As political rivals, Hamilton and Burr began a bitter exchange of insults, leading to a duel in 1804 that resulted in Hamilton's death. Learn about the ideas that drove Hamilton and Burr to violence in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.
Duel Between Burr And Hamilton, 1870s Engraving. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
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Candace: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Editor Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor Katie Lambert.
Katie: Hey, Candace.
Candace: Hey there, Katie.
Katie: Today we are going to take a reader's suggestion from Alan, who wrote to Candace to say, "I know you really like Thomas Jefferson, but read an article in American History about him versus Hamilton on banking. It stated essentially that our current economic woes can be attributed to Jefferson's opposition and Jackson's later support for that position. I would enjoy hearing a podcast on Hamilton versus Jefferson and the national bank issue." We'll do a little bit on Hamilton, although not necessarily the national banking issue because today I think we're going to focus more on his duel with Aaron Burr.
Candace: And part of the story leading up to the duel is who Alexander Hamilton was as a person. And so we will touch on his points of view, we should call them, on the national treasury because they made him quite unpopular and eventually lead to his demise.
Katie: And according to Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson's followers believed that Hamilton was, and I quote, they demonized him as a "slavish pawn of the British crown", a "closet monarchist", a "Machiavellian intriguer", a "would be Caesar".
Candace: And these assessments are really unfair actually. Jefferson and Hamilton were horrible political opponents. They ran smear campaigns in newspapers against each other after they'd hired journalists to deliberately cast character aspersions on the other. At one point, this gossip war back and forth culminated in one printing that the other one had died. And because news didn't travel that fast, it took a little while to get the word out that no, there was no death. I mean, it was just nasty between the two of them. And this is all rooted in the argument between Federalist and Republican, something that both Jefferson and Hamilton felt very strongly about, their national identities. So to begin with the beginning, really, Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 on Nevis, which is a Caribbean Island famous for being the place where Alexander Hamilton was born.
Katie: And not all that much else. And his birth was illegitimate, which is something he called humiliating in his later years. And his beginnings were very much shrouded in a bit of mystery. He was really ashamed that that was his birth.
Candace: When he was 10-years old, his family moved to St. Croix. And shortly thereafter, his father left and then his mother died. And then he went to live with a first cousin who killed himself.
Katie: I know it's not funny, but it's just a string of catastrophes.
Candace: It was. And I was watching the PBS American Experience documentary about Hamilton and the historians kept likening him to a tragic Greek figure, which is true. I mean, he really was. Here's a man who wants nothing but honor and everything keeps standing in his way to keep him from attaining that position that he's read about in all the great Greek works. He's read all the Great Statesman and he wants nothing more than to be esteemed alongside them. But he has no family name to speak of. He has no money. He has no education.
Katie: His aunt, uncle and grandmother died also in short succession. And I mean, seriously, talk about humble beginnings. There was really nowhere to go from here. And he was only 16 by the time that all of these things happened. And after his cousin died and everyone else died, he was apprenticed to a mercantile house as a clerk in this import/export business. And that's where things get a little more scandalous because the rich head of the company, Thomas Stephens, took him in and was more than kind to him. And people began to notice how much he looked like Thomas's son, Edward Stephens, so much so that they were nearly twins. And the rumor became that Thomas Stephens was actually his real father and not the father who disappeared and left him and his mother behind.
Candace: But despite any scandal that may have resulted from a semblance to this man, he established a name for himself in his position as a clerk because he learned the exchange rates, he learned how to conduct trade and how to make fair appraisals of imports and exports. And he actually had a period of time in which he took over the business and he essentially saved it from ruin because he -
Katie: He was very ambitious.
Candace: He was, he was. And in his position, where he was watching the slaves on the island engage in the sugar cane trade and being beaten down sometimes in the fields by their masters, he became determined that he would fight against this type of treatment of humans. He didn't think it was right that people would be oppressed if they were working hard. He thought that hard work could save anyone from any station that they were born in to. And in fact, he said, "I would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station."
Katie: And he did exalt his station actually. In 1772, he wrote a letter about a devastating hurricane that had hit the islands and it was published in the Royal Danish American Gazette. And it was so gripping and so well written that a lot of people took notice. And a group of businessmen actually go together some money and sent him to the United States to be educated. So here's our first big step from the little island that no one had ever heard of to the United States.
