July 11, 1804, brought the most famous duel in American history and the fatal shooting of one of the nation’s founders.
The duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was the result of longstanding enmity. Politics and personal insults had driven the two men to detest each other. In 1804, when Burr ran for governor of New York, Hamilton attacked his character, denouncing him as an unprincipled adventurer. Burr lost the election and demanded satisfaction of Hamilton. In those times, that meant a duel.
Hamilton felt he could not refuse Burr’s challenge without appearing cowardly. It could not have been an easy decision; Hamilton’s eldest son, Phillip, had been killed in a duel. Hamilton apparently made up his mind to throw away his first shot at Burr, even if it meant death. He was resolved to “live innocent” rather than “die guilty” of shedding another man’s blood.
Early on July 11, the two men faced each other on a dueling ground at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton fired into the air, missing Burr on purpose. Burr leveled his pistol and shot Hamilton in the abdomen, the bullet passing through his enemy’s liver and diaphragm.
Hamilton knew the wound was mortal. His friends ferried him over the Hudson River to New York City, where he died after thirty hours of pain. His death was widely mourned, even by political opponents. He was the only one of the Founding Fathers to die a violent death.
Burr was indicted for murder but not arrested. He fled New York, eventually returning to Washington, D.C., where he finished his term as vice president. The duel brought an end to his political career, and the shooting is still regarded as one of the saddest episodes in American political history.