Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820

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Author: Alexander Hamilton  | Date: 1804

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Why and How Burr Killed Hamilton

Hamilton’s Position—From His Private Correspondence

ON MY expected interview with Colonel Burr, I think it proper to make some remarks explanatory of my conduct, motives and views.

I was certainly desirous of avoiding this interview for the most cogent reasons.

1. My religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of duelling, and it would ever give me pain to be obliged to shed the blood of a fellow creature in a private combat forbidden by the laws.

2. My wife and children are extremely dear to me, and my life is of the utmost importance to them, in various views.

3. I feel a sense of obligation towards my creditors; who in case of accident to me, by the forced sale of my property, may be in some degree sufferers. I did not think myself at liberty as a man of probity, lightly to expose them to this hazard.

4. I am conscious of no ill will to Colonel Burr, distinct from political opposition, which, I trust, has proceeded from pure and upright motives.

Lastly, I shall hazard much, and can possibly gain nothing by the issue of the interview.

But it was, as I conceive, impossible for me to avoid it. There were intrinsic difficulties in the thing, and artificial embarrassments, from the manner of proceeding on the part of Colonel Burr.

Intrinsic, because it is not to be denied, that my animadversions on the political principles, character, and views of Colonel Burr have been extremely severe; and on different occasions, I, in common with many others, have made very unfavorable criticisms on particular instances of the private conduct of this gentleman.

In proportion as these impressions were entertained with sincerity, and uttered with motives and for purposes which might appear to me commendable, would be the difficulty (until they could be removed by evidence of their being erroneous) of explanation or apology. The disavowal required of me by Colonel Burr, in a general and indefinite form, was out of my power, if it had really been proper for me to submit to be so questioned; but I was sincerely of opinion that this could not be, and in this opinion, I was confirmed by that of a very moderate and judicious friend whom I consulted. Besides that, Colonel Burr appeared to me to assume, in the first instance, a tone unnecessarily peremptory and menacing, and in the second, positively offensive. Yet I wished, as far as might be practicable, to leave a door open to accommodation. This, I think, will be inferred from the written communications made by me and by my direction, and would be confirmed by the conversations between Mr. Van Ness and myself, which arose out of the subject.

I am not sure whether, under all the circumstances, I did not go further in the attempt to accommodate, than a punctilious delicacy will justify. If so, I hope the motives I have stated will excuse me.

It is not my design, by what I have said, to affix any odium on the conduct of Colonel Burr, in this case. He doubtless has heard of animadversions of mine, which bore very hard upon him; and it is probable that as usual they were accompanied with some falsehoods. He may have supposed himself under a necessity of acting as he has done. I hope the grounds of his proceeding have been such as ought to satisfy his own conscience.

I trust, at the same time, that the world will do me the justice to believe that I have not censured him on light grounds, nor from unworthy inducements. I certainly have had strong reasons for what I may have said, though it is possible that in some particulars, I may have been influenced by misconstruction or misinformation. It is also my ardent wish that I may have been more mistaken than I think I have been, and that he, by his future conduct, may show himself worthy of all confidence and esteem, and prove an ornament and blessing to the country.

As well because it is possible that I may have injured Colonel Burr, however convinced myself that my opinions and declarations have been well founded, as from my general principles and temper in relation to similar affairs, I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts of even reserving my second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Colonel Burr to pause and to reflect.

It is not, however, my intention to enter into any explanations on the ground. Apology from principle, I hope, rather than pride, is out of the question.

To those who, with me, abhorring the practice of duelling, may think that I ought on no account to have added to the number of bad examples, I answer that my relative situation, as well in public as private, enforcing all the considerations which constitute what men of the world denominate honor, imposed on me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call. The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.

HAMILTON’S OPINION OF BURR

HE [Burr] is in every sense a profligate; a voluptuary in the extreme, with uncommon habits of expense; in his profession extortionate to a proverb; suspected on strong grounds of having corruptly served the views of the Holland Company, in the capacity of a member of our Legislature; and understood to have been guilty of several breaches of probity in his pecuniary transactions. His very friends do not insist upon his integrity.

2. The fair emoluments of any station, under our government, will not equal his expenses in that station; still less will they suffice to extricate him from his embarrassments. He must therefore from the necessity of his station have recourse to unworthy expedients. These may be a bargain and sale with some foreign power, or combinations with public agents in projects of gain by means of the public moneys; perhaps and probably, to enlarge the sphere—a war.

3. He is without doubt insolvent for a large deficit. All his visible property is deeply mortgaged, and he is known to owe other large debts for which there is no specific security. Of the number of these is a judgment in favor of Mr. Angerstien for a sum which with interest amounts to about 80,000 dollars.

