Historical Head-Turning Duels That Still Surprise People Today

A duel is a formal fight arranged between two people to settle their argument and prove their honor. Duels remained legal up through the nineteenth century, leading to some shocking and fatal contests. These famous duels are still being talked about today. From two ladies jousting and throwing maces to gentlemen firing at each other from hot air balloons, here are some of the most unexpected and devastating duels of all time. Not all end in death, but all include some shocking and fateful twists. How many of these crazy duels do you know?

One of our nation’s Founding Fathers met his fate in a duel.

Crossdressing Opera Singer Julie d’Aubigny Battles Three Men

Julie d'Aubigny (1607-1707) bisexual swordsman opera singer duelist
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Julie d’Aubigny lived independently in the seventeenth century as an opera singer and a swordsman. She fought in many duels, the most notable being at a ball in 1695. She dressed as a man to the ball–not to hide, just because she could. She then kissed a young woman there, which was witnessed by three suitors of the woman.

The three suitors, who were not named in accounts, all challenged d’Aubigny to a duel. One after the other, d’Aubigny defeated all of her opponents. Though reports don’t specify who survived, d’Aubigny’s previous duel records indicate she left few survivors.

Duel of Women, Isabelle De Carazzi and Diambra De Pottinella

Isabelle De Carazzi and Diambra De Pottinella duel Naples 1552
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Although this fight left no deaths, it still became one of Italy’s most gruesome duels of all time. In 1552, Naples, two friends Isabelle De Carazzi and Diambra De Pottinella discovered that their love, Favio de Zeresola, was courting them both. But rather than turn on the nobleman, the two turned on each other.

The duel began with the two jousting. But that was only the first part. Once their lances crumbled, they grabbed their maces. Pottinella knocked Carazzi off of her horse, and Carazzi retaliated by unhelming Pottinella with a sword. The battle finally ended when Carazzi surrendered.

Fatal Neighbor Rivalry

Women Duel
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Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were neighboring land-owners of Orel, Russia who had a lifelong hatred of each other. By the time the two engaged in a duel, they were out for blood. The ladies took up their husband’s sabers with their daughters as seconds.

Neither survived in this graphic duel. Zavarova pierced Polesova’s stomach, and Polesova struck back with a single blow to the head. Zavarova died that day and Polesova a day later. Fatefully, their daughters later dueled on that same spot. This time, Zavarova’s family won the duel.

These coming unusual duels were not fought on the ground.

Dueling Inside A Stagecoach

Departure of stagecoach, illustration, France
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In Napoleonic France, Colonel Barbier-Dufair and Captian Raol de Vere were determined to duel after Barbier-Dufair mocked de Vere’s cockade (his hat ribbon). They began fencing in the streets, but de Vere didn’t possess the swordsman skills to satisfy Barbier-Dufair. Afterward, the pair decided on an even more insane dueling idea.

They tied their left arms together and, armed with knives, fought inside a moving stagecoach. Though Barbier-Dufair still lived by the time coach stopped at Place du Carrousel, he barely hung on until the next day.

Hot Air Balloon Duel

Sri Lanka Balloon Festival in Hambantota Hot Air Balloon Duel

In Paris, 1808, Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur le Pique discovered that their lover, Mademoiselle Tirevit, had affairs with both of them. The two men concluded that they must fight in a duel in the most grandiose way possible–by shooting each other out of hot air balloons.

Le Pique had the honor of firing first. He missed. De Grandpre shot second and popped Le Pique’s balloon. Both Le Pique and his second (who was also in the aircraft) died on impact. Unfortunately, no one knows what happened between De Grandpre and the Mademoiselle afterward.

The United States’ early days featured more duels than you may realize…

Shot By A President

Political cartoon of President Andrew Jackson by James Akin, circa 1824
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President Andrew Jackson carved a violent reputation for himself. Historians estimate his total amount of duels to be anywhere from five to 100. So it’s no surprise that this famous duel erupted from accusations of cheating on a horse race bet and insulting Jackson’s wife.

