The animosity between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been building since Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, in the New York state senate race in 1791. The antagonistic relationship ended with a duel that claimed Hamilton’s life in 1804. These places and documents retrace one of the first national tragedies in US history.
The Otis House
Harrison Otis, a friend and political ally of Hamilton, lived in this Boston house. In the election of 1800, the House of Representatives had to break the tie in the electoral vote between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Otis, a member of the House, was a Federalist like Hamilton, and would have been likely to vote against Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton
Jefferson and Hamilton had been political enemies ever since they were in George Washington’s Cabinet. But in a letter to Otis, Hamilton compares the characters of Jefferson and Burr, to Jefferson’s benefit. Hamilton writes that “Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – Thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement.”
Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Otis, December 23, 1800
The election of 1800 was one of the bitterest and most hotly contested presidential races in US history. Hamilton’s attacks on Burr were influential in securing the presidency for Thomas Jefferson. Even though Hamilton disagreed with Jefferson’s politics, he wrote, “In a choice of Evils, let them take the least – Jefferson is in my view less dangerous than Burr.”
Fraunces Tavern in New York City was a popular place where men gathered to drink, exchange ideas, and make deals. In June 1804, Burr found out that Hamilton had written slanderous newspaper articles criticizing Burr’s character. He demanded an apology, but Hamilton refused. On July 4, 1804, both Hamilton and Burr attended a meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati at Fraunces Tavern. While they dined at this annual gathering of former Revolutionary War officers, their seconds were making arrangements for a duel between the two men, which would take place a week later on July 11.
First Statement of the Regulations for the Duel
On the day that Hamilton and Burr were at Fraunces Tavern, Hamilton’s second, Nathaniel Pendleton, sent Burr’s second, William Van Ness, a draft of instructions for the duel. The rules specified how many people could accompany each man, how they would get to the dueling grounds, and how the fight would be conducted: “If either should be wounded before he has fired, and means to fire, he shall, if he can stand unsupported, be entitled to his shot, and not otherwise.”
Weeks of negotiation failed to settle the conflict between Hamilton and Burr. Dueling was about defending personal honor, and neither man felt he could back out. On the morning of July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton met in Weehawken, New Jersey, to duel. Ironically, Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel at the same location three years earlier.
A Newspaper Account of the Duel
Reports of the duel dominated the news for weeks. The Columbian Centinel of July 25, 1804, reprinted a widely circulated account by Nathaniel Pendleton and William Van Ness, who witnessed the duel: “Col. Burr arrived first on the grounds as had been previously agreed; when General Hamilton arrived the parties exchange salutations and the seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position ... They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took their stations … The fire of Col. Burr took effect, and General Hamilton almost instantly fell.”
View of the Spot Where Hamilton Fell
This 1830 view of the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey, shows a memorial to Hamilton with Manhattan in the background. After being shot by Burr, Hamilton was rowed back across the river to Manhattan by friends. According to a report in the Columbian Centinel, “After he was wounded, and laid in the boat, the first words he uttered after recovering the power of speech, were ‘Pendleton knows I did not mean to fire at Col. Burr the first time.’”
William Bayard met the boat that carried the wounded Hamilton across the river, and took him to the Bayard home on Jane Street in present-day Greenwich Village. Bayard was director of Hamilton’s Bank of New York and a close friend of John and Angelica Church, Hamilton’s brother- and sister-in-law. Sensing that death was near, Bayard summoned Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth, and their seven children to his house, where they kept an overnight vigil.
Bayard House Where Hamilton Died
Doctor David Hosack and Bishop Benjamin Moore of Trinity Church took care of Hamilton at the Bayard house as he was dying. This nineteenth-century view of the Bayard house shows how it would have looked in Hamilton’s time. The original house and surrounding farmland have been replaced by the modern city.
Angelica Schuyler Church to Philip Schuyler, July 11, 1804
Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica wrote this letter to her brother Philip shortly after arriving at the Bayard house. Her messy handwriting shows her distress as she informs her brother: “General Hamilton was this morning wounded by that wretch Burr but we have every reason to hope that he will recover.”
Former Location of Aaron Burr’s Estate
Aaron Burr lived on a twenty-six-acre estate known as Richmond Hill in Manhattan, about half a mile from Bayard’s house. After the duel, Burr returned to his home and acted as though nothing had happened. On July 12 he wrote to Doctor Hosack asking about Hamilton’s condition. Hamilton died at 2 p.m. on July 12, thirty-one hours after he was shot.
The Richmond Hill Estate
Before it was owned by Burr, the Richmond Hill house had served as Washington’s headquarters in 1776. Later, it became the residence of Vice President John Adams. When Burr found out that a grand jury in New Jersey and the coroner's jury in New York City were considering murder charges against him, he made arrangements to sell his home and flee. He sold the estate to John Jacob Astor, a New York real estate magnate.
A Letter in Cypher by Aaron Burr
In the weeks after Hamilton’s death, Burr was vilified in the press. In this letter to his son-in-law Joseph Alston, Burr discusses the impending decision of the grand jury, which, he writes, “will determine my Movements.” The remainder of the letter is written in a code known only to Burr and Alston. While we cannot decipher what Burr wrote, we do know that he fled New York City and eventually ended up at the home of Pierce Butler in South Carolina.
Founded in 1696, Trinity Church is an Episcopalian church in lower Manhattan. The original church was destroyed in a fire in 1776. The current building is on the original site. The Hamilton family rented a pew in the church and five of Hamilton’s children were baptized there. Hamilton also occasionally provided legal counsel for Trinity Church.
Harrison Otis’s Eulogy on Alexander Hamilton
In Boston, Harrison Otis was asked to deliver a eulogy for Hamilton. His speech summarized Hamilton’s career and touched upon the grief of the nation: “The universal sorrow manifested in every part of the Union upon the melancholy exit of this great man, is an unequivocal testimonial of the public opinion of his worth. The place of his residence is overspread with a gloom, which bespeaks the presence of a public calamity, and the prejudices of party are absorbed in the overflowing tide of national grief.”
Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.