Candace: Exactly. So he enrolls at Kings College in New York at 18-years old. And this is when the American Revolution starts brewing. And you must remember, he's a foreigner essentially, coming to the United States, but very quickly he allowed himself to be swept up in this revolutionary spirit. And while he maintained that for trade purposes and for commerce and the colonies' ability to be an active part of world politics, they would need to maintain some sort of alliance with England. He changed his feelings just a little bit and eventually ended up joining an artillery unit and fighting against the British soldiers.
Katie: And Kings College was very much a place of British Orthodoxy. People there were much more aligned to Britain. And Hamilton had - an idea that was common at the time was that the colonists owed loyalty to the English king, but not to Parliament. So that was sort of the line that he was straddling at the time. And he did hope that peace could be accomplished with England and maybe we could have some sort of a limited monarchy. But he did become rather radicalized when he headed up that artillery company. And he was very young, I believe, for that kind of a post.
Candace: And he liked the idea of being able to finally put into action the sentiments that he'd been expressing with his pen. And he got noticed by George Washington pretty early on because he was so ambitious and such a fervent organizer of people and tasks and ideas. And once Washington drew him in, he became a part of Washington's little coterie and Washington very much relied upon Hamilton to do correspondence for him. And historians note that when you read General Washington's correspondence and his letters and some of the great things he's noted to have said, a lot of that is coming from Hamilton as the ghost writer. And this was a very special bond and relationship, almost like father/son, that would continue to save Hamilton throughout this career.
Katie: I think Washington promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel and he made him his aide to camp. And he was very involved in Washington's little group until I believe they had a falling out around 1781 when Washington said that Hamilton was disrespectful toward him and Hamilton resigned and then came back after Washington apologized. You don't want to be on George Washington's bad side, I think it's safe to say.
Candace: Definitely not. And so if we flash forward in the interest of moving toward the Aaron Burr duel, which I know you are all curious about, when the Constitution is at risk of not being ratified, Hamilton steps up. And he ensures that everyone understands the importance of this document, which will not only unify the currency across the colonies, but will also establish a sense of order and responsibility and an identity for all the different states because they were so different from one another; the southern states and the northern states and how people lived and what the cities were like. He knew that in order for everyone to coexist peacefully after they had fought so hard for independence, and not for more skirmishes to break out between the states themselves, there had to be some sort of centralized government.
Katie: And he was known for being really, really convincing. And, you know, they had the Constitutional Convention and three states had ratified it, but that's it. And that's when he started writing the Federalist Papers with James Madison and John Jay.
Candace: And these Papers were designed to give almost a common man's understanding of what was actually in the Constitution. He wanted to appeal to everyone so that they would understand why they should support the Constitution, but he was known for being somewhat elitist because he did use elevated language and he did put a lot of faith in the aristocracy and the intellectuals to actually run the government. But the Federalist Papers really helped garner support finally.
Katie: Because, I mean, when you do look at the Constitution, the language is a bit stiff and people were afraid that they were just creating another little monarchy in the United States and he was trying to make it clear that that wasn't the case behind what they were trying to do.
Candace: And it's funny to note that when he was speaking and when he had the floor, it was almost like no one could get him to shut his mouth. He would open his mouth and words would just come pouring out. A nd he was a little man.
Candace: 5'7" and described as delicately framed. And so imagine - I'm trying to think of some sort of comparison to make to him. I don't know why, but I always envision Niles Crane from Frasier as Alexander Hamilton. He's just standing there spouting off these big words and his grandiose ideas and no one could get him to be quiet. But he was pretty happy with the way that things turned out in the end. But as much as the Federalist Papers were designed to get popular opinion to support the Constitution, he was constantly criticized for putting too much power in a centralized elite government. And he retorted at one point, "And whom would you have representing us in government? Not the rich? Not the wise? Not the learned?" And went on to say, "Would you pluck some person off a street who was digging in the garbage? No!"
Katie: And that's where the contrast, I think, between him and Jefferson started because people associated Jefferson with being very democratic and someone like Hamilton with being sided with the aristocrats.
Candace: Right. And Hamilton was making the point that you need people who understand money, who understand credit and trade, to actually make the country work. He was all -
Katie: People like him.
