Why Did Hamilton Duel Burr?

Hamilton‘ tells the rags-to-riches-to-death story of one of the founding fathers of the nation. The musical is based on Ron Chernow’s biographical novel, ‘Alexander Hamilton,’ and presents a tale which is extremely compelling, yet given less importance in history textbooks.

‘Hamilton’ has become extremely influential and it wouldn’t be wrong to call it the most important production of the early 21st Century. There are various reasons for its success, one of them being how engagingly it presents a story of the past. Using modern storytelling methods, ‘Hamilton’ ensures that modern audiences can enjoy and appreciate the narrative at the same time. Modern music genres like rap, R&B, and hip-hop are combined with classical Broadway to give birth to some memorable tunes.

On top of that, the musical proves to be a harbinger for inclusive representation. Actors of color are cast in the roles of Caucasian figures. This is done intentionally to let viewers let go of any cultural expectations they might have had about the founding fathers. Moreover, it subverts racially discriminatory practices such as blackface.

The story of Hamiton itself is quite engaging and with such command over the storytelling, it turns out to be extremely moving. Several viewers would have been heartbroken after watching Hamilton’s death. It is presented, like the entire production, in a gripping manner. This would have led to audiences wondering why the two great men ever went to a duel, risking their lives in the first place?

Why Did Hamilton and Burr Duel?

Photo Credit: Terese Loeb Kreuzer/Alamy

To begin with, Hamilton and Burr had had an unfriendly relationship for a long time before the duel. They were political rivals too, with Hamilton being a Federalist and Burr a Republican. Hence, their duel was certainly not a result of some last-minute spectacle.

Burr had defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for a Senate seat. This led to Hamilton repeatedly attempting to thwart Burr’s political ambitions. For instance, Hamilton sided with Thomas Jefferson in the Presidential election of 1800. Hamilton’s influence led to Burr losing. Later, Burr switched to the Federalist party and tried to run for governor of New York in 1804. However, Hamilton used his influence to thwart Burr again.

In April 1804, there was a newspaper article about Hamilton denouncing Burr at a dinner party. In the previous month, Hamilton was dining in Albany, at the house of Judge John Tayler. It is here that Hamilton had expressed his dislike at the possibility of Burr being the governor. Tayler’s son-in-law, Dr. Charles D. Cooper was also present at the dinner. For his own reasons, Cooper also disliked Burr. “So exhilarated was Cooper by this virulent talk that on April 12 he dashed off an account to his friend Andrew Brown, telling him that Hamilton had spoken of Burr “as a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted”” (source: Ron Chernow’s ‘Alexander Hamilton).

Credit: Beacon Lights of History, Vol. XI, by John Lord, 1902

Cooper’s letter to his friend was apparently intercepted, leading to some excerpts of it appearing in an article in the New-York Evening Post. Burr received the article from someone on June 18, after his electoral defeat. “When Burr set eyes on Cooper’s letter, he was still smarting from his election defeat and the apparent collapse of his career,” according to Chernow. Hence, in an attempt to try and redeem dishonor, he thought of challenging Hamilton to a duel. The rest, as they say, is history.

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