Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president, and Alexander Hamilton, the first United States secretary of the treasury and the face on today’s 10-dollar bill, weren’t fond of each other, to put it mildly. Both men were lawyers and veterans of the American Revolution (1775-1783), and both were exceedingly stubborn and proud. But the pair’s political rivalry had long before morphed into personal enmity.
Hamilton, for his part, had never been one to shrink from confrontation. At the age of 12, he became an orphan on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and his rough childhood shaped his combative nature. A charmer with a quick wit with a sharp tongue, he was always ready to defend his views and skewer his enemies. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were frequent targets of Hamilton’s barbs. In private correspondence, Hamilton occasionally took pains to portray his opposition as political and not personal in nature. But his behavior suggested otherwise, especially when it came to Aaron Burr.
Burr and Hamilton had known each other for decades, and they’d been rivals from the start. As young officers, they had served under General George Washington. Hamilton won Washington’s admiration and rose to become the general’s secretary and assistant. Washington passed over Burr for a promotion after it became known that Burr had been reading Washington’s private correspondence.
Politically, Burr—a Democratic-Republican—was at odds with the Federalist Hamilton. Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyer, in a 1791 election for the U.S. Senate. In 1800, Hamilton maneuvered to ensure Jefferson’s victory over Burr in a run-off election for president of the United States.
In the spring of 1804, a newspaper printed that Hamilton had spoken some unkind words about Burr’s character and integrity. About the same time, Hamilton had worked to bring about Burr’s defeat in an April election for New York governor. Burr had had enough. After Hamilton refused to apologize, Burr challenged his rival to a duel.
On July 11, 1804, the men faced each other with pistols in Weehawken, New Jersey. The pair chose the site because New York had outlawed dueling. Hamilton shot first, missing Burr—possibly on purpose. But Burr fatally wounded Hamilton with one shot. Hamilton died the next day.
The night before their encounter, Hamilton had recorded his thoughts on the duel and his feelings about Burr:
It is also my ardent wish that I may have been more mistaken than I think I have been, and that he by his future conduct may shew himself worthy of all confidence and esteem, and prove an ornament and blessing to his Country.
Alas, Hamilton’s own efforts had already succeeded in muting Burr’s political power, and Jefferson had made it clear that Burr would not serve another term as his vice president. Burr was indicted for murder for his role in the duel, but he was never arrested.
After his vice presidency, Burr engaged in a number of questionable activities—chief among them a plot to invade Mexico and possibly detach part of the southwestern frontier from the United States to make a new nation. For this plan, Burr was tried for treason in 1807. He was found innocent of the charges, but he later went to Europe and tried to arouse support for the Mexican scheme. Burr eventually returned to the United States and prospered as a lawyer in New York City.