On the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton met in Weehawken, New Jersey for a duel that would prove fatal for Alexander Hamilton. Burr was outraged over derogatory comments made by Hamilton regarding Burr’s character at a dinner hosted by Judge John Tayler in March of 1804. These comments were recorded by a Dr. Charles D. Cooper who sent off an account to his friend, stating that Hamilton described Burr as a “dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted.” These comments were ultimately published in the New-York Evening Post. Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, responded by drafting a letter insisting that Hamilton had pledged to remain neutral in the upcoming New York gubernatorial election in which Burr was a candidate, and that Hamilton could not have made the comments about Burr that were attributed to him. Dr. Cooper, annoyed by the implication that he had invented the story, responded by affirming his comments, declaring that he had been cautious in recounting them, and stating “for really, sir, I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
Weeks after his defeat in the New York gubernatorial election, Burr channeled his rage into a series of letters with Hamilton, demanding that Hamilton disavow the comment attributed to him that impugned Burr’s character. Hamilton’s legalistic response did little to placate Burr, with Hamilton insisting that Burr recount specific, offensive observations he had made about Burr’s character, which he would then affirm or deny. The men who would ultimately serve as seconds in the duel, William Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton, also shuttled back and forth between the principals in a vain attempt to negotiate a settlement to the matter.
With efforts to peacefully resolve the matter at an impasse, the combatants arranged to meet on the dueling ground of Weehawken for an affair of honor. Alexander Hamilton believed dueling to be a barbarous practice, but he could not refuse to participate in the duel without being branded a coward, a stigma that would forfeit his ability to command respect in public life. Torn between his principled opposition to the practice and a (chivalric) code of honor that demanded a gentleman maintain his social standing by demonstrating courage in the face of death, Hamilton resolved to participate in the duel, but to throw away his first shot. Hamilton communicated his intention to Nathaniel Pendleton and Rufus King and documented it in a letter. But it does not seem that this intention was communicated to Aaron Burr.
On the morning of July 11, the principals, seconds, and Dr. David Hosack were rowed along the Hudson River to the dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, a site chosen due to New Jersey’s more lenient treatment of dueling. True to his convictions, Hamilton fired into the woods. Burr fired his shot and hit his mark, striking Hamilton in the abdomen. Immediately realizing the gravity of his injury, Hamilton declared, “I am a dead man,” before falling to the ground. Pendleton then called for Dr. Hosack, who attended Hamilton as he was rowed back to New York. Hamilton briefly rallied, long enough to tell Hosack, “Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for. Let the event be gradually broken to her, but give her hopes.” After arriving in New York, Hamilton was taken to a mansion owned by William Bayard, where he died.
These two letters from Alexander Hamilton to his wife, Elizabeth, were written during the week preceding the duel, with instructions that they should only be delivered if “I shall first have terminated my earthly career.” The letters explain Hamilton’s reason for participating in the duel and his determination to maintain his religious convictions by sparing the life of Aaron Burr.