It’s early September 1799 just off the Island of Manhattan.
As the sun sets in the western sky, a small row boat cuts through the placid waters of the Hudson River on its way to the shores of Hoboken, New Jersey. On board are two men: a former United States Senator from New York named Aaron Burr, and his colleague; a judge from South Carolina. Waiting for them on the banks of Hoboken is a prominent businessman named John Barker Church.
Burr and Church are from opposing political factions. Burr is a Democratic-Republican. Church is a Federalist. But their disagreement is personal, too. A few days back, Church accused Burr of taking a bribe during his time in the US Senate. This evening, Burr fully intends to defend his honor in a duel.
Soon, Burr’s boat glides to a stop. He and his second, the judge, step out onto dry land where Church is waiting, with his second by his side. The men exchange pleasantries and then march to the dueling grounds.
Once there, both parties make ready. After drawing for positions and establishing rules, Burr's second distributes the pistols. Burr and Church stand back to back.
They walk ten paces, turn to face each other, and raise their weapons.
Burr is the first to fire, but his aim is way off.
Church’s reply is a direct hit. But the bullet ricochets off a button on Burr’s coat.
Burr quickly loads his weapon for a second shot. He angrily calls out, “Don’t fret, sir. I never miss twice!”. And from the look in Burr’s eyes, Church can tell he means it. Overcome with fear, Church steps forward, waves his arms in the air, and begs for mercy.
Burr declines to take the second shot. He lowers his weapon as the anger in his eyes fades, and is replaced by a sense of satisfaction.
In the heat of the moment, Church delivers a heartfelt apology. He admits to the lies he's told and begs Burr’s forgiveness. Satisfied, Burr gives it. And soon, the two men shake hands, climb onto their boats and row back to Manhattan. Burr leaves Hoboken with his reputation as a man of honor intact.
But this is not the last time Aaron Burr will stand in a duel. Nearly five years later, Burr will once again row across the Hudson to defend his honor against a political enemy. This time, Burr will not be so merciful. In the wake of continued attacks on his character, Burr will stand against one of his greatest political adversaries, the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Burr will alter the course of his career, and of American History, when he shoots and fatally wounds Hamilton whose life will tragically expire on July 12th, 1804.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 12th, 1804: The Death of Alexander Hamilton.
Act One: The Insult
It’s Spring 1804 in Albany, New York.
A dinner party is underway at the home of John Tayler, a prominent Federalist judge. John sits at a table with party guests. But his gaze is fixed on one man in particular: former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. John refills his glass of wine and listens, enraptured, as Hamilton speaks his mind about one of his least favorite New Yorkers: Aaron Burr.
Hamilton and Burr are from opposing political factions. Hamilton is a die-hard, founding leader of the Federalists. Burr is a Democratic-Republican. But the animus between them goes beyond politics. Hamilton despises Burr, a man he feels is untrustworthy and unprincipled.
Burr is currently the Vice President of the United States. But he had a major falling out with his once ally, President Thomas Jefferson. Eventually, word began to spread that Jefferson wanted Burr dropped from the ticket in the upcoming presidential election. Sensing he might be replaced as Vice President, Burr decided to run for governor of New York, and he’s been courting the Federalist vote here ever since. Now, many members of Hamilton’s party are giving Burr serious consideration.
But Hamilton won't stand it. So tonight, at this gathering of powerful and influential New Yorkers, Hamilton doesn’t hold back. He says Burr is dangerous and despotic, he has no convictions, and he is loyal only to himself: Aaron Burr is not fit to be governor.
Soon, the gathering is over and Hamilton and the rest go their separate ways. But one of the party guests, Dr. Charles Cooper, is struck by Hamilton’s remarks. A few weeks later, Cooper writes a letter to a friend recounting Hamilton’s incendiary comments about Burr. Though it’s not entirely clear how or why, excerpts from Cooper’s letter end up in print in the New York Evening Post. Before long, Cooper’s letter will make its way back to Aaron Burr. And upon reading, the hot-tempered Burr will once again feel he has no choice but to defend his honor.
