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Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel was 215 years ago today: ‘We rode across the Hudson at dawn’

  • July 11, 2020

Exactly 215 years ago, this morning, Alexander Hamilton threw away his shot.

You know which shot — if you know the musical “Hamilton.” And you know the musical “Hamilton,” if you are a sentient being in the year 2020. Today is the 215th anniversary of the famous Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel.

“Everyone today says there has never been a more divisive time in American politics,”  said Leonard A. Zax, president and CEO of the non-profit Hamilton Partnership for Paterson. “But in 1804, in New Jersey, the sitting vice president of the United States killed the first Secretary of the Treasury in a duel.”

A bust of Alexander Hamilton at the Weehawken dueling grounds.

Even if you didn’t see “Hamilton” on Broadway, or aren’t one of the estimated 500,000 who saw it July 4 weekend on Disney+, you know all about the famous face-off.

It was on this morning, more than 200 years ago — July 11, 1804 — when Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury under Washington, and rival Aaron Burr, vice president under Thomas Jefferson, each rowed separately from Manhattan to Weehawken, overlooking the river, and then a popular dueling ground. They arrived at dawn.

The two had a beef, going back years. Hamilton had interfered with Burr’s bid for the presidency, and the governorship of New York. He also talked smack about him. “Profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme” was one phrase. It was news of his “despicable opinion” that finally drove Burr to challenge Hamilton.

Vice President Aaron Burr (left) fires the fatal shot to Alexander Hamilton during their duel in 1804 in this contemporary illustration.

There are conflicting reports of what happened in Weehawken on the fatal morning. “It really depends on whether you’re a Burr descendant or a Hamilton descendant,” Zax said.

The short version is that Hamilton shot a cedar tree. Burr shot Hamilton. Fatally, as it turned out.

Whether Hamilton deliberately threw away his shot, as a gesture of clemency, or simply had bad aim, is still being argued. But it was the echoes of this famous confrontation, in modern hip-hop duels such as Biggie versus Tupac, that obviously sparked the interest of Broadway’s Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”), who had been reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton.”

“I think Lin read Chernow’s book on vacation and said, whoa — hip-hop,” Zax says.

As Burr and Hamilton challenged each other, so their duel challenges us. It asks us to conceive of a time in America — pre-Twitter — when words mattered, and honor was something so serious that people were willing to die for it.

“It does sound kind of ridiculous, but that was part of the code of honor,” Zax said. 

Hamilton (July 3, Disney+): Starring creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (center) as Alexander Hamilton, the musical phenomenon is coming to audiences at home in a filmed production with the original Broadway cast.

“You could say a lot of horrible things in print or in speeches about people, but there were certain code words, things that if you said them could trigger a duel,” Zax said. “Rascal, villain, coward, puppy, liar, scoundrel. Those were magic words. They were serious enough that you would duel to the death.”

One of the issues of the Hamilton-Burr duel, apparently, was that Burr had heard that Hamilton was bad-mouthing him — at a dinner in Albany, it seems — but then Burr refused to say what it was, specifically, that he had heard.  “Part of the code is, you have to specify, with particularity, what the insult was,” Zax said.

In any case, their bloody battle was a gold mine for Broadway. In the multi-Tony winning 2015 phenomenon “Hamilton,” the stodgy old father of capitalism, the guy on the $10 bill, was reborn as a dashing outsider, kicking down the gates of young America with his immigrant’s energy. The multi-cultural cast, rapping their way through one of the classic stories of American history, was groundbreaking — one of the few things that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney could agree on.

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“Hamilton” not only resurrected Hamilton as a national hero, it also brought new luster to dozens of New Jersey sites where Hamilton slept, picnicked, and pursued the ladies.

In Weehawken, a bust of Hamilton near the site of the duel — obscured by time — has the New York skyline as a backdrop. In Paterson, there is another statue of Hamilton at the Great Falls, which Hamilton proposed as the power source for what became America’s first industrialized city. The are Hamilton sites in Morristown, Wayne, Elizabeth, Ho-Ho-Kus, River Edge  and other places (some of them shuttered, at the moment, because of COVID-19). 

July 7, 2004: According to the engraving on a stone next to the bust of Alexander Hamilton is where he rested his head before dying in a duel with Aaron Burr 200 years ago.

“He began his education in New Jersey, at Elizabethtown,” Zax said. “New Jersey was always a critical part of his story. His life in the United States really began there, and ended there.”

Key Dates 

    ♦1755: Born in the West Indies (Jan. 11).

    ♦1777: Eager to rise, becomes Gen. George Washington’s aide-de-camp in Revolution.

    ♦1780: Marries Elizabeth Schuyler.

    ♦1782: Becomes a lawyer in New York and representative to the Continental Congress.

    ♦1787: Begins writing the bulk of the Federalist Papers, a key guide to understanding the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

    ♦ 1778: Proposes Paterson, the nation’s first industrial city.

    ♦ 1789: Becomes secretary of the treasury under President Washington. A supporter of a strong, centralized federal government, he comes into conflict with limited-government advocates Thomas Jefferson and James Madison: a precursor of today’s liberal-conservative schism.

    ♦ 1804: Vice President Aaron Burr, a political rival, cites a “despicable” remark in one of Hamilton’s letters and challenges him to a duel. Hamilton loses.

The Alexander Hamilton statue sculpted by Franklin Simmons in 1905 is at the Great Falls in Paterson.

Key Sites

   ♦ Schuyler-Hamilton House, 5 Olyphant Place, Morristown: Where Hamilton courted Elizabeth (Betsy) Schuyler, whom he married in 1780; the setting of a key scene in the “Hamilton” musical.

     ♦ Ford Mansion, 30 Washington Place, Morristown: Washington’s winter headquarters, 1779-80. Hamilton was there.

     ♦ Dey Mansion, 199 Totowa Road, Wayne : Hamilton and Washington stayed there in 1780.

     ♦ Great Falls National Historical Park, 72 McBride Ave., Paterson: Site where Hamilton supposedly founded the city of Paterson. A statue of Hamilton overlooks the falls.

     ♦ Paterson Museum, 2 Market St.: Home of some interesting Hamilton artifacts.

     ♦ Liberty Hall, 1003 Morris Ave., Union: Home of William Livingston, governor of New Jersey. Hamilton visited there.

     ♦ Academy at Elizabethtown, 42 Broad St., Elizabeth: Prep school Hamilton attended as a boy.

     ♦ Boxwood Hall, 1073 E. Jersey St., Elizabeth: Hamilton visited and stayed with the Boudinot family while in prep school.

     ♦ The Hermitage, 335 N. Franklin Turnpike, Ho-Ho-Kus: Hamilton and Washington stayed there in 1778; Aaron Burr (another “Hamilton” character) courted his wife Theodosia Prevost there.

     ♦ Steuben House, 1201 Main St., River Edge: Hamilton stayed there in 1780.

     ♦ Dueling grounds, 24-96 Hamilton Ave., Weehawken: Not the actual site of the duel (obscured by time), but close. Site includes a bust of Hamilton.

     ♦ Trinity Church, 79 Broadway Terrace, Manhattan: Hamilton’s grave site.

     ♦ New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at 77th Street: A “Summer of Hamilton” exhibit will begin there July 4.

     ♦ Hamilton Grange, 414 W. 141st St., Manhattan: Hamilton’s home in the early 1800s.

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com Twitter: @jimbeckerman1 

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