July 11 — On this day 215 years ago, in what is now considered one of the most famous political conflicts in American history, then-Vice President Aaron Burr shot former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Their long and bitter rivalry culminated in a duel that led to Hamilton’s death and end of Burr’s political career.
It all started in 1791 when Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury. At the time, Aaron Burr took a seat on the U.S. Senate from Philip Schuyler, who happened to be Hamilton’s father-in-law. Hamilton wasn’t pleased, as Burr’s loose association with the Democratic-Republicans further weakened the Federalist Party. In the election of 1800, Aaron Burr became Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, a win that became possible when Burr published a confidential letter written by Hamilton, that criticized Federalist president John Adams.
When the election of 1804 rolled around, Jefferson dropped Burr from his ticket, so the former vice president decided to run for New York governor instead. At this point, Hamilton campaigned vigorously against him, even going so far as to endorse Democratic-Republican Morgan Lewis, who ended up winning. Hamilton and other political conduits publicly smeared Burr’s name and in an effort to salvage his reputation, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel even though it was illegal at the time.
On July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton met near Weehawken, New Jersey at 7 A.M. The motive behind the first shot—fired by Hamilton—is disputed. Those on Hamilton’s side say that the Founding Father decided the duel was wrong and deliberately shot into the air, hitting a tree branch above Burr’s head. Those on Burr’s side say that Hamilton shot at Burr and simply missed. Burr fired the second shot, hitting Hamilton in the stomach. Hamilton was taken back to New York, where he died the next day. Burr was charged with murder but nothing came of it.