It’s Monday morning, June 18th, 1804, at Aaron Burr’s home overlooking the Hudson River.
Burr storms into his study in a huff, followed by his dear friend William Van Ness. Burr violently rummages through his desk and then shoves a piece of paper at Van Ness. Van Ness takes it, realizes it's a letter from a man named Dr. Cooper who claims Alexander Hamilton has tarnished Burr’s name. Among other things, Cooper claims Hamilton thinks Burr is “despicable”.
Burr is livid, but he isn’t the least bit surprised. When Burr ran for president in 1800, Hamilton campaigned against him and blocked his path to power. Now, Hamilton’s doing it again as Burr seeks the governorship of New York. Burr tells Van Ness that over the past dozen years, Hamilton has spoken ill of him more times than he can count and that his words have been “highly injurious to his reputation” and career. In the past, Burr always took the high road. But today, he decides enough is enough.
Burr sits down at his desk and pens a forceful note to Hamilton, writing: “Sir, I send for your perusal a letter signed Charles D. Cooper which, though apparently published some time ago, has but very recently come to my knowledge…”
In the note, Burr insists that Hamilton issue a prompt response. He writes, “you might perceive, Sir, the necessity of an… unqualified acknowledgment or denial.” Burr concludes his note with a customary sign-off: “I have the honor to be… Your Obedient Servant… Aaron Burr.”
Then Burr hands his letter to Van Ness and orders him to deliver it to Alexander Hamilton at once. Van Ness does as he’s told. Burr leans back in his chair, seething with anger. His note is polite and cordial. But the implied meaning is clear. If Hamilton does not apologize or issue a denial, Burr will have no choice but to demand satisfaction.
Act Two: The Second Insult and the duel
It’s 11 AM at Alexander Hamilton’s law office in New York.
Hamilton stands behind his desk, reading a note from Aaron Burr with an attached copy of Dr. Cooper’s letter. Standing across from him is William Van Ness awaiting Hamilton’s reply.
When Hamilton finishes reading, he tells Van Ness that Burr’s charge against him is too general. Hamilton suggests, “if Mr. Burr would refer to any particular expressions, I would recognize or disavow them.” In reply, Van Ness says that Mr. Burr does not need to be more specific; Cooper’s letter makes Hamilton’s purported words crystal clear. Van Ness insists that the laws of honor justify Burr’s charge and that Hamilton must answer with a denial or an apology, or suffer the consequences.
Hamilton replies that Burr’s charge requires some further consideration and that Hamilton will send a reply to Van Ness’ office soon enough. Van Ness tells Hamilton he looks forward to hearing from him and then heads for the door.
Once alone, Hamilton mulls over his next move. He knows exactly what’s at stake. After all, Hamilton is no stranger to the art of dueling himself. He’s been a close participant in as many as six duels of honor. In three of them, he acted as a second. But Hamilton has never had to stand in one himself. Still, he knows they can be deadly affairs. Hamilton’s own son, Philip, was killed in a duel several years back. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries have condemned the controversial practice, including the current president, Thomas Jefferson. But not Hamilton.
+Like Aaron Burr, Hamilton is a former military man. And during the Revolutionary War, Hamilton was aide de camp to General Washington. He went on to his own command and played a key role at the famous Battle of Yorktown, the last major ground battle in the war. Hamilton would never shy away from a duel for fear of being labeled a coward. And he certainly won’t shy away from his longtime adversary, Aaron Burr.
Before long, Hamilton gathers his thoughts and returns to his desk to pen a reply. Hamilton neither apologizes or deny saying the words. He doesn’t admit to anything. Instead, he takes an antagonistic tone, writing: “I deem it inadmissible on principle to consent to be interrogated as to the justness of the inferences which may be drawn by others from whatever I may have said of a political opponent in the course of… fifteen years...”
On the evening of Wednesday, June 20th, Hamilton delivers this reply to the home of William Van Ness. Then he walks off into the night, fully prepared to “suffer the consequences”.
It’s July 4th, 1804 at Fraunces Tavern in New York.