Candace: Right, people like him. He was all about the policy; whereas, Jefferson envisioned that people should be allowed to live their own lives and make their own individual choices. And he envisioned this type of agrarian paradise where every man toiled in the earth and built his own estate and supported himself. And Hamilton saw, you know, as big as the United States was, maximizing the space, making cities and involving the country in trade and building up their credit line with the rest of the world so that they could become a superpower.
Katie: And Hamilton, as you had mentioned before, had a much darker view of human nature. He was also very concerned about things just falling into complete chaos. He didn't think, basically, that the people could be trusted to govern themselves and he may have been right. And that's why it was so interesting when he got involved in the Revolution because on the one hand, he was terrified of this mob rule. He stopped a mob from attacking the president of Kings College. But on the other hand, he was out captaining an infantry.
Candace: But he didn't exactly get his way with all of the ideas he had for young America. If he'd had his way, the Constitution would have appointed a president for life and the president would have tapped individual leaders from each state. And it didn't turn out that way. But he did think that the United States should accomplish certain feats if it wanted to become a good, respectable nation. And one of the most controversial ones early in his career, after Washington had appointed him treasure of the secretary, was his assumption plan.
Katie: And I think he thought the nation should assume the debts of the states, right?
Candace: Exactly. It was pretty political and Hamilton had often been criticized for not being political enough. He didn't talk like a politician. He couldn't schmooze. He was just brash and shrill and tried to get people on his side. But this was an incredibly political maneuver because the people who had the most debt in the individual states, if he could promise to assume their debt and get them to align themselves with the new federal government, then essentially he'd win people's trust, he'd win their allegiance.
Katie: Well, he was sneaky. He had a dinner with Thomas Jefferson and with Madison where he basically struck a deal with them and said, "You know I need your state support for this political maneuver." And it worked.
Candace: And the agreement they reached was that he would let Jefferson and Madison have their way and the new capital would be moved to the region beside the Potomac, down in Washington, D.C. where it is today. It was in New York at the time. And Hamilton, he loved New York. He was a New Yorker, but to him, it was a bigger win to get the Assumption Bill passed, rather than see the capital move a couple of states down south.
Katie: He also garnered more controversy that same year when he wanted to charter a national bank. Madison, Jefferson and a whole bunch of other people said it was unconstitutional. And that was the federal government going way too far. And Hamilton and Washington got it passed.
Candace: And this is where you really start to see that division between the Jeffersonian Republicans, who wanted it to be very much a republic, and the Federalists, who wanted the power in the federal government. Jefferson was saying "no, no, no" to ideas of urbanization and standing army. Essentially, what he saw as a Federalist was someone who was a monarchist; whereas, Hamilton was arguing if you want order and you want power, you have to agree to these things.
Katie: And this is where our two-party system came into play.
Candace: There you have it.
Katie: Around this time is when Aaron Burr makes an appearance in Alexander Hamilton's life, when they were running an election for the New York Senate seat. And Aaron Burr defeated Philip Schuyler, who was related to Hamilton's wife, I believe, Elizabeth Schuyler. And that's when things between them started to heat up.
Candace: He asked Hamilton at one point in time, "If you have power as treasury of the secretary to work this system to benefit you, why wouldn't you?" It was unbelievable to Aaron Burr that a man who had Hamilton's authoritative position wouldn't use it for personal gain. And Hamilton had always been horrified by the idea of doing work just for money. He believed in doing work for the honesty of it and for the pride of winning a case in court. He was a successful lawyer, but he would refuse to take some cases if he didn't agree with the plaintiff. He would only take the cases that he believed wholeheartedly in. And so this meant almost a lifetime of destitution for him and certainly a great deal of debt for his family. But you see what the differences in morals and principles between Burr and Hamilton would cause, not just a professional distaste for one another, but a very personal one.
Katie: And their dislike of each other went on, I think, for a good 15 years.
Candace: Fifteen years.
Katie: And it got very personal. Insults were flung back and forth on each other's character, which is a pretty serious thing. It wasn't just saying, "Oh, his ideas are bad." It was like, "No, he as a person isn't worthy of your consideration for the position of, say Governor of New York."
Candace: Precisely. So in 1800, the presidential race roles around! The two contenders for the office are Jefferson, whom Hamilton can't stand, and Burr, another of his enemies. So here he is -
Katie: He can't win either way.
