Ladies and gentlemen, Alexander Hamilton, the  First American, died on July 12, 1804. This was at the age of 64. Over the years, the mystery of his death has been debated by many. It has been thought at one time or another that Hamilton died of alcoholism, or natural causes, or that he was murdered by Aaron Burr, or it was a suicide, or it was a double murder.

In 1804, the life of Alexander Hamilton was cut short. The former Secretary of the Treasury died as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. At the time of his death, he was only 39 years old. However, his legacy of founding the financial system of the United States is well documented. Through his work with the New York Post Office and Loan Office, Hamilton would go on to establish the financial system that would become the backbone of the nation.

In 1804, Alexander Hamilton, a former treasury secretary and now one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, died in New York City at the age of 42. While his death is not thought to be suspicious, Hamilton was a charismatic man with many enemies. After his death, people began to speculate that he had been murdered in a plot whose details remain a mystery.

The duel with Aaron Burr was most likely a bid for immortality rather than vengeance. 

THE DUEL BETWEEN Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804, is the most researched gunfight in American history. The sitting vice president of the United States shot and killed a pillar of the Federalist Party who had been President George Washington’s right-hand man and the nation’s first secretary of the treasury at Weehawken Flats, an isolated ledge on the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River across from what is now the west end of 42nd Street, a fatal moment Henry Adams declared the most dramatic in the history of the country. 

What compelled these men to bolt and fire? Some say Burr blackmailed Hamilton into a duel with the intention of killing him. Others

Alexander Hamilton’s Death: Suicide or Lost Shot

James Sharples painted a portrait of General Alexander Hamilton.

According to the vice president, he was only defending his honor. It’s plausible to deduce that Hamilton used a hair-trigger handgun to assassinate Burr, or that Hamilton was using his opponent to put an end to a life of agony. Hamilton may have fired first, missing on purpose, in the hopes that Burr would follow suit. Or, if Hamilton felt bound by the code duello to fight in a duel he would have preferred to avoid, he may not have fired until he was gravely wounded and involuntary squeezed the trigger.  

Another theory matches the facts and explains why Hamilton, although acting provocatively and increasing the chances that Burr, an outstanding shot, would aim with lethal purpose, chose not to fire at Burr. Hamilton, a husband and father of seven children under the age of 50, did not want to die, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.  

For a variety of reasons, Hamilton appears to have come to regard Burr’s challenge as a way to martyrdom, allowing him to achieve goals that were important to him. 

Burr, 48, and Hamilton, 47, were physically similar but had very different personalities. They were both distinguished combat veterans and recognized attorneys with a strong desire for power and influence, despite their backgrounds couldn’t have been more dissimilar. On a small Caribbean island, Hamilton, dubbed “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler,” was born. Burr was a Princeton president’s son and grandson. Though the men maintained a surface level of amity till the end, their personalities and ideologies essentially divided them. Burr was unconstrained by conscience and loyal solely to himself, according to Hamilton, a hatred that ran deeper and more viscerally than one politician’s hate for another. Consider Hamilton’s criticisms of the other man, even if they are truncated: “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favor.” His public principles have no other motivation or goal than his personal self-promotion. I’m guessing he’s not for or against anything except what suits his interests or ambitions… Burr only cares about himself… He’s confident enough to believe in anything, audacious enough to do anything, and vicious enough to spare no expense.” 

Burr’s gifts, which he used without guilt, were seen by Hamilton as a threat to the republican experiment. “I feel it a sacred duty [emphasis added] to resist his career,” Hamilton wrote, “in a word, if we have an embryo Caesar in the United States it is Burr.” That’s exactly what Hamilton did, most notably in 1800. In that year’s election, a constitutional quirk prevented the 73 Electoral College electors from distinguishing between their presidential and vice presidential candidates. Despite the fact that every elector wanted Jefferson to be president and Burr to be vice president, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr deadlocked with 73 votes. In 1804, the 12th Amendment would fix that procedural snafu, but the 1800 election ended up in the House of Representatives, where most Federalists, led by a lame-duck majority convinced that Jefferson was a radical atheist, saw the Electoral College tie as a god-sent opportunity to deny Jefferson the presidency. Despite his vehement hatred for Jefferson, Hamilton was shocked by the federalist leanings. Acting on his even stronger dislike for Burr, Hamilton worked feverishly to sway fellow federalists away from Burr, helping Jefferson to win.  

