On the morning of July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr left Manhattan in small boats with their companions. They were heading to New Jersey to duel with pistols. The rules of the affair were well-established, as were the dueling grounds where they would meet. After the shots rang out below the rocky Palisades, Hamilton fell mortally wounded while Burr was left standing.
While it is well-known that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel, fewer people realize that the deadly meeting occurred not far from the Lincoln Tunnel, a busy traffic artery where thousands of people travel between New York and New Jersey each day, usually for less bloody purposes. In fact, the dueling grounds are marked on Google Maps.
There are even some reviews, but they don’t all seem legit.
Historians differ on exactly where the dueling grounds were, but the Google location is at least close. It is difficult to determine exactly where the grounds were because the ledge where gentleman went to prove their willingness to fire pistols at each other was long ago leveled to make way for a railroad between the cliffs and the shore.
Hamilton and Burr were certainly not the first, nor the last, to duel in Weehawken. They knew exactly where the challenge would take place. While dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, resourceful gentlemen found a great spot to conduct the affair hidden from view and with a convenient escape back to their homes. About twenty feet above the shore of the Hudson River was a grassy ledge about 60 by 100 feet in area. The steep slopes of the Palisades sheltered it from view.
A historic marker on top of the Palisades gives an idea of how well-known the dueling grounds must have been. This is where the most respected men in society came to fire pistols at each other over perceived insults.
The marker sits next to a large bust of Alexander Hamilton. The town of Weehawken was not interested in raising a monument to Jersey-born Aaron Burr, despite the advocacy of the Aaron Burr Association.
Even Alexander Hamilton’s oldest son died after being wounded at the Dueling Grounds, three years before his father would meet the same fate. It almost seems like a mean joke that the markers are on a street called Hamilton Avenue.
In 1804, Hamilton and Burr were two men who had made major impacts on the American government but were past the apexes of their political careers.
Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in the West Indies in 1757. His intelligence and drive attracted benefactors who sent him to New York for education, where he attended King’s College, later renamed Columbia University. He was an aide to George Washington during the American Revolution and showed his courage in many engagements, including the siege of Yorktown.
After the war, Hamilton became a prominent advocate of a more centralized national government. He collaborated with James Madison and John Jay on The Federalist, a series of letters advocating the adoption of a new Constitution. When Washington assumed the presidency, he appointed Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury, the first person to serve in this post. Hamilton put the federal government on a more solid financial foundation while strengthening its power and its ties to wealthy merchants. He later again worked with Washington to reorganize the army during a crisis with France in late 1790s.
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1756. His father, who died when Aaron was young, was the president of the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University. Aaron Burr began his studies at the College of New Jersey at the age of 13 and he graduated at 17. He had many roles in the American Revolution, the last of which was protecting territory in New York against loyalist guerrillas. After the war he became a well-to-do attorney and entered politics.
The presidential election of 1800, when the highest office passed from Federalist hands to Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, proved to be the undoing of both Burr and Hamilton. Or rather, it presented both men with opportunities to wreck their political careers – and they grabbed the opportunity as hard as they could.
Party politics were new to Americans, and some of Hamilton’s poor decisions in the Federalist campaign to re-elect John Adams could be excused. But writing, signing, and circulating a secret letter trashing Adams, which, not surprisingly, was found and published by the opposing party, was an insult that caused his influence in Federalist circles to wane.
Aaron Burr should have fared much better. He was on the ballot as Jefferson’s running mate, and the two of them won the election partly due to Burr’s ability to hold New York. But because Jefferson and Burr got the same number of electoral votes, the presidency could legally go to either one of them, and Congress would have to choose the victor. Even though Republicans had clearly intended Jefferson to be president, Burr withdrew to his home instead of conceding. He may have hoped that Federalists in Congress would give him the presidency because they really did not like Jefferson. Hamilton tried to lobby for Jefferson, but his effectiveness was probably limited by his recent bungling.