Candace: No, you can't win either way and he's torn between the two choices. But he has to decide who would be best for the country and ultimately he decides Jefferson. And because there had been a tight election, Hamilton was the one who finally pushed a congressman over the edge and got him to agree to vote for Jefferson. So the final deciding vote, while it didn't come from Hamilton, came from his influence.
Katie: And there's a quote I keep seeing in all the stories I look at with Hamilton and Burr where Hamilton said, "If there be a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson. With Burr, I have always been personally well." But I think this is about the time when he stopped feeling that way. So in 1808, its official, Jefferson is the third president and Burr is his vice president. And in that same, Alexander's oldest son, Philip Hamilton, was killed in a duel attempting to defend the honor of the family. And the grief of it drove their daughter, Angelica, insane. So 1801 is not so great a year.
Candace: Not a good year. And Hamilton himself is very distraught over his son's death because his son had actually consulted with him as to whether or not he should accept the duel challenge. And at this point in time, the code of honor was structured so that you could get out of a duel if you were willing to make a public apology and sort of prostrate yourself before the person whom you'd become embroiled in this conflict with. Hamilton knew that if his son was going to have a future in politics, like he'd hoped ever since he was a baby really, that he had to take on this duel.
Katie: And he had to save face and unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.
Candace: It didn't. And so Hamilton, not only because of his son's death due to dueling, but because of his religious ideas and his morals and really his respect for the law! He was very much opposed to dueling. And before the famous Burr/Hamilton duel, Hamilton had actually been involved in ten other disputes that had never escalated to the point of becoming a full-fledged duel. He managed to work himself out of them.
Katie: Exactly. And when we think of that now, like we picture, I guess, two people getting angry and meeting at high noon and drawing their guns and that's not how political duels worked in t he day.
Candace: No, there is a really interesting history behind them.
Katie: And it all starts off with some sort of disgrace to someone's honor, say an election or some other political controversy. And one person has lost face and therefore got a little bit of tarnish on their good name. I believe it usually started with a letter. Say I would write a letter to Candace and say that, you know, "You had offended me and besmirched my honor. Perhaps you could make a public apology for what you've done"
Candace: And so the person who his being challenged or put on the spot, if you will, is the principal. And the principal has a second, who is a friend or a confidant who is going to back up that person.
Katie: I would be your second.
Candace: Thank you. Thank you. And once they send this notice of the issue, then it's up to the second to help the principal, I guess, mediate in the public eye what is going on.
Candace: So the two principals could have a beef with each other, but in order to save face in a public way, the seconds come in to explain the situation, what's happening. And if the insulter is willing to make an apology to the insultee, then the whole thing can be called off. But if the insultee doesn't accept that apology, then -
Katie: Things escalate.
Candace: Exactly. And the acceptance of an apology is known as satisfaction.
Katie: But one thing that you could do if you didn't really want to have it end and you really did want to have the duel, was to ask for an absolutely ridiculous apology and this is what Aaron Burr did.
Candace: Yeah. I just, I don't get Burr, to be perfectly candid. He was a strange man to me and just understanding - he was a descendant of Jonathan Edwards, the preacher who is known for the sermon "Sinners in the hand of an angry God". He came from a very religious family background and his father was an important man in academia and he had all the money that he could possibly want. And I suppose he was just that power hungry and he really wanted to be president. And he was so mad at Hamilton. Furthermore, Hamilton had also alluded to the fact that Burr had had his way with his daughter, which we don't know if it's true or not, but -
Katie: Hamilton had been, much as they did in the days, making all sorts of accusations toward Burr, again on his character, because he genuinely, truly believed that Burr was a really unscrupulous, just unpleasant man.
Candace: He was. And so Burr told Hamilton that he wouldn't be satisfied unless Hamilton agreed to apologize for every single horrible thing that Hamilton had said about him in the past 15 years.
Katie: What had really set him off was a letter that was published in an actual newspaper where Hamilton had expressed a "despicable opinion" of Burr according to the editor of the paper. And that's what Burr picked up on as his thing, like, "Okay, it's in print now so I have something to use against you." And that's when he asked Hamilton for this sweeping apology that Hamilton just couldn't give.