In 1804, Hamilton did everything he could to keep Burr out of government, this time as governor of New York. Burr was saddened by the defeat. He was heavily in debt and his political career was in shambles, so he went about seeking vengeance for this and other assaults by Hamilton. It didn’t take long for a pretext to emerge. 

 

The Albany Register published comments by Dr. Charles Cooper in spring 1804, claiming that not only had Cooper heard Hamilton warn that Burr was a dangerous man, but that the author could also reveal “a yet more disgusting view [emphasis added] which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” Hamilton’s attack was now out in the open, albeit in an indirect manner. Burr dispatched his protégé, William Van Ness, to demand “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or rejection of any expression which might warrant Dr. Cooper’s assertions”—the standard opening to a duels “examination.” A gentleman who believed a peer had slandered his honor could demand an apology or a duel, from duellum, an antique Latin abbreviation for “war of two,” under the so-called code duello. The epithet of cowardice was used to a party accused of causing offense but refusing to apologize or duel. Hamilton had no intention of apologizing. He and Burr had a meeting scheduled soon after. They kept the situation under wraps. They’d duel in Weehawken because, while New Jersey, like New York, forbade dueling, it was more lenient in enforcing its rule. 

 

According to history, a hesitant Hamilton accepted Burr’s challenge out of reluctance. Hamilton was saved from fading by his sense of dignity, pride, and, most crucially, his determination to remain a meaningful national presence. While these statements are correct, they do not tell the entire story. Hamilton was more than just a victim of the code duello. He yearned for what he referred to as “secular immortality,” or “fame throughout the centuries.” His status in the American pantheon was extremely important to him. In legacies of such magnitude, the spirit and manner in which one confronted death played a significant role. Thirty years ago, during the Benedict Arnold case, a younger Hamilton had witnessed firsthand how British conspirator Major John André accepted his death sentence with grace and courage. After watching André mount the scaffold from which his body would be cut down, Hamilton wrote, “A man of actual merit is never seen in such a favorable light, as via the conduit of adversity.” “The clouds that envelop him are colors that highlight his positive characteristics. Misfortune removes the tiny vanities that functioned as so many spots in his qualities in happier times, and imparts a tone of humility that makes his value more amiable.” During the War for Independence, Hamilton expressed his desire for “a glorious exit” in which he would be remembered as a hero. “Long beguiled by thoughts of a magnificent death in war, he had also never lost a certain adolescent ardor for martyrdom,” writes biographer Ron Chernow. 

 

After three decades, Hamilton had both public and private reasons for choosing the martyr’s path. In politics, he’d faded into obscurity, a spectacular has-been but still a has-been. Hamilton had lost power within the Federalist Party by criticizing President John Adams for his “disgusting egotism, distempered jealousy, and ungovernable indiscretion.” He lived in an America that was transitioning from a Jeffersonian to a democratic state, whereas Hamilton firmly believed in governance of the people, for the people, but not by the people. This new America would dismiss and eventually forget Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments. And a growing secessionist movement in New England was likely to tarnish his memory. “Mine is an unusual destiny,” he wrote to Gouverneur Morris, the senator from New York at the time. “Perhaps no one in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the current Constitution than I have…as you know, I am still straining to prop the feeble and useless fabric…as you know from the beginning, I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Nonetheless, I am rewarded with the murmurs of its friends as well as the curses of its opponents. What other option do I have except to leave the Scene? Every day demonstrates to me that this American world was not designed for me.” [Italics added] 