Hamilton’s attitude is revealed in a letter.
Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – Thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power.
But Congress was convinced to go with Jefferson. Naturally, Jefferson no longer trusted Burr and didn’t give him a major role in the administration. He chose Burr’s rival George Clinton as his 1804 running mate.
Burr, seeing that he was on the outs, tried to get his career going again with a run for governor of New York in 1804. Again Hamilton campaigned against him. Though it is unclear how powerful Hamilton’s influence was, he would soon draw Burr’s wrath.
Burr read a letter in a newspaper that said “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government…I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
Burr may have been looking for an excuse to challenge a man he saw as a rival or an impediment to his political comeback. Whatever his motivation, he demanded Hamilton answer what “despicable opinion” he may have expressed or disavow the remarks in the letter. Hamilton dodged Burr’s questioning and on June 27, 1804, a challenge was given and accepted. Amazingly, both men attended the July 4 banquet of the Society of the Cincinnati while the days to the duel counted down.
While many men died in duels, many more lived through the deadly ritual to uphold one’s honor. Typically a few shots would be fired by each opponent, and honor was restored before anyone got seriously hurt.
Accounts differ as to whether Hamilton or Burr fired first on July 11, but it was Burr’s bullet that found its mark. Hamilton fell with a mortal wound. Hamilton’s shot went high. He may have fired involuntarily after being hit by Burr’s bullet or may have misjudged the trigger pull. He may have intentionally fired high to avoid killing Burr. It has even been suggested that he tried to cheat by setting a hair trigger on his pistol which he then miscalculated.
Hamilton was carried back to his boat and died at home. Burr was portrayed as a bloodthirsty man who killed a noble statesman. He was charged with murder by New York and New Jersey prosecutors. He fled to the South, then resigned as vice president and headed west.
Perhaps proving Hamilton’s charges of being overly ambitious and self-serving, Burr soon became embroiled in a failed conspiracy to take over some of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and was charged with treason. After his acquittal, Burr went to Europe in 1807 and returned to new York to practice law in 1810. He was able to get his murder charges dropped and died a private citizen in 1836.
The death of Hamilton prompted greater outcry against dueling. The practice was condemned more vocally by opponents and many gentleman’s societies passed resolutions against it. A monument to Hamilton at the dueling site was destroyed in the 1820s by locals who saw it as glorifying a barbaric practice. Another monument to Hamilton was destroyed by vandals in the 1930s, and the current bust was placed at the top of the cliff in 1935. Behind the bust sits a stone that legend claims Hamilton rested against after being shot.
But tradition died slowly. According to Joseph Fulford Folsom, the last confrontation on the Weehawken dueling grounds occurred in 1845, and nobody was hurt because the duelists’ seconds had loaded their pistols with cork. Too bad they didn’t have little flags with “BANG!” written on them.
The Hamilton-Burr monument is a good stop along the scenic Palisades – though it would be easier to access if a stairway north of the monument wasn’t locked shut.
When America was a young nation, a little ledge that no longer exists served as a field for a violent and illegal social ritual popular among the most respected men in society. The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is one of the stories along the road, one event that sticks out in a record of change.
“The Duel,” The American Experience, PBS
Folsom, Joseph Fulford. “The Burr-Hamilton Duel.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, January 1929, Volume XIV, No 1. Newark, NJ
Larini, Rudy. “Dueling Over Burr: Society, Weehawken at odds over bust,” The Star-Ledger, May 16, 1993. Weehawken Public Library, Local History, Burr-Hamilton Duel File.
Letter from Edward J. Kirk to Harry B. Weiss, July 29, 1960. Weehawken Public Library, Local History, Burr-Hamilton Duel File.
Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Gray Otis – 1800. Dec 23, 1800. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Risjord, Norman K. Jefferson’s America, 1760-1815, Second Edition. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Van Winkle, David. Old Bergen: History and Reminiscences with Maps and Illustrations. 1902.