Gun Laws & Legislation

Guns & Politics: Alexander Hamilton Vs. Aaron Burr In The Days Of Political Honor

Susan Smith Columnist
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The most popular play on Broadway right now is “Hamilton,” the recipient of universal acclaim.  It is a rather unique version of the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers.

This remarkable man was, among other things: first Secretary of the Treasury of the US; beloved aide of General George Washington; chief architect of America’s political economy; delegate to the Constitutional Convention; an author of the Federalist papers; Major General in the Revolutionary Army; founder of the New York Post; etc., etc., etc.  The play attempts to show how Hamilton lived, who he was, and what he represented.

Even more how he died.

On July 11, 1804, after years of escalating personal and political conflict, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, then the sitting Vice President of the United States under President Thomas Jefferson, participated in a duel, an “affair of honor” as it was known at that period, on misty grounds just outside the city of Weehawken, New Jersey, at dawn.  These two giants of the time used a pair of English flintlock dueling pistols made by Wodgon and Barton in London, the premier such establishment in England of that epoch, and Aaron Burr used his single fire to take what is thought to be the second shot.  Who actually took the first shot is still disputed, but it has been determined as fact that Hamilton’s single fire was found lodged in a tree far above Burr’s head, leading most to believe that he had given up the shot.

An historic irony involved in this is that Hamilton’s beloved son, Philip, at the age of nineteen, died in a similar situation, at a similar time, at the same New Jersey venue just a few years before, defending his father’s honor.  It has been speculated that Hamilton, who had understandably developed an antipathy to dueling, took his shot into the air hoping to resolve his issues with Burr both honorably and peaceably.  Burr, it is thought, had no such antipathy to the practice of settling things by shooting a dueling partner, and took his shot directly into the stomach of Hamilton, lodging next to his spine.

Of our Founding Fathers, there was no one braver, no one closer to George Washington, no one more brilliant, no one more innovative, no one more dedicated to the patriot cause, and no one more ambitious, among other things less laudatory, than Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was of ignoble birth, something he was never able to overcome despite his many achievements in the new world he helped so significantly to form.  The illegitimate son of a Scottish immigrant father and a British West Indian mother, who were married to other people at the time of his birth, Alexander Hamilton was born in either 1755 or 1757, (no one knows for sure) on the Caribbean island of Nevis and emigrated to the American colonies at the age of 15.  He quickly achieved his place in the leadership of the heady world of the founding of a new nation in America in the late 1700’s.  He also managed to overcome the shame of his birth to the extent of marrying into the highest levels of New York society.  Despite all these personal and professional achievements, however, he nevertheless inspired rivalry and emnity in some of his peers, especially, and to Hamilton’s ultimate regret, that of Aaron Burr.

A close colleague of Jefferson’s, who eventually became a sworn enemy of Hamilton’s, Aaron Burr had achieved such success in his career that he was a viable contender to succeed Thomas Jefferson to succeed him as President. A highly intelligent man and masterful politician, Burr had used various underhanded means, some of which reflected badly on Hamilton, to achieve his goals, and this earned him Hamilton’s undying emnity.  Hamilton once referred to Burr as the “most unfit and dangerous man of the community,” and that he felt that it was “a religious duty to oppose his [Burr’s] career.”   Returning Hamilton’s intensity of feeling, Burr had finally enough when Hamilton was largely responsible for Burr’s losing the New York Governor’s race in 1804; he then challenged Hamilton to a duel.  Though most such challenges were settled peaceably at that time, (Hamilton had been thus challenged several times in his career, but all were resolved before guns became involved), Burr’s rage against Hamilton was so advanced at that point that for honor’s sake it was deemed to be necessary to meet on that New Jersey field at dawn.

Alexander Hamilton, one of the greatest men of his age, died in agony a day and a half later.  Aaron Burr, though his act outraged the nation, (he was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey), returned to Washington, D.C., where he finished his Vice Presidential term, immune from prosecution.

Kind of makes our rather contentious political fights of 2016 seem mild by comparison, doesn’t it?


Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C.  She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects.. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban.  Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University,  as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification.   Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.

Susan Smith