On May 30, 1860, Jackson and Charles Dickinson cocked their guns along the Red River in Kentucky. Dickinson fired first and hit Jackson close to the heart. According to witnesses, Jackson’s returning shot missed, but in a breach of etiquette, he fired again and killed Dickinson. Jackson experienced chronic pain for the rest of his life.

Signer Of The Declaration Of Independence Falls In Duel One Year Later

Declaration of Independence rewrite
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Button Gwinnett was a Georgian Patriot who shaped his political views around his contempt and disdain for the wealthy Whig Party of Savannah. After signing the Declaration, Gwinnett returned to Georgia to find Whig member Lachlan McIntosh attempting to command Gwinnett’s army.

Their dispute over who should lead escalated into a duel. Gwinnett received a fatal bullet wound and died three days afterward. McIntosh also got shot, but he survived the injury. Gwinnett passed away in 1777, one year after signing the Declaration of Independence.

Coming up, would you fight this brutally over plants?

Elizabethan Actor Gabriel Spenser, Killed By His Playwright

'The Advance that Failed', First World War, 1914-1915, (1920).  Illustration from The Illustrated War Record of the Most Notable Episodes in the Great European War 1914-1918
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Gabriel Spenser was a theater actor known for his roles in plays by Ben Jonson. Oddly enough, it was playwright Ben Jonson who would murder Spenser during a duel in 1598. Historical accounts don’t detail how the duel began, but according to Jonson, Spenser initiated the duel and had the advantage of a longer sword.

The sword advantage didn’t help the actor, however. The playwright managed to stab a six-inch deep wound into Spenser’s right side. Jonson did confess to the killing, though, and served his time afterward.

‘Emancipation Duel’ Fought Over Flowers

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In 1892, Princess Pauline of Austria and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg supposedly engaged in a duel. The battle was only recounted in foreign newspapers, and Princess Pauline denied it, but the tale remains famous.

As the story goes, Pauline and Anastasia escalated from an argument over floral arrangements to a rapier duel. The two fought topless, with female judges and female seconds, making this an all-female duel. The opponents agreed that whoever struck first would win. Pauline quickly sliced Anastasia’s nose and won the fight. They dropped the matter afterward.

Can you guess which literature enthusiasts always end up in duels?

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton

Aaron Burr Alexander Hamilton Duel
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Founding Father and first ever Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton picked a fight with the wrong man. Hamilton had changed the rules on the 1800 presidential election to kick Aaron Burr out, and then again prevented Burr from achieving governor of New York in 1804.

Burr demanded an apology letter, but Hamilton refused, claiming he never insulted Burr. The two finally arranged a duel to take place on July 11, 1804. No one was sure who fired first. Some believe Hamilton purposefully missed Burr, but either way, Burr landed a mortal wound on Hamilton that caused his death the next day.

Alexander Hamilton’s Son, Three Years Before His Father’s Duel

Illustration of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Preparing to Duel
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Like father like son never rang more true for Philip Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton, who died in a duel at age 19. He died on the same spot that Alexander Hamilton would three years later. Philip’s death grieved Alexander so much that he could barely stand at his son’s funeral.

In 1801, Philip and his friend ran into Republican lawyer George Eacker. Eacker had previously accused Alexander Hamilton of selfishness. Philip, who may have been drunk, challenged Eacker to a duel. Philip either didn’t fire or missed, but either way, he died on the spot.

Russian Poet Mikhail Lermontov

Portrait of the poet Mikhail Lermontov  (1814-1841), 1834. Found in the collection of the Institut of Russian Literature
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Russian poet and writer Mikhail Lermontov published many works in the nineteenth century. In his only novel, A Hero of Our Time, the protagonist kills an officer in a duel in the Caucasus. One year later, Lermontov himself would die in a duel from a fellow officer in the Caucasus.

Lermontov and Nikolai Martynow were both officers fighting in Chechnya and Dagestan. In 1841, after the poet threw some insults at Martynow, the two turned to fight each other. Seconds into the duel, Lermontov declared that he would not shoot his opponent–but Martynow grew angry and shot the poet anyway.

