Most people will recognize the name Alexander Hamilton. They may not know exactly who he was or why he’s an important American political figure, but they’ve heard of him.
In fact, Alexander Hamilton, a native of New York State, was one of America’s Founding Fathers, the founder of the Federalist Party and served as the very first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.
On the flip side, many will not recognize the name Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s nemesis – and those that do likely know him after having done some research on Hamilton.
Burr was the third Vice-President of the United States and served during President Thomas Jefferson’s first term. In the U.S. presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr were deadlocked at 73 electoral votes each, and the decision as to who would win the presidency rested with the U.S. House of Representatives. Congress; however, was also deadlocked, voting the exact same way – a tie between Jefferson and Burr – on thirty-five different ballots. The presidency was decided on the thirty-sixth ballot, when several members of the Federalist Party who had previously supported Burr submitted blank ballots – giving Jefferson the keys to the White House.
Both Hamilton and Burr started out as cordial acquaintances, often having dinner together. Burr, who was born in New Jersey but called New York his home, had campaigned for the betterment of New Yorkers. The rivalry between the two men apparently began in 1791, when Burr ran against and defeated Phillip Schuyler, the incumbent senator from New York. Schuyler was Hamilton’s Hamilton’s father-in-law, and was returned to the U.S. Senate when Burr’s term ended in 1797.
Although from rival political parties, Burr and Hamilton didn’t have a hate for each other until 1799, when Burr, now an Assemblyman from New York and gaining considerable influence among New Yorkers, secretly made changes to a water company business charter to include banking services. Burr subsequently spoke only of the bank, disregarding the state’s need for a new water system. It was then that Hamilton concluded that Burr was an “unprincipled” man who could not be trusted with more power.
In 1800, just as Burr and Jefferson were waiting on decisive action from the House of Representatives, it was Hamilton who campaigned to have his party members vote against Burr, but many Federalists liked Burr’s moderate policy positions. Eventually, and at Hamilton’s urging, Burr supporters submitted blank ballots – effectively abstaining on the most significant congressional vote of the century, and Thomas Jefferson became the third U.S. President.
While it was a well-established fact that the party wanted Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice-President, there was something about being so close to the presidency that made Burr want it that much more. He felt robbed by Hamilton, and decided to serve out his time as the Jefferson administration’s “number two”.
Jefferson; however, didn’t quite feel safe with Burr around, and it became apparent that Burr would be dropped from the ticket in the next presidential election. Burr, having no love for the U.S. Senate (the Vice-President serves also as the President of the Senate), decided to run for Governor of New York in 1804 – an election he would lose badly to a political newcomer.
Burr blamed Hamilton for his failed gubernatorial campaign, citing that Hamilton had worked to damage his reputation. Hamilton refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, which angered Burr. Burr then sent a letter to Hamilton challenging him to a duel – a challenge that Hamilton accepted, despite the fact that Hamilton’s own son had been killed in a duel back in 1801.
It was on July 11th, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey where Burr and Hamilton met. Hamilton was given his choice of pistol and location. Ironically, Hamilton elected to stand in the same spot his son had three years before.
Hamilton was given the first shot, which missed. It remains unclear as to whether Hamilton misfired or meant to waste his shot, but Burr responded with a single shot which struck Hamilton just above the right hip. Hamilton would die the following day. At the time of the duel, Aaron Burr was still the Vice-President of the United States, making him the first of only two American VPs (the other was Dick Cheney) to have shot someone while in office.
The Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton rivalry was the first notable American family feud. Others that came after it have even been called “mini wars” due to the casualties they have caused. The feud that ended 209 years ago today ended the life of an American political icon and the career of a little-known politician who could have easily replaced the great Thomas Jefferson in American history books.