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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Hamilton’

Breaking News: Vice President Shoots Former Treasury Secretary!

Dueling Pistol

Dueling Pistol Photo via Pixabay [CCO Public Domain]

If you find yourself teaching U.S. History in summer school classes, you might want to rip a page from the headlines of July 11, 1804, and share it with your students. In what has to be one of the wackiest acts of political animosity in United States history, a sitting vice president fought a duel with and fatally wounded a hero of the Constitutional Convention and former Secretary of the Treasury. If it sounds convoluted, it is.

Your students are probably familiar with Alexander Hamilton either via textbooks or the wildly popular “Hamilton” Broadway musical. If not, here is a brief primer. Hamilton was born on Nevis, an island in the Caribbean. He arrived in the Colonies in the 1770s and joined the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was noticed by General George Washington who used him as an aid. Fast-forward to the Constitutional Convention, where Hamilton was instrumental in winning ratification of the Constitution. He was appointed the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury by President George Washington. Hamilton developed a monetary policy that saved the young country from financial ruin. He later became leader of the political party known as the Federalists.

Aaron Burr may be the lesser known of the two figures, but he was an accomplished person in his own right. Burr, born in 1756, was from a wealthy New Jersey family. He graduated college at the age of 17. Like Hamilton, he joined the Continental Army and served for a while under General Washington. Burr was elected to the New State Assembly and later served as a state attorney. In 1790, he defeated Hamilton’s father in a bid for the U.S. Senate. Burr eventually became vice president under Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

Now, here is where things get a bit ugly.

Aaron Burr Research Topic

Aaron Burr Research Topic via ProQuest’s eLibrary

Alexander Hamilton Research Topic

Alexander Hamilton Research Topic via ProQuest’s eLibrary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long before the advent of social media, politicians were bad-mouthing each other either in a public forum or in print. Hamilton detested Burr. Hamilton once said of Burr: “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.” Hamilton began his first series of public attacks on Burr when Burr first ran for the vice presidency in 1796. Hamilton considered Burr to be “dangerous” and an “opportunist” and spoke against him on many occasions. Burr later ran as an independent for governor of New York. During the election, his character was attacked so viciously by Hamilton that he challenged him to a duel, or an “Affair of Honor.”

These so-called affairs of honor were somewhat commonplace in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and they usually ended peacefully enough, but not this time. Burr demanded satisfaction. The combatants met at seven o’clock in the morning at a spot near Weehawken, New Jersey. There are conflicting reports about what happened next.

Even though some pundits say we live in the era of “Fake News,” we have nothing on the media of the time of the Burr/Hamilton duel. Hamilton’s assistant said that Hamilton decided that the duel was immoral and deliberately fired his pistol into the air. Burr’s assistant, however, claimed that Hamilton fired at Burr and missed. Many newspapers of the time tended to print the version of the story associated with the political party they supported. Some praised Hamilton and declared Burr to be a murderer. Burr’s supporters, however, attacked the newspaper campaigns aimed at him.

What is known for sure is that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet stopped near Hamilton’s spine. He died the next day.

Historical marker of Hamilton-Burr duel in Weehawken, NJ

Historical marker of Hamilton-Burr duel in Weehawken, NJ via Wikimedia Commons by Billy Hathorn (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Burr was charged with murder, but because he was a sitting vice president living in Washington, D.C., he was immune from prosecution. His reputation, however, was forever tarnished. In 1805, Burr led a half-baked scheme to take over the Louisiana Territory and establish himself as the leader of a new empire. He even went so far as to lead armed citizens down to New Orleans, but he was captured and tried for treason. He, again, avoided prison and promptly left the country. In later life, he returned to the U.S. to practice law. He died in 1836.

This Summer, instead of challenging your students to a duel, challenge them to explore the many historical Research Topics available in eLibrary.

Dueling Trivia:

*The dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Alexander Hamilton was fatally wounded was the same spot where Hamilton’s own son was killed in 1801 defending his father’s honor.

*Future president Andrew Jackson fought a duel with Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson accused Jackson of cheating on a horse racing bet, so the two met near the Red River in Kentucky for a 19th-century throw-down. Dickinson fired first and hit Jackson in the ribs. Jackson returned fire, killing Dickinson. Doctors judged the musket ball lodged in Jackson’s chest to be too close to his heart to remove, so the bullet stayed in his body for the rest of his life.

*In 1826, Senator John Randolph accused Secretary of State Henry Clay of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.” Randolph, of course, found himself challenged to a duel. Randolph, a crack shot, decided that it would be unwise and unmanly to kill Clay, so he determined to aim high and let Clay live. When both men met for the duel, Randolph accidentally fired his gun into the ground. Clay, accepting that it was a misfire, allowed Randolph to reload his pistol. Randolph, still not wanting to kill Clay, fired first and nicked Henry Clay’s coat. Clay fired back and missed his target. They decided to have a do-over. This time, Clay fired first, missing his opponent yet again. Randolph then fired his weapon into the air. Moved by the gesture, Clay met Randolph at mid-field and shook his hand, thus ending the duel.

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