalist (and sitting president) John Adams, releasing a scathing pamphlet that damaged Adams’ reelection 1800 reelection bid. He’d also been involved in a highly publicized sex scandal, known as the Reynolds Affair (if there was one thing Hamilton and Burr had in common, it was an eye for women, and both men conducted numerous affairs throughout their lives).
Hamilton deeply disliked and mistrusted Jefferson, and the two had repeatedly launched attacks on each other (often through thinly-disguised surrogates). But while he considered Jefferson’s politics unfathomable, he mistrusted Burr even more. Hamilton believed Burr was an unprincipled man, willing to shift his political beliefs to advance his career, an anathema to the politically principled Hamilton. Hamilton threw his support behind Jefferson, who won the vote in the House and became president.
It was another election that was the final straw in the Hamilton-Burr rivalry
Burr’s actions during the campaign had angered Jefferson. Burr was mostly marginalized as vice president, and he was dropped from the ticket when Jefferson ran for reelection in 1804. Burr turned his attention back to New York, entering the race for governor. He suffered an embarrassing defeat by a relatively unknown candidate and placed much of the blame at Hamilton’s feet.
That spring, an upstate newspaper published an excerpt of a letter from a prominent Democratic-Republican politician to Hamilton’s father-in-law, Schuyler, which included a reference to recent remarks in which Hamilton referred to Burr as a “dangerous man,” who couldn’t be trusted. Burr used the accusation to pounce, and over the next several months the two exchanged increasingly heated letters, in which Burr demanded Hamilton recant his accusations, and Hamilton refusing.
According to the well-established culture of the day, which placed a high premium on personal honor, the two men seemed on a collision course for the dueling grounds. While Burr had previously fought in at least one duel, Hamilton had not. But he wasn’t unfamiliar with the process, his quarrels with opponents had led to nearly a dozen duel “challenges” throughout his career (including one near-duel with future President James Monroe, which was adverted thanks, in part, to advice from Burr himself). And Hamilton’s beloved eldest son, Philip, had died in a duel three years earlier, a challenge the teen had taken up to defend his father’s honor.
Burr later went on trial but not for Hamilton’s murder
Although Hamilton had formed moral objections to dueling, following his son's devastating death, Hamilton felt he had little choice. He agreed to meet Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Nobody is certain about what happened on that fateful day, thanks to a decision to have the duelers’ “seconds” turn their backs to maintain plausible deniability about the duel since the practice was technically illegal in both New York and New Jersey.
Two shots were fired. Thanks to his farewell letters to family and friends and his comments to those who ferried his body back to New York, most historians believe Hamilton likely fired his shot into the air, rather than aiming at Burr. Although Burr likely did not want to kill Hamilton, his shot hit Hamilton in the hip, causing a fatal wound. After more than 30 hours in agonizing pain, Hamilton died the next day.
Burr, unaware that Hamilton had “thrown away his shot,” had returned to his home, convinced he had finally received satisfaction for his decades-long dispute with Hamilton. He was shocked by the outpouring of public mourning that followed Hamilton’s death, as tens of thousands turned out to pay their final respects to the brilliant, yet troubled Founding Father.
Burr fled, eventually making his way to South Carolina. Murder charges were brought against him in both New York and New Jersey, but his remaining allies eventually had them squashed. Burr returned to Washington, D.C. to serve out the remainder of his term as vice president (even presiding over a high-profile impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate of a Supreme Court justice).
But his political career was in tatters. Burr traveled throughout the then-frontiers of America down to Mexico. In 1807, he was put on trial for treason, after allegations that he was conspiring with foreign governments to take control of several western states and force their secession from the United States. He was acquitted and fled to Europe in disgrace before eventually returning to America, where he died in 1836.