The who’s who of Washington are gathered for a banquet put on by the officers and veterans of the Revolutionary War. Aaron Burr sits at the end of a large banquet table. And all around him, veterans laugh, drink, and make merry. But Burr is not in a festive mood; in no small part because of the well-dressed gentlemen who just walked in the front door.
Burr knew he’d see Hamilton tonight. Hamilton’s deeply involved in the Society of the Cincinnati, and has been since George Washington passed away years ago. But now that he sees him in the flesh, holding court and peacocking around the room, Burr can barely contain his anger.
Soon, a group of veterans approach Hamilton and ask him to sing a military song. At first, Hamilton feins shyness. But then he flips on the charm and hops up onto the banquet table. The audience roars with delight as Hamilton breaks into a full-throated ballad. Burr just rolls his eyes. He’s had enough of Alexander Hamilton’s antics. But Burr does take one small comfort: he knows that soon enough, Hamilton will be called to account for the things he’s done and said.
When Burr first read Hamilton’s reply, he was furious. He fired back an equally hot response, and the two men traded several messages back and forth. But neither was willing to budge. Ultimately, Burr felt he had no choice but to demand satisfaction. So he sent his man, Van Ness, to deliver a formal request for a duel. Hamilton accepted. The date was set for July 11th in Weehawken, New Jersey.
And tonight, only a week away from that day, as Burr watches Hamilton laugh, sing and make merry, his blood boils. For too long, he feels, Hamilton has insulted his honor and his character. But no more. Burr will soon finally have a chance to defend his name. He will stand back to back with Hamilton, walk his paces, and trade shots in one of the most infamous encounters in American History.
Act Three: The Death
It’s the evening of July 10th, 1804 at 54 Cedar Street in Manhattan.
Alexander Hamilton sits at his desk penning a note by candlelight. He writes: “This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career…”
Hamilton's wife Eliza and their children are out of town staying at their country home. If things go poorly tomorrow, this letter may be Hamilton's only chance to say goodbye.
And though after finishing it he tries to go to bed, he wakes up at 3 AM and is compelled to write a hymn for Eliza. A few hours later, there’s a knock at the door. When he opens it, he sees his second, and a local doctor standing in the threshold. Together, these three men leave under the cover of the early morning darkness. They climb onto a small boat and row across the Hudson River toward the banks of Weehawken, New Jersey, where Aaron Burr is waiting.
At 7 AM, the former Secretary of the Treasury and the current Vice President stand back to back on a cliff overlooking the banks of the Hudson. In the presence of their seconds, both men pace away from each other, turn, aim, and fire their pistols. Hamilton shoots and misses. Burr’s aim is true.
The question of what happened - of who fired first, and who had violent intentions - will be the subject of a centuries-long debate. What’s not in doubt is the result.
After the duel, the mortally wounded Hamilton is taken back across the Hudson to a mansion near what is today the West Village. There, in a second-story bedroom, the doctors do their best to make Hamilton comfortable. And after receiving Holy Communion, Hamilton finally drifts off to sleep.
The next morning, July 12th, 1804, Hamilton can barely move or speak. But he experiences a jolt of joy when Eliza brings his seven children to see him. After a barrage of hugs and kisses, Eliza lines up the children at the foot of the bed. Hamilton will take one last look at his family, and then close his eyes, never to open them again.
Hamilton’s death makes Burr a fugitive from justice. Though he’s charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, the charges are eventually dropped. He is never tried for Hamilton’s death. He will finish out his duties as vice president.
But Burr will not go on to any further fame or fortune. He will help plan a failed invasion of Mexico in an attempt to establish an independent government there. Allegedly, he will also be involved in a plot to encourage the Western states and territories to secede from America. In 1807, he will be tried for treason and eventually acquitted under a cloud of suspicion; a controversial end to a once-promising career that died with Alexander Hamilton on July 12th, 1804.
Next onHistory Daily.July 13th, 1923. Real estate developers dedicate the Hollywood sign, inadvertently creating an iconic American landmark.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.