Another Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin Selected Works Poems
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Nineteenth-century Russian poets fought their fair share of duels. Alexander Pushkin engaged in 15 duel-related incidents about everything from poems to gambling. But his fight with French nobleman George D’Anthes would end his brawling spree forever.

The climactic battle erupted over jealousy that Pushkin’s wife had been getting together with D’Anthes. The two dueled in February 1837 by the snowy Black River. D’Anthes shot Pushkin in the stomach, but after falling, Pushkin fired back. Seeing D’Anthes fall, he shouted, “Bravo!” Of course, D’Anthes’s wound turned out light, whereas Pushkin died two days later.

Two More Russian Poets, Seriously, No Joke

Duel between Russian Generals Smyrnoff and Fock, Illustration from French newspaper Le Petit Parisien 1908
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We know you can’t get enough of Russian poets fighting to the death, so here’s a case of two Russian poets dueling each other in 1909. Nikolai Gumilyov and Maximilian Voloshin both fought over a third Russian poet, Lilya Dmitriyeva. She had rejected Gumilyov, who insulted her. Voloshin intervened to defend the lady’s honor.

But this duel was anything but climactic. Voloshin lost one of his bullets and spent a long time looking for it. When they finally fired, Gumilyov’s shot missed, and Voloshin’s pistol misfired twice. Neither poet died that day.

The first known female duel may shock and impress you . . .

The Last Ever Canadian Duelist, Robert Lyon

Robert Lyon Memorial Last Canadian Duelist 1833
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Unlike the other entries, who achieved fame before their duels, Robert Lyon became famous for being the last duel fatality in Canadian history. Lyon initiated a fight with fellow law student John Wilson over the love of a local schoolteacher, Elizabeth Hughes.

In June 1833, Lyon and Wilson squared up in Perth, Ontario. A flying bullet was Lyon’s last ever sight. Wilson and his second were both charged with murder but later acquitted. Wilson ended up marrying Hughes and having three children.

Female Knight Agnes Hotot’s Victory

Easter Tournament at the Royal Armouries A man dressed as a knight takes part in a jousting competition female knight
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Agnes Hotot, daughter of the Earl of the Dudley, went down in history as an exceptional jousting duelist in the fourteenth century. The earl challenged a gentleman named Ringsley to a duel but fell ill the night before. Early Hotot decided to disguise his daughter in armor and had her fight for him.

Not only did Hotot fight, but she won. She successfully knocked Ringsley off the horse. After her victory, she removed her helmet to reveal her identity as a woman. Ringsley’s humiliation was a worse fate than death.

This next duelist’s try at anonymity failed hard.

Disciple Of Karl Marx Battles Over Courtship

Ferdinand Lassalle
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Ferdinand Lassalle was a German socialist and one of the founders of the German labor movement. However, when his campaign to spread Marx’s philosophy disappointed him, he moved to Switzerland in 1864. There, he met Helene von Dönniges, whom he courted.

Dönniges’s family didn’t approve of his courtship. In August of that year, Lassalle challenged Dönniges’s former fiancé Yanko von Racowitza to a duel. They fought by a little forest near Geneva, and Racowitza hit Lassalle in the abdomen. He died three days later, never achieving Dönniges’s hand.

Just Kidding, Here’s A Fourth Russian Poet

Portrait of Kondraty Fyodorovich Ryleyev Russian poet
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You’ve probably been craving another Russian poet duel, and this one will surely scratch that itch. In 1824, author Kondraty Ryleyev decided to defend the honor of his illegitimate stepsister Anna from a love interest whom he believed did not act honorably. The me, of course, turned out to be Prince Konstanin Shakhovskoi.

The Prince refused Ryleyev until the poet threw some horrid insults, leading to an anarchist duel. They had no distance limits, and shot each other simultaneously only ten feet apart. No one died, but Ryleyev did get shot in the foot.

