This week marks the anniversary of the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” Hamilton and Burr, two American Revolution era politicos, are well-known today.
The record-breaking Broadway show debuted in 2015 and garnered 11 Tony Awards. Its traveling company continues to sell out venues across the country.
The Washington Post calls “Hamilton” a musical that “traces the federal government’s intellectual roots,” juxtaposing the rivaling views from the time of the nation’s infancy.
If that’s true, the duel offers an interesting perspective on conflict resolution, friendship, justice and forgiveness.
Aaron Burr, then vice president, had challenged Hamilton, former secretary of the treasury. Burr insisted Hamilton had cost him the New York governorship, though historians note years of animosity between the two.
At the time, duels were relatively common, though still illegal, according to “Hamilton” by Ron Chernow.
For this reason, the two met in New Jersey — pistols at dawn. Hamilton was fatally wounded, dying the next day. Burr was unharmed.
In many ways, Hamilton appeared in stark contrast to Burr. Hamilton’s birth year is uncertain — either 1755 or 1757, according to the History Channel. He emigrated to New York to attend college. He went on to become a war-time confidant of Gen. George Washington and was eventually named the first secretary of the treasury.
Burr, the scion of prominent New England families, held vast business, church and social connections. Born in 1756 in Newark, N.J., he was named for his father, the second president of Princeton University. At 13, he enrolled in college to study theology, according to the Independence Hall Foundation archives in Philadelphia. He graduated three years later and shifted to studying law.
Burr paused in his studies to volunteer for military service in 1775, according to the archives. He went on to fight in the March on Quebec and later joined the staffs of Washington and Gen. Israel Putnam, respectively.
From 1777 to 1778, he wintered at Valley Forge. If Hamilton was among Washington’s inner circle, Burr clashed with the general, and some place him in a group sympathetic to Washington’s active detractors.
By 1783, Burr and Hamilton were partners in a New York law practice. Burr was named New York attorney general six years later. He parlayed this into a successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1791.
To win the senate seat, Burr defeated incumbent Gen. Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law. The Independence Hall archives speculate this may have been the start of the friction between Burr and his former partner.
Historians note Hamilton frequently tried to thwart Burr’s political advancement, once saying, “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.”
Following Burr’s 1804 defeat for the New York governor’s seat, he blamed Hamilton and accused him of sabotage. After several exchanges, Burr used intermediaries to arrange the duel.
In “Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr,” which Hamilton wrote roughly two weeks before the duel, Hamilton outlined his dilemma. He opposed dueling on religious, moral and ethical grounds. However, Hamilton nonetheless accepted the challenge as a matter of honor, noting he intended to “throw away his shot.”
Burr apparently embraced his chance at getting revenge against Hamilton. Witness accounts have him taking deliberate aim during the duel. He fled the prosecutorial jurisdictions of New Jersey and New York, where Hamilton had died. He stayed with his daughter in South Carolina and eventually returned to Washington, D.C., to resume his duties as vice president. Years later, he was tried for his part in a treason plot and was later acquitted.