It would surprise the American people if two of our major leaders were to settle a disagreement with a duel. We would collectively wonder, “what were they thinking?” They would not only be threatening their own lives but also the future of our country. Duels have occurred between our leaders in our nation’s history.
Let us look back at Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first Treasury Secretary. His likeness graces our $10 bill. Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, was a U.S. Senator and a power in American politics at the time. And Hamilton was certainly considered to be a rising star in American politics.
Aaron Burr Jr was none other than the Vice President of the United States, within a heartbeat of becoming president should anything happen to President Thomas Jefferson.
Their difficulty started over politics. Burr was a Republican, Hamilton a Federalist. Hamilton’s father-n-law, Philip Schuyler, lost his bid for reelection to Aaron Burr Jr in 1791. It was a disheartening loss for Schuyler and to Hamilton as well because his father-in-law supported his policies in the Treasury Department and his political career. It’s good to have strong support.
In 1800 Aaron Burr acquired a copy of letters Alexander Hamilton wrote regarding the conduct and character of President John Adams. It was highly critical of President Adams and certainly not meant for public consumption yet Vice President Burr had it published in a New Yok newspaper.
It opened old wounds between Hamilton and Burr and the Federalist party was damaged at the worst possible time… the presidential election of 1800.
It featured a race between President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton had bitterly opposed Burr’s political career for fifteen years and he staunchly supported Thomas Jefferson. It aided his candidacy. The vote of the Electoral College was a cliffhanger, going back and forth until the 36th ballot. Under the Constitution the House of Representatives would determine the outcome when there was no clear winner in the Electoral College. Thomas Jefferson was the eventual victor and became our nation’s third president.
Aaron Burr became the vice president because, at that time, the Electoral College gave the Vice Presidency to the candidate with the second most votes.
Burr entered the governorship race in New York in 1804 even though he was the vice president of the United States. Hamilton lobbied New York Federalists to withhold their support from Burr. Speaking at a dinner party he characterized Aaron Burr as a dangerous man who “ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” The general content of his talk found its way to the pages of the Albany Register newspaper. Burr was incensed and wrote Hamilton, demanding “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of his comments.”
An intermediary delivered a wordy yet vague reply from Hamilton. Burr was unsatisfied with the response and messages between the two continued until Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.
They’ve called Hamilton suicidal for agreeing to the duel because he had little experience with weaponry. The Treasury Secretary felt he had no choice but to accept and he promptly did so. Hamilton had no desire to have a duel with Burr. He wanted to avoid it but thought his career could be over if he didn’t accept the challenge.
Some thought it was murderous of Burr to challenge Hamilton because Burr was very proficient in the use of firearms. His political career seemed to be waning and he, perhaps, felt the duel would put it back on track.
In the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, the two adversaries took separate boats across the Hudson River to a popular dueling site in nearby New Jersey called the Heights of Weehawken. New Jersey was less rigid in their penalties toward duelists.
As the countdown to the duel began Hamilton asked that it be halted so he could clean and adjust his spectacles. It was done and he repeatedly followed it up by taking aim and sighting with his pistol.
Once the duel commenced Hamilton fired first, shooting his .56 caliber shot into the air. It wasn’t known if this was done intentionally or not but once it occurred, Burr held all the cards. He could take his time and aim before firing.
He proceeded to do just that. It was immediately apparent that Hamilton was hit by Burr’s shot. His pistol fell from his grasp and he took two robotic stuttering steps forward and fell to the ground. Burr, speechless, took two or three steps forward as though it was an automatic response, indicative of sorrow. But Burr was intercepted by one of his seconds and whisked away behind an umbrella. Almost immediately the examining physician and assistants were approaching the dying combatant.
“I saw Mr. Alexander Hamilton and his seconds disappear into the woods just as I arrived,” Dr. David Hosack entered into his account of the events. “Soon I heard two shots and I rushed to the area where I found Mr. Hamilton was wounded. I never saw Mr. Burr though I believe he was hidden behind an umbrella carried by Mr. William P. Van Ness, Burr’s second, as they quickly exited the area.
