When it comes to political scandal, “Weiner-gate” has nothing on the Founding Fathers. Today marks the 207th anniversary of the death of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, one day after he was mortally wounded in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s violent death on July 12, 1804 stunned that nation. A longtime political enemy of Burr’s, Hamilton had worked against Burr in the presidential election of 1800 and had recently helped ensure Burr’s defeat in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804.
The final showdown between the two men occurred when Burr learned that Hamilton had expressed a “despicable opinion” of him at an upstate New York dinner party. Stung by the attack on his honor as well as by his recent political defeat, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused, insulting Burr further by casually instructing him on the many possible meanings of the word “despicable.”
Despite attempts of friends to avert a duel, the two men met on July 11, 1804, along the west bank of the Hudson River, on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey. The exact sequence of events is disputed. What is known is that Aaron Burr walked away and moved on to other schemes. Hamilton – former Treasury Secretary, co-author of The Federalist Papers, one of the most brilliant architects of American democracy – lay dying on the ground, gut-shot.
The story of Hamilton’s life and death still has the power to stop us in our tracks. I invite you to watch this brilliant rap by Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, performed at the White House on November 2, 2009. It’s told from the point of view of Aaron Burr. Watch and enjoy.