Privately, Hamilton was much more depressed, especially after the death at the age of 19 of Philip, his firstborn son and brightest hope, who was killed in a duel in 1801 after sticking up for his father. On the assumption that the other combatant would do the same, Hamilton advised Philip to aim and fire his weapon in a non-lethal manner. To make matters worse, Philip’s death had enraged his younger sister, Angelica. Hamilton’s face transformed as a result of these events, becoming “deeply marked with anguish,” as a friend put it. Another friend said, “Never have I seen a man so absolutely overwhelmed with grief as Hamilton has been.” Hamilton was sick with stomach and digestive problems. In his grief, he took solace in the Christian scriptures, concluding that it was God’s desire for Philip to trade a “earth full of suffering” for “a beautiful immortality,” a sentence that must have resonated sweetly in the ears of a man plagued by death and weakened by illness.  

The evidence suggests that Hamilton methodically planned for martyrdom, accepting the possibility and taking steps to make it a reality if fate had it in store for him. He made very little attempt to avoid the duel, for example. “I trust that with more reflection, you will see the situation in the same light as me,” he said vehemently in response to Burr’s challenge. If not, I can only lament the situation and accept the consequences.” 

“The truth is that General Hamilton had made up his mind to meet Mr. Burr before he called on me,” Hamilton’s second, Nathaniel Pendleton, subsequently wrote to a friend. 

Once the “interview” was set, Hamilton operated with cool fatalism and lawyerly precision, doing everything in his power to ensure that Burr would be remembered as the villain and Hamilton as the hero. Even his sharpest detractors would be moved by his private and touching parting letter to his wife, Eliza—“best of wives and best of women”— He spoke eloquently and movingly about why he despised dueling and how taking a life was against his Christian ideals; consequently, he would not fire at Burr in a “Apologia” published after his death. And Hamilton denied having any enmity for Burr, even writing that it was his ardent goal that Burr’s conduct in the future would be so admirable that he would become “an ornament” to the nation—a panegyric that rings hollow given Hamilton’s history of criticizing Burr. The objective was not to show Burr as evil and himself as magnanimous, but to portray Burr as malignant.  

In addition to striking a blow against Burr and the New England secessionists who threatened both the American nation and his secular immortality, Hamilton, Washington’s match in nationalism and belief in a strong union, wanted to strike a blow against those New England secessionists who threatened both the American nation and his secular immortality.  

His friend John Trumbull was planning to attend a secessionist conference in Boston. “You will see the principal men there,” Hamilton informed Trumbull days before the battle. Tell them, on MY behalf, to stop talking about breaking up the Union and threatening to do so for God’s sake.”  

“Dismemberment of our Empire will be a plain surrender of vast positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good,” Hamilton wrote to another Federalist friend on the eve of the duel. Hamilton approached his covert appointment at Weehawken with the calmness that comes to people who have dealt with their end-of-life worries. He went out of his way to meet friends and spend time with his family, including sleeping with one of his young boys, John, who recalls his father “taking my hands in his palms, all four hands outstretched, and telling me to repeat the Lord’s Prayer” when he and his father awoke the next morning. 

Hamilton and Burr sat at the same table at the July 4 Society of Cincinnati Ball at Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in Manhattan, their miens worlds apart. “Everyone noticed their peculiar demeanor, but few suspected the cause,” Trumbull later explained. “Burr, in contrast to his usual demeanor, was deafeningly quiet, gloomy, and sour, while H jumped with joy into the merriment of a social gathering.” Hamilton even stepped on top of a table to lead the group in a stirring military hymn about warriors facing death bravely.

