The Rushmore Report: You Think Politics Is Rough Now – The VP Who Killed a Man


You think politics is rough now? We cringe when we hear of President Trump’s daily tweets. Then we hear the despicable things many in the media say about him. Democrats blast Republicans and Republicans blast Democrats – daily. But this is nothing compared to what happened this week in history. On July 11, 1804, the sitting Vice President of the United States killed the former Secretary of the Treasury in a duel.

It was the culmination of a long and bitter rivalry between the two men.

In the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton departed by separate boats from Manhattan and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey, a popular dueling ground below the towering cliffs of the Palisades. Hamilton and Burr agreed to take the duel to Weehawken because although dueling had been prohibited in both states, New York more aggressively prosecuted the crime. (The same site was used for 18 known duels between 1700 and 1845.)

In an attempt to prevent the participants from being prosecuted, procedures were implemented to give all witnesses plausible deniability. For example, the pistols were transported to the island in a portmanteau, enabling the rowers (who also stood with their backs to the duelists) to say under oath that they had not seen any pistols.

All first-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired; however, Hamilton’s and Burr’s seconds disagreed on the intervening time between the shots. It was common for both principals in a duel to fire a shot at the ground to exemplify courage, and then the duel could come to an end. Hamilton fired first, and into the air, though it is not clear that Burr perceived him to be “throwing away his fire” (as it did not follow the standard protocol).

Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The musket ball ricocheted off Hamilton’s second or third rib – fracturing it – and caused considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm before becoming lodged in his first or second lumbar vertebra. Hamilton collapsed immediately, dropping the pistol involuntarily, and Burr moved toward Hamilton before being hustled away behind an umbrella, as rowers were already approaching.

Hamilton was carried away, to the home of William Bayard, where he died the next day with his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, at his side.

Is politics rough today? Sure it is. But things could be worse. So the next time you feel things have really gotten out of hand, remember Mr. Hamilton.


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