Candace: No and by this time, too, Hamilton had fallen out of public favor because he had gotten a little crazy with a smear campaign that he ran against Adams. And his own party even thought that he wasn't quite right in the head anymore and so -
Katie: And he had an affair that he publicly admitted to and his reputation was never quite the same.
Candace: Yeah, things weren't looking good for Hamilton. And he had every reason in the world not to duel. And Joanne Freeman, who writes about the Burr-Hamilton duel, outlines those reasons as this: the duel violated his religious and moral principles and defied the law; threatened the welfare of his family; put his creditors at risk; and ultimately compelled him to - and in Hamilton's own words - to hazard much and possibly gain nothing. But again, he's in this really tight position where he can either lose more face or defend what honor he has left. And he's certain ly not going to grovel before Burr.
Katie: Especially because those were things he truly believed in. It was his conviction that Burr was not worthy of these positions of public service.
Candace: And if we recall how Hamilton started out as a young boy, he had nothing and he worked himself into a great position of influence and power. And he thought, "If all along the one thing that I've been getting by on all my life is honor, then by golly, what do I have to risk at this point? I'll defend my honor. That's all I've got."
Katie: So he did write this whole letter with all of his reasons for being in this duel because he knew that it would seem strange to people because it was so out of character for him. But he also said that he wasn't going to shoot that first time. He would shoot in the air and he would let Burr do what he will. And he would be there, you know, in the semblance of a duel, but he would not aim for Burr. And he was counseled against it. It's self-defense, you should shoot him, Alexander. And he wouldn't.
Candace: So the date arrived, July 11th, 1804. And they had agreed to circumvent the law, they would fight in Weehawken, New Jersey and they would arrive separately. There would be a doctor on the scene, but they would march into the woods so that there would be no witnesses, aside from the principals and the seconds, because they didn't want to tarnish anyone else's name for being involved with this duel because it was illegal.
Katie: And they were very tricky about it. They hid their guns under, I think, some sort of cloak when they were going across so the people who were in the boat could truly and honestly say that they had seen no guns because they were covered.
Candace: I mean, they knew what was going on, but every step had been taken to assure that they would be able to speak truthfully if pressed for the truth. So they walk into the woods and they mark off the ten paces. And then they cast lots to decide who was going to pick what position to fire from and whose second will call the command. And Hamilton, very fortuitously, won both. But it wasn't fortuitous.
Katie: And it wasn't going to do him any good.
Candace: Because he wasn't going to fire. And he didn't. So Burr aimed and he shot.
Katie: And Hamilton fell.
Candace: Yes. And later it was determined that the shot went through his liver and his diaphragm. And even though a doctor was there to attend to him, Hamilton knew immediately that it was a mortal wound.
Katie: And a painful one at that.
Candace: Thirty-one hours later is when he died. And he was, he was in an incredible amount of pain. And it was the largest funeral in New York then that anyone had ever turned out for because Hamilton was such a fixture of New York City and he had done so much for the government and made such strides for his nation. And not only that, but he had been a bit of a tomcat in his day so he had a lot admirers. But people very much mourned his loss.
Katie: And he was buried July 14th at Trinity Church in Manhattan, leaving Elizabeth a widow, who lived until the age of 97 and was poor for most of that time and missed him to her dying day. She would always talk about going to see her Hamilton.
Candace: And Burr, meanwhile, he was, oh, my goodness, what a scoundrel. People were furious with him. He left New York for eight years. And even though the duel itself is designed to help a man regain his honor, that didn't work in Burr's case because he lost all of his honor. People were furious that he had killed Hamilton. And so goes the story of the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. And today, we don't honor Hamilton in the same way as we honor the other founding fathers and this is something that you will probably read in every biographical assessment. People always comment that he doesn't have a great monument. People don't think of him in the warm and fuzzy way that we think of someone like Jefferson or Lincoln or Washington. And really, every goal he was trying to achieve with urbanization and the treasury and lines of credit, these things came to fruition.
Katie: So we tip our hats to Alexander Hamilton.
Candace: We do, we do, even if I do still love Jeffer son, there's room in my academic heart for both of them and I do appreciate his contributions, too. So if you want to learn even more about Alexander Hamilton, the Burr duel and the national treasury, be sure to check out the website at HowStuffWorks.com.
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