Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton MCNY

Hamilton head MCNY

July 11, 1804: Hamilton duels Burr

This is an excerpt from my short, heavily illustrated bio of Hamilton, which also describes the 4 sculptures to Hamilton that stand in New York City.

Hamilton was killed in 1804 by his fellow New Yorker and political opponent (or, at times, colleague) Aaron Burr. We’ve just read part of Hamilton’s lengthy condemnation of Burr from the 1801 presidential election. But why did the two duel in 1804?

Burr was to be vice president until early 1805. In order to stay in public office and stave off bankruptcy, he ran in 1804 for governor of New York. After losing the gubernatorial election, Burr demanded an explanation of certain derogatory remarks Hamilton was reported to have made at a private party early in 1804. Another guest at the party had written a letter quoting Hamilton, and the letter had been leaked to the press and eventually made its way into Burr’s hands.

Hamilton had frequently challenged others to duels. It seems to have been his way of forcing opponents to retract their comments. But he never actually fought: those he challenged always settled, often by retracting their statements.

There were two powerful reasons for Hamilton not to accept Burr’s challenge. First, Burr was experienced with handguns – a very dangerous opponent. Hamilton had quite possibly not fired a gun since the Revolutionary War ended two decades earlier. In addition, Hamilton had seen his beloved eldest son Philip (the seven-month-old budding orator he described in 1782) shot to death in a politically motivated duel barely three years earlier.

Hamilton’s motives for accepting the challenge would be incomprehensible, had he not written them out on the night before the duel. He admitted that he had more than once made disparaging remarks about Burr, so he felt he could not simply deny Burr’s accusation. He continues:

To those, who with me abhorring the practice of Duelling may think that I ought on no account to have added to the number of bad examples – I answer that my relative situation, as well in public as private aspects, enforcing all the considerations which constitute what men of the world denominate honor, impressed on me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call. The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs, which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular. [7/10/1804, Library of America pp. 1020-1]

In sum, Hamilton thought that not accepting this challenge might make him look dishonorable or cowardly, which might handicap him for future political activity. It would, perhaps, particularly affect his image with soldiers, who were in the practice of dueling more than anyone else. We saw that at age 14 Hamilton was ambitious. That’s still true at age 49. He wants to be active in government, and he wants to keep his reputation clear in order to do so.

Part of the reason he accepted the duel, however, is that he probably thought Burr wouldn’t shoot to kill. By 1804 dueling was still acceptable among certain classes, but under the law, killing an opponent in a duel was murder. A charge of murder, Hamilton reasoned, would ruin Burr’s career. [As indeed it did. To get a bit ahead of the story, Burr presided over the Senate in 1804 while facing an indictment for murder in New Jersey. New York had also indicted him, but then dropped the charge under political pressure. Burr was elected to no public offices after he killed Hamilton.]

Given the serious consequences of shooting to kill, Hamilton decided that the dispute might be settled if he accepted the challenge and fired his first shot into the air. Before the guns were reloaded and the second pair of shots fired, Burr would perhaps “pause and reflect” that Hamilton had regretted his actions (while manfully facing up to their consequences), and would not fire again.

Early in the morning on July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr met in Weehawken, New Jersey, due west of modern 42nd Street. Burr shot Hamilton. Hamilton shot wide of the mark. Hamilton died the next day.

In New York, there was as much grief as there had been when Washington died in 1799. There was also shock: Hamilton was only 49, and to many, perhaps the majority, his death seemed pointless.

His funeral procession was so long that it took two hours to pass a given point. He’s buried on the grounds of Trinity Church, on Broadway at Wall Street. Beneath a tall white obelisk is the inscription:

To the memory of Alexander Hamilton, the corporation of Trinity Church has erected this monument in testimony of their respect for the patriot of incorruptible integrity, the soldier of approved valour, the statesman of consummate wisdom, whose talents and virtue will be admired by grateful posterity long after this marble shall have moldered into dust.

About the sculpture

This sculpture was cast around 1940, but was based on the 15-foot-tall sculpture of Hamilton that once stood in the Merchants’ Exchange in the Financial District. In a niche at the southern end of the building is a statue of DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), also by Weinman, 1940. The two were probably chosen to mark New York’s emergence as a commercial center, via Hamilton’s post-Revolutionary financial reforms and Clinton’s promotion of the Erie Canal, which routed much of the Midwest’s agricultural produce through New York.

Both sculptures were donated by a trustee of the Museum who chose to remain anonymous. At the dedication Mayor La Guardia praised the Hamiltonian conception of government – not surprisingly, since La Guardia himself advocated a strong, active central government.

Weinman (1870-1952) specialized in architectural sculpture. A native of Germany who immigrated to the United States at age 10, he studied at the Cooper Union and the Art Students League, then worked at the studios of Philip Martiny, Augustus Saint Gaudens and Daniel Chester French.

In Manhattan, the sculptures in the original Pennsylvania Station (Samuel Rea and Alexander Cassatt, as well as the eagles on the cornice) are Weinman’s work. So are the 20-foot gilded Civil Fame atop the Municipal Building at Chambers St. and the John Purroy Mitchell Memorial at Fifth Ave. and 90th St.

In Washington, D.C., Weinman did sculpture for the National Archives and the Post Office Building. His work is more familiar to most Americans, however, in a much smaller format: he designed the Walking Liberty half dollar (minted 1916-1947) and the Mercury dime (minted 1916-1945) – more properly called the “Winged Liberty” dime, since Weinman meant the wings to symbolize liberty of thought.

Winged Liberty dime

Photo: Brandon Bigheart / Wikipedia

Further reading