You Are There: Season 1, Episode 7

The Hamilton-Burr Duel (July 11, 1804) (15 Mar. 1953)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama | History
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Paul Birch ...
Judge Pendleton
Walter Coy ...
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Himself - Host - Narrator
Mack Williams ...
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Drama | History

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15 March 1953 (USA)  »

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Appointment at Weehauken
26 November 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

There is something about the words "duel" and "Hamilton" that is equated to "bloodshed" and "death" and "destruction". In 1712 Charles, 4th Baron Mohun and James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton, met in a duel of "honor" at Hyde Park. Brothers-in-law, they could not stand each other: Hamilton was a Scots Jacobite, supporting the claims of the "Old Pretender" (James Stuart) to succeed Queen Anne his half-sister, while Mohun was a violent partisan Whig who was supporting the claims of the German George, Elector of Hanover. They both had claims to a fantastically rich estate, due to their wives. Up to 1712 Mohun was winning that lawsuit, but in 1712 the Jacobite - Tories were finally winning, and Hamilton was appointed Britain's first ambassador to France (austensibly to make the overture to James Stewart to be heir to Queen Anne). On some really trivial quibble about the honesty of one of Mohun's witnesses being deposed, Hamilton was challenged to a duel, and accepted - a mistake because Mohun was involved in at least six duels, and in two of them men died. He also had been tried for the murder of William Mountford - a leading actor - in 1692. He was acquitted. Both fat middle aged men met in the Park, and managed to successfully turn each other into dead pin-cushions.

In 1801, Alexander Hamilton's oldest son got into a quarrel about his father and national politics. The young man was shot in a duel, ending a promising life. Hamilton Sr. was never a fully happy man after that - and his youngest daughter (who loved her brother dearly) lost her mind as a result.

And in 1804, with a single bullet, two political careers were shattered

  • possibly (except for the shot that killed President Lincoln) the most


fatal bullet in our history.

I've mentioned (regarding the episode of "You Are There: The Vote That Made Jefferson President") that Alexander Hamilton had very little use for Aaron Burr. Both were involved heavily in politics in New York City and New York State. Both were Revolutionary War veterans (which made them both look contemptuously at Thomas Jefferson - see that episode of "Cavalcade Of America" about Tarlteton's raid on Monticello) and both were proud of their titles, "General" Hamilton, and "Colonel" Burr. Both were distinguished as lawyers in the New York State Bar, and both were very interested in the leadership of the Federalist Party of New York and New England.

It has been pointed out that even physically they were alike, both being handsome, small boned men. It was like fate created them to confront each other.

They could work together. In 1800 they were two of the three lawyers (with Brockholst Livingston) who defended Levi Weeks for the murder of Giuliana Sands in 1800. They won an acquittal for Weeks. But these occasions were rare.

Hamilton did not trust Burr who was officially a Democrat-Republican, but kept jumping the political fence to build up his backing with the Federalists. In 1800 Hamilton prevented Burr from achieving the Presidency from Jefferson in that special run-off. Then, in 1804, there was an election for governor of New York, and Hamilton again prevented Burr's election.

But this time there was a small statement that Hamilton made to some leading Federalist friends about Burr and his daughter Theodosia. We are not quite sure what this was - but it seems that the statement suggested theirs was more than a father-daughter relationship. Burr heard of it, and asked Hamilton for an explanation. The latter did not give a satisfactory reply. This led to a demand for satisfaction. Hamilton complied.

It happened on July 11, 1804. Hamilton brought the same pistols his son had used three years earlier in that fatal duel. It has since been noticed they had hair triggers - we don't know if Burr knew of this, but presumably Hamilton did. In any case, Burr shot Hamilton, who seemed to be aiming in the air (Burr always denied it). Hamilton died the next day.

Burr's was charged (but never tried) for murder in New York and New Jersey. He left to go west (and to create his conspiracy with James Wilkinson - see the John Marshall episode on "Profiles in Courage"). Jefferson was happy to see that one bullet end two enemies careers, until he found Burr capable of creating trouble out west and of beating a treason charge. Hamilton became the first political figure who was a "martyr" as he was cut down before his time. We have since seen other figures in our own lifetimes similarly treated.


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