Brilliant Mathematician’s Final Will Before The Duel

Portrait of Evariste Galois (1811-1832) French mathematician founder of the Theory of Groups
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French mathematician Évariste Galoissolved polynomials through radicals, cracking a code that other mathematicians struggled with for over 350 years. He might have achieved more if he hadn’t passed away in a duel at age 20.

No one knows who Galois challenged to a duel, as newspapers from the era code name the opponent as L.D. Whatever the reason behind the fight, Galois was so convinced of his impending death that stayed up the night before writing letters, which would later become his mathematical testament. In May 1832, Galois was shot in the abdomen and left to die.

Leap Off A Building, Or Explode Gunpowder?

The duel between John Wilkes and Samuel Martin in Hyde Park
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Armistead Thomson Mason was the second-youngest U.S. Senator ever. After his term, he ran for the House of Representatives in 1817. During the campaign, Mason publicly announced that his opponent, also his neighbor and second cousin John Mason McCarty, was actually too young to run.

Insults such as “perjured scoundrel” bounced amongst the two until they settled on a duel. Mason made many crazy proposals, including both leaping from the dome of the U.S. Capitol, and sitting on a barrel of gunpowder and igniting it. In the end, they fought traditionally with a single bullet–which hit Mason in the left breast, killing him.

The Famous And Horrific Hamilton-Mohun Duel

Duel Between The Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun illustration
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Charles Mohun, the Fourth Baron Mohun of Okehampton, had a reputation for his frequent duels and being a “rake” (trouble-maker). For many years, he disputed with James Hamilton, the Fourth Duke of Hamilton, over inheritance and political views. In 1712, the two came to a head in the famous Hamilton-Mohun Duel.

The two met on a November morning in Hyde Park, with swords in hand. They fought “like wild beasts, not fencing or parrying” according to author Richard Holmes. Both were wounded, but what happened next remained vague. Hamilton claimed that he stepped forward to help Mohun, but that his second ended up delivering the final blow.

One Wife’s Affair Ends With Bloodshed

Duel scene, illustration from The Lame Devil
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The Eleventh Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford, Francis Talbot fought as a Royalist officer in the English Civil War. But in 1668 he’s fight a fiercer opponent, the Second Duke of Buckingham George Villiers, who was having an affair with Talbot’s wife.

Author Samuel Pepys reports that Talbot was pierced right through the body, and died on the spot. Villiers only suffered some arm wounds. An unconfirmed rumor states that Talbot’s wife disguised as a page and held Villiers’ horse through the entire duel, and slept with him in his bloodstained shirt.

The Duel Of Politicians Who Could Not Aim

Richard Dobbs Spaight, member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Constitution of the United States and the eighth Governor of the U.S. state of North Carolina
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Richard Dobbs Spaight U.S. Consitution signer who also fought in the American Revolutionary War. When he ran for the House of Representatives in 1800, he lost to Federalist John Stanly. Allegedly, Stanly dishonored Spaight by questioning his loyalty to his party.

Both politicians seized their quills and published their slander in the same newspaper, the New Bern Gazette. By 1802, the two’s rivalry was known nationwide, and they decided to settle the matter in a duel behind the Masonic Hall. Both fired and missed, three times. On the fourth shot, Stanly mortally wounded Spaight, killing him.

Battle Of The Naval Officers

Put-In-Bay on Lake Erie, Michigan War of 1812
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U.S. Naval officer Stephen Decatur became good friends with Navy Commodore James Barron during the Tripolitan War. However, in a trial that suspended Barron from the Navy for eight years, Decatur sat on the court-marshal. In 1818, Decatur publicly opposed Barron’s return to the Navy, rubbing salt into his wound. They agreed to duel in March 1820.

Both Decatur and Barron raised their guns and hit each other at the same time. Decatur died hours later, and was mourned as a great naval hero. Barron survived, but returned to the Navy with a lower rank.