There is no stronger evidence than Hamilton’s preparations and behavior on the dueling fields that he desired martyrdom. While Hamilton may have been reckless, even suicidal, conventional thinking argues that he was not suicidal. If that was the case, Hamilton was following an odd logic by engaging in a battle with no means of defense other than the benevolence of one’s hostile opponent. Hamilton’s opponent was both hostile and a skilled marksman. “There was hardly ever a man who could fire so true,” Charles Biddle, afterwards a personal friend of Burr, observed of him. When Rufus King heard Hamilton say he would not fire at Burr, he said, “Then sir, you will go like a lamb to the slaughter.” Despite this, Hamilton sought martyrdom courtship.

 At the killing ground, he behaved with deliberate provocation. As Pendleton was about to give the word to begin the duel, Hamilton interrupted the proceedings. He “then levelled his pistol in several directions, as if to try the light; then drew from his pockets & put on, a pair of spectacles, and again levelled his pistol in different directions, and once, as appeared to me, at Mr. Burr,” Van Ness said. Why? Clearly not, as Chernow speculates, to be sure to miss Burr! And Hamilton and his second made a decision that favored Burr. Winning choice of position, Hamilton stood face to the rising sun, leaving the best shooting position to Burr.

 The firing sequence is a hot topic of discussion. Hamilton’s gun fired first, according to the overwhelming evidence. The most likely scenario is that when Hamilton was pointing his firearm at Burr, the pistol inadvertently discharged, putting the round into a tree 12 feet up and four feet to Burr’s right, in keeping with his suggestive gestures. This theory fits with Hamilton’s specific statements that he would not fire at Burr, as well as a warning Hamilton issued after being shot that his pistol was still loaded and cocked, according to Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg’s specialist in 18th century firearms.

Alexander Hamilton was an honorable man. He had stated that he would not fire, and it seems logical that he would follow through on what he had advised Philip to do—advice for which Hamilton sought to atone, consciously or unconsciously. Hamilton essentially reenacted his dead son’s duel, down to the firearms he used. Hamilton paid a terrible price at the time. Burr’s bullet pierced Hamilton’s right side, breaking ribs, ripping through his liver and diaphragm, and lodged against his spine. Despite medication, Hamilton was in excruciating pain for 30 hours before succumbing at his friend William Bayard’s home in what is now Greenwich Village. “Hamilton suffers considerable pain—which he endures like a Hero,” wrote Hamilton’s friend Oliver Wolcott to his wife.

Hamilton succeeded in securing his legacy and destroying Burr’s power, assuming he was courting martyrdom to secure his legacy and destroy Burr’s influence. Burr became the most reviled American leader since Benedict Arnold as a result of the shock, terror, and loathing he elicited. He never held national authority again. Outrage over Hamilton’s terrible death triggered a flood of grief and feeling on behalf of what he had given up for his vision of America. Hamilton’s compatriots reinvented him as the behemoth he had aspired for over night and in perpetuity. His funeral was the grandest and most somber since that of George Washington, ensuring his position in the American pantheon. Alexander Hamilton found himself exactly where he wanted to be.

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.

(In the April 2018 print version of American History, a production error chopped off the end of this narrative.) The complete narrative can be found here.)

It’s been a week since conspiracy theory website, The Atlantic, recently published a piece claiming the death of Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, was nothing more than a suicide. The Atlantic report, titled “Alexander Hamilton’s Dramatic Suicide,” states that a “biographer” of Hamilton concluded he “died of a fever and a cold” on July 11, 1804, at the age of 49. The Atlantic piece, which was published on July 16, is written by Ian Gratwick, who works as a “historian” for the site.. Read more about did burr regret shooting hamilton and let us know what you think.

Hamilton did not throw away his shot."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"Did Hamilton really shoot in the air?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" Yes, Hamilton did shoot in the air."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"What were Hamiltons last words?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" I am not going."}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

Did Hamilton throw away his shot?

Hamilton did not throw away his shot.

Did Hamilton really shoot in the air?

Yes, Hamilton did shoot in the air.

What were Hamiltons last words?

I am not going.

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