In the world of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were his main political enemies, but fellow New Yorker Aaron Burr had been Hamilton’s chief rogue since 1789. Since that year, Hamilton had focused most of his distinctive venom on Burr, but since Burr kept his own counsel and didn’t keep documents for posterity (e.g. personal letters or a diary), it’s impossible to know what Burr thought of Hamilton over those same years.
What bothered Hamilton the most about Burr was that Burr kept positioning himself to be available and useful based on which way the political winds blew. To Hamilton, that meant that Burr didn’t stand for anything other than advancing his own political opportunities (and worse yet, Burr wasn’t even trying to disguise his intentions). To Hamilton, Burr was the antithesis of George Washington, valuing his own ambition and interests over what was good for the nation. In many ways, Hamilton had to admit that he shared many of the same qualities that he so despised in Burr, but in Hamilton’s opinion, Burr had failed every test thrown at him, while Hamilton had risen above the challenges presented to him.
By the Summer of 1804, Hamilton and Burr were beyond politically frustrated in that both knew they were past their political peak since Jefferson was President, and worse yet for Hamilton, the Federalists were fading. So it’s very possible that Hamilton and Burr appeared at their arranged “interview” since both wished to still be regarded as politically relevant, deserving to be in the same company as such Revolutionary Era leaders as Thomas Jefferson
and James Madison.
The Question: what had Hamilton done in order to be challenged to a duel under the code duello? Hamilton had at least one chance to diffuse the situation after he received Burr’s initial challenge letter, but the former Secretary of the Treasury chose not to do so. Among the charges in Burr’s letter was that Hamilton had described Burr as “despicable” and “dangerous”, both universally accepted “duel words”. Hamilton could have simply responded to Burr that he never actually described Burr in the manner he had been told, and expressed regret that matters had reached the point they had, and then Burr would have had no choice but to let the affair of honor drop.
Hamilton, under the advice of who would be his second at The Duel, Nathaniel Pendleton, sent Burr a letter that only “sort-of” apologized, claiming that Hamilton’s derogatory comments concerning Burr were political, not personal. It was at that point that Burr could have shrugged his shoulders at let the matter drop, but Burr chose to continue down the path towards the field of honor. Burr told Hamilton that he refused to settle for anything other than an unqualified blanket apology for all the bad things that Hamilton had ever said concerning Burr. Although Burr and Hamilton exchanged more letters, Hamilton found himself trapped in Burr’s web.
On 27 June 1804, Burr’s patience ran out, and arrangements were made for both men to face each other on the field of honor. Hamilton’s actions before the duel appeared to be those of a man that finally understood that his past political actions/words had perhaps been too harsh. Hamilton also thought the odds of actually being killed in the duel were fairly low, but he wrote a “just in case I’m killed in the duel” letter where he stated that in no way did he want to shoot Burr, and that he if he fired his weapon, he would miss intentionally. Hamilton most likely wasn’t suicidal but regretful, more meditative than fatalistic.
Hamilton went to the field of honor since he couldn’t take back all the bad things he had said/written about Burr in the last 15 years because it would be lying, and therefore dishonorable. Hamilton knew that whatever was left of his political life would have gone up in smoke had he apologized to Burr, and Hamilton was nowhere near ready to retire from public life. Hamilton went to the duel with a mix of ambition and insecurity, while Burr went to Weehawken (NJ) out of sheer frustration.
What Hamilton knew, and Burr did not, was that the pistols had a concealed mechanism that gave the pistol a hair trigger. Without setting the mechanism, it took 20 pounds of pressure to fire the pistol, but with the hair trigger, it took only 1 pound of pressure. That being said, Hamilton told Pendleton to not set the hair trigger “this time”. The pistols were .54 caliber smooth bore weapons, and while large and powerful, the pistol wasn’t very accurate. Under the agreed-upon rules, if one fired before the other when the signal to fire was given, then the second of the one that hadn’t fired would count “1-2-3-Fire!”; if the duelist didn’t fire within that count he lost his turn. If both sides fired and missed, there would have been a mini-conference among Hamilton, Burr, and their seconds as to whether-or-not to continue.
Hamilton and Burr took their positions, and Hamilton took out his eyeglasses and practiced aiming his pistol at Burr, which didn’t seem to be the actions of a man that intended to not fire or to miss; Burr took the delay in stride and waited. It was the next 4 to 5 seconds that will never be completely sorted out. Hamilton knew he had been hit with a mortal shot from Burr, and Burr was surprised and regretful with the result of his shot. Burr wanted to approach Hamilton and speak to him, but Burr’s second, William Van Ness, refused to allow him to do so, in effect for “plausible deniability”.
Neither Van Ness or Pendleton could agree on how many seconds passed, but they agreed that a discernible amount of time had passed, which makes the “official” Hamilton account of The Duel hard to digest. The crux of the Hamilton version was that Burr fired first, which had been fed by the knowledge of Hamilton’s letter where he wrote he wasn’t going to fire at Burr. Therefore, according to the Hamilton version, that meant that Burr fired first at Hamilton when Hamilton’s pistol wasn’t aimed at Burr. According to this version, Hamilton fired his weapon after he had been hit by Burr’s shot. For the Hamilton version to be true, the shots needed to be simultaneous, and they were not. Burr’s account also had problems, but was far more compatible in terms of the agreed-upon “few seconds”. According to Van Ness, Hamilton aimed at Burr and fired his pistol, but missed.
But both versions have distortions: Hamilton fired his pistol first and he fired intentionally, but he almost certainly aimed to miss (which explained the severed branch in the tree above-and-behind Burr). So Hamilton did not withhold his shot as his apologists later claimed based on the letter. But Burr had no idea about Hamilton’s pledge not to fire in his letter, and he knew that he had just been shot at by Hamilton. According to the rules of the code duello, Burr had every right to shoot at Hamilton, but by killing Hamilton, Burr gained nothing and lost everything, which lends credence to the argument that Burr missed his shot as well, but he hit Hamilton with his missed shot. What Burr was thinking during those “few seconds” he took with him to his grave.