Civil War Generals Duel Within The Chaos

he Federals' last stand at Manassas, Virginia 1862.
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Lucius M. Walker commanded a Confederate army during the American Civil War. After the Battle of Reed’s Bridge, Union General John S. Marmaduke accused Walker of cowardice by not joining his men on the battlefield. Major General Sterling Price ordered both generals to remain in their quarters to prevent a duel. However, this order supposedly did not make it to Walker.

On the morning of September 6, 1863, Walker challenged Marmaduke at his camp, and both squared off next to the Arkansas River. Their first shots missed, but Marmaduke’s second shot hit Walker fatally. Walker forgave Marmaduke as he died.

Both Alexander Hamilton and his son were killed in duels. Keep reading to learn more about Hamilton’s fascinating life.

Hamilton Dropped Out Of College To Fight In The American Revolution

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In 1772, Alexander Hamilton traveled from his childhood home in what is now the Caribbean to Boston. There, he hoped to be enrolled in one of the few establishments where a young man could get an education. His number one choice was Princeton, however, he was rejected after requesting an accelerated course of study.

By 1773, he was enrolled in King’s College, now Columbia University, where he proved to excel as a student. However, after the first military engagement between the American troops and the British at Lexington and Concord, he and some fellow students dropped out and joined a New York Volunteer militia later known as the Hearts of Oak.

He Supported Himself As A Young Man

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Hamilton was born in Charleston, Nevis in the Leeward Islands in what was part of the British West Indies. His father, James Hamilton, abandoned the family, and his mother moved Hamilton and his brother to St. Croix. Soon after, she contracted yellow fever and died in 1768, leaving Hamilton orphaned.

As a teenager, Hamilton then became a clerk at the import-export firm Beekman and Cruger which traded with New York and New England. He proved to do extremely well in his position, even being left in charge of the company for a period of time while the owner was off at sea. It was also during this time that he became mostly self-educated.

He Founded A Major Bank Before He Was 30

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Throughout his life, Alexander Hamilton proved to be a genius in most financial matters, eventually earning his image on the ten dollar bill. Yet, one of his greatest financial accomplishments was establishing the Bank of New York in 1784 along with Aaron Burr.

He managed to do this before he was even 30 years old, and the bank went on to become not only one of the oldest banks in the United States but in the world. Eventually becoming the Bank of New York Mellon Corporation, it finally shut its doors in 2007.

One Of America’s First Publicized Relationship Scandals

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Although Hamilton appeared to be happily married to Elizabeth Schuyler, a daughter from a powerful New York Family, in 1791 he went against his marriage and had an affair with 23-year-old Maria Reynolds. She was married as well and her husband blackmailed Hamilton to keep quiet about the affair.

Eventually, tired of paying Maria’s husband and sneaking around, Hamilton publicly admitted his faults. Although the affair put a strain on his marriage with Elizabeth, the two managed to work it out. On the other hand, Maria Reynolds divorced her husband and ironically had Aaron Burr as a lawyer, the man who would later kill Hamilton.

Can you guess what made him different from every other Founding Father?

He Was Active In America’s First Murder Trial

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In 1800, a young carpenter from New York named Levi Weeks was accused of murdering a woman he was involved with named Gulielma “Elma” Sands. Her body was found in a well in Manhattan, giving the trial the name of the Manhattan Well Murder. This was the first murder trial in the United States where there is a recorded transcript.

Luckily, Week’s brother was Ezra Weeks, one of New York’s most successful builders. His brother’s position allowed him to hire Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Henry Livingston, three of the most respected attorneys in New York. The three were able to have Weeks acquitted within 5 minutes of jury deliberation.

Growing Up In The Carribean Might Have Influenced His Beliefs About Slavery

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Alexander Hamilton grew up in the Caribbean, which at the time was the center of British slavery. There, he was most likely exposed to the cruelty and horrors that the native people faced as they were torn from their families and shipped off. This is believed to have had an impact on Hamilton. In 1785, Hamilton became involved with the New York Manumission Society, an organization whose goal was to slowly end slavery.