“When I was called to Mr. Hamilton’s side he had a fatal wound. I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Judge Pendleton, his second. He had a countenance of death which I will never forget. He had little strength but he did say to me, ‘This is a mortal wound, Doctor.’ He then sank away and appeared to be lifeless. I stripped him of his clothing and alas, found the direction of the ball shot had gone through some vital part. His pulse couldn’t be felt and his respiration was entirely suspended. I laid my hand on his heart and perceived no motion. I felt he was irrecoverably gone. I told Judge Pendleton that his only chance was to get him across the water to New York City where he could be treated.
“We lifted and carried him out of the woods to the bank where the bargeman aided us in putting him in the bottom of the boat which immediately left the shore. During all of this time I could not discover the least symptom of returning life. I rubbed his face, lips, and temples with spirits of hartshorn, applied it to his neck, breast, wrists and palms of his hands. I poured some into his mouth.”
Hartshorn was a source of ammonia used in baking cookies or, as “salt of hartshorn,” it was used as smelling salts in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was derived from ground horn of a male deer’s antlers.
Alexander Hamilton soon began to revive and the case of dueling pistols that had been used not long before, caught his eye.
“He noticed the one he had in his hand during the duel,” Dr. Hosack said in continuing his account of the events. “He said, ‘Be careful with that pistol; it is undischarged and still cocked. It may go off and do someone harm. Pendleton knows that I did not intend to fire at Mr.Burr.’”
“Yes, I have already made Dr. Hosack aware of that,” Pendleton, who was present, offered.
“He asked me if I found his pulse and told me he had lost all feeling in his lower extremities,” Dr. Hosack recalled next.
He proceeded to give direction to Dr. Hosack on how to break the news to his wife Eliza.
“Send for her immediately but let any news be given to her gradually so she will have hope,” Hamilton said to Dr. Hosack. “Don’t dash her at once with bad tidings.”
Hamilton then closed his eyes and remained calm, not offering to speak except to answer any questions from the doctor. As they neared the wharf Dr. Hosack noticed Mr. William Bayard, Hamilton’s friend, who was awaiting them.
“Seeing General Hamilton lying prostrate in the bottom of the boat and perceiving the worst, Mr. Bayard clasped his hands together with a most violent apprehension.” Dr. Hosack recalled.
“Man, get a cot for the general,” I told him. “At that point Mr. Bayard saw that Hamilton had life left in him. He threw up his eyes and with a smile of sorts burst into a flood of tears and lamentations. Hamilton himself appeared tranquil and composed at this time. We then carried him as tenderly as possible up to the house. He periodically had severe pain and imperfect sleep but I treated him with an anodyne. In the morning his mind stayed sharp and composed.”
Anodyne was a drug used to lessen pain through reducing the sensitivity of the brain or nervous system. The term was common in medicine before the 20th century.
“His anxiety was in sympathy for his wife and children. The sight of his children when brought to his bedside together, seven in number, forsook him. He opened his eyes, gave them one look and closed them back not to open them again ‘til they were taken away. It was too hard for him to bear.
“As proof of his extraordinary composure of mind, let me add, he alone could calm the frantic grief of his wife. ‘Remember my dear Eliza that you are a Christian,’ he said frequently with a firm voice in speaking to her. His words and the tone he used in uttering them will never be erased from my memory.”
The ball shot hit Alexander Hamilton in the stomach on the right side. It ricocheted off his second or third floating rib causing it to fracture. It proceeded to do extensive damage to his liver and other body parts before lodging in the vertebrae. Hamilton, mortally wounded, died at about 2 o’clock the following day.
copyright 2015 jadon gibson
Editor’s note; Read more about the circumstances surrounding this duel in a future edition of Bereaonline.com Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings, From the Mountains, are both historical and nostalgic in nature. Don’t miss a single issue!