4. He has no pretensions to the station from services. He acted in different capacities in the last war finally with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in a regiment, and gave indications of being a good officer; but without having had the opportunity of performing any distinguished action. At a critical period of the war he resigned his commission, assigning for cause ill-health, and went to repose at Paramus in the State of New Jersey. If his health was bad he might without difficulty have obtained a furlough and was not obliged to resign. He was afterwards seen in his usual health. The circumstance never projected nor aided in producing a single measure of important public utility.

5. He has constantly sided with the party hostile to Federal measures before and since the present Constitution of the United States. In opposing the adoption of this Constitution he was engaged covertly and insidiously; because, as he said at the time "it was too strong and too weak," and he has been uniformly the opposer of the Federal administration.

6. No mortal can tell what his political principles are. He has talked all round the compass. At times he has dealt in all the jargon of Jacobinism; at other times he has proclaimed decidedly the total insufficiency of the Federal government and the necessity of changes to one far more energetic. The truth seems to be that he has no plan but that of getting power by any means and keeping it by all means. It is probable that if he has any theory it is that of a simple despotism. He has intimated that he thinks the present French Constitution not a bad one.

7. He is of a temper bold enough to think no enterprise too hazardous and sanguine enough to think none too difficult. He has censured the leaders of the Federal party as wanting in vigor and enterprise, for not having established a strong government when they were in possession of the power and influence.

8. Discerning men of all parties agree in ascribing to him an irregular and inordinate ambition. Like Catiline, he is indefatigable in courting the young and the profligate. He knows well the weak sides of human nature, and takes care to play in with the passions of all with whom he has intercourse. By natural disposition, the haughtiest of men, he is at the same time the most creeping to answer his purposes. Cold and collected by nature and habit, he never loses sight of his object and scruples no means of accomplishing it. He is artful and intriguing to an inconceivable degree. In short all his conduct indicates that he has in view nothing less than the establishment of supreme power in his own person. Of this nothing can be a surer index than that having in fact high-toned notions of government, he has nevertheless constantly opposed the Federal and courted the popular party. As he never can effect his wish by the aid of good men, he will court and employ able and daring scoundrels of every party, and by availing himself of their assistance and of all the bad passions of society, he will in all likelihood attempt an usurpation.

8. [sic] Within the last three weeks at his own table, he drank these toasts successively 1—The French Republic, 2—The Commissioners who negotiated the convention, 3—Bonaparte, 4—Lafayette: and he countenanced and seconded the positions openly advanced by one of his guests that it was the interest of this country to leave it free to the belligerent powers to sell their prizes in our ports and to build and equip ships for their respective uses; a doctrine which evidentally aims at turning all the naval resources of the United States into the channel of France; and which by making these states the most pernicious enemy of Great Britain would compel her to go to war with us.

9. Though possessing infinite art, cunning and address, he is yet to give proofs of great or solid abilities. It is certain that at the bar he is more remarkable for ingenuity and dexterity, than for sound judgment or good logic. From the character of his understanding and heart it is likely that any innovation which he may effect will be such as to serve the turn of his own power, not such as will issue in establishments favorable to the permanent security and prosperity of the nation-founded upon the principles of a strong free and regular government.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON TO HIS WIFE
ELIZABETH HAMILTON

THIS letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career, to begin, as I humbly hope, from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality.

If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel from the idea of quitting you, and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.

The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted.

With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.

Adieu best of wives—best of women.

Embrace all my darling children for me.

A CONTEMPORARY ACCOUNT
OF THE HAMILTON-BURR DUEL

IT WAS nearly seven in the morning when the boat which carried General Hamilton, his friend Mr. Pendleton, and the surgeon mutually agreed on, Doctor Hosack, reached that part of the Jersey shore called the Weahawk. There they found Mr. Burr and his friend Mr. Van Ness, who, as I am told, had been employed since their arrival, with coats off, in clearing away the bushes, limbs of trees, etc., so as to make a fair opening. The parties in a few moments were at their allotted situations. When Mr. Pendleton gave the word, Mr. Burr raised his arm slowly, deliberately took his aim, and fired. His ball entered General Hamilton’s right side. As soon as the bullet struck him, he raised himself involuntarily on his toes, turned a little to the left (at which moment his pistol went off), and fell upon his face. Mr. Pendleton immediately called out for Dr. Hosack, who in running to the spot, had to pass Mr. Van Ness and Colonel Burr; but Van Ness had the cool precaution to cover his principal with an umbrella, so that Dr. Hosack should not be able to swear that he saw him on the field.

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Chicago: Alexander Hamilton, "Why and How Burr Killed Hamilton," Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820 in America, Vol.5, Pp.28-37 Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XJ8FXIFVYVE5USF.

MLA: Hamilton, Alexander. "Why and How Burr Killed Hamilton." Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820, in America, Vol.5, Pp.28-37, Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XJ8FXIFVYVE5USF.

Harvard: Hamilton, A, 'Why and How Burr Killed Hamilton' in Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820. cited in , America, Vol.5, Pp.28-37. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XJ8FXIFVYVE5USF.