He’s also been described by some biographists as a “fervent abolitionist.” However, like numerous other Founding Fathers, his supposed distaste for slavery remains uncertain as his wife’s family owned slaves in New York.

He Helped Establish The Two-Party System

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While Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were both key players in the establishment of the United States and the government as we know it today, they weren’t necessarily best friends. The two actually disagreed on a lot of matters which eventually led to a schism between the two.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison favored strong state governments and formed the Jeffersonian Republican Party in opposition to Hamilton who wanted a strong national government. Before long, Hamilton’s allies began to call themselves Federalists. This was the beginning of the two-party system in the United States.

He Was The Only Founding Father Not Born In The American Colonies

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Being born in Nevis, an island in the British West Indies, Hamilton was the only Founding Father to not be born in the Thirteen Colonies. He was also born out of wedlock. Like many other young British men, his father, James Hamilton, moved to the British West Indies in hopes of making his fortune in the booming trade industry in the region.

It was there that he met Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, who was divorced from her first husband. The two lived together and had two sons although they never married.

Check out the newspaper he started that is still around today!

The Oldest United States Military Unit

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During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton was the leader of what is now considered the oldest serving unit in the United States Army. According to the Army Historical Foundation, “Battery D, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), the oldest US unit, can be traced back to Hamilton’s artillery company.”

Under his leadership, the company was involved in numerous key battles such as White Plains and Princeton in which their actions helped result in a victory. Impressed by Hamilton’s military prowess, George Washington made him an aide-de-camp with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

He Authored The Majority Of The Federalist Papers

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Published between 1787 and 1788, the 85 Federalist Papers were a series of essays that attempted to convince New York’s electorate to ratify the United States Constitution. These documents were written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay who wrote them under the pseudonym Publius.

Because they didn’t use their real names, it’s not certain how many essays each of the men wrote. Yet, it is assumed that Hamilton wrote 51, Madison with 29, and Jay with five. The publication of the Federalist Papers is considered to be one of Hamilton’s greatest political accomplishments.

He Founded The New York Post

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Hamilton started the paper that’s now known as The New York Post in 1801 after accumulating $10,000 from investors, many of whom were other New York members of the Federalist Party. At the time, it was called The New York Evening Post, which Hamilton utilized as a way to speak out against the Jeffersonian Republican Party shortly after Jefferson had been elected president.

Hamilton was heavily involved with the publication in its early years, writing many of the editorials himself. Still in circulation today, the paper boasts itself to be the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States.

You won’t believe the similarities between his son and his own death.

George Washington’s Last Letter Was Addressed To Hamilton

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Two days before George Washington’s death, he sent a correspondent to his old friend and former cabinet member, Alexander Hamilton. For some time, Hamilton had been set on establishing “a regular Military Academy” for the benefit of the army and protection of the nation.

Washington also thought that it was a wise proposition and reached out to Hamilton. In the last letter that George Washington ever wrote, he proclaimed that a Military Academy would be “of primary importance to this country.”

He Was The First Secretary Of Treasury

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On September 11, 1789, George Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first-ever Secretary of Treasury. During that time, much of the United States government was established as we know it today such as the structure of the Cabinet. During Hamilton’s time in the position, not only was he responsible for his own duties, but Washington frequently relied on him for advice outside of financial matters.

Hamilton also helped to found the first national bank, the U.S. Mint, and the Revenue Cutter Service which would later grow to become the U.S. Coast Guard. Hamilton eventually left the position in January 1795.

His Policies Started A Tax Rebellion

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As Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton knew that some taxes needed to be implemented in order to create revenue. Made clear by the Revolutionary War, Americans didn’t like paying taxes. However, it needed to be done and one of his first tax targets was on whiskey made either domestically or imported. He figured this would be the better option than taxing people’s land.

Of course, this still didn’t go over well, and what is known as the Whiskey Rebellion began which lasted from 1791 to 1794. The rebellion was eventually crushed by government troops led by George Washington. This sent the message that the government had the ability to put down any uprisings.