Behind The Scenes

The Pistol That Killed A Founding Father

John Trumbull, Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), After 1804, Oil on canvas, X.164

On July 11, 1804,  Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury and Aaron Burr, Vice President, rowed to Weehawken, NJ to participate in a duel. Longstanding bad blood between the two men—fueled by Burr’s taking a senate seat over Hamilton’s father-in-law and Hamilton’s defamation of Burr during the 1804 gubernatorial race—finally boiled over, and Hamilton agreed to a duel at Burr’s suggestion. There was just one problem: dueling was illegal.

The men agreed to duel in New Jersey, where the dueling laws weren’t as harshly enforced, but the act of dueling was still outlawed. That’s why, according to Ron Chernow in Alexander Hamilton, the Wogdon pistols were transported in a portmanteau so that no parties could claim that they had seen them.

There are differing accounts of what happened at the duel. Some reports say Hamilton intentionally missed Burr. Others say he fired too soon. Andrew Burstein writes, “Hamilton brought the pistols, which had a larger barrel than regular dueling pistols, and a secret hair-trigger, and were therefore much more deadly. Hamilton gave himself an unfair advantage in their duel, and got the worst of it anyway.” Whatever happened with Hamilton’s gun, Burr’s worked the way he wanted, and Hamilton was fatally wounded, and died the next day after being transported back to Manhattan.

After being housed at Hamilton’s brother-in-law John Barker Church’s estate through the nineteenth century, the pistols were sold to JP Morgan & Chase in 1930. Through April 9 they will be on view at the Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History. You can also view excerpts from some of Hamilton and Burr’s disagreements at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum.


3 Comments to The Pistol That Killed A Founding Father

  1. Cliff Shelby's Gravatar Cliff Shelby
    October 8, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    It was common at the time for each duelist to face each other with pistols raised, muzzles pointed upward. When the call was given, the raised muzzles would be leveled toward the target before being fired. I believe that Hamlton’s weapon was discharged as he was bringing it down to level (due to his having set the hair-trigger) resulting in his pre-mature shot into the brush above Burr. Had Hamilton not intended to fire at Burr, he would have fired into the ground. The pistols were familiar to Hamilton, but not to Burr. Burr, using his pistol’s trigger in the conventional un-set manner, made his shot count.

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