Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, although they came from very different family backgrounds, had singularly parallel careers prior to their duel at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Hamilton, the son of a Scottish merchant from the West Indies, entered Kings College in New York in 1773 under the sponsorship of family friends. Aaron Burr, the son of a president of Princeton University and the grandson of the renowned evangelist, Jonathan Edwards, was graduated from Princeton in 1772.
Both Burr and Hamilton joined the revolutionary forces while in their teens in 1775. Hamilton served as aide-de-camp to George Washington for four years, Burr was on Major-General Israel Putnam’s staff, and both young men were lieutenant-colonels by 1777.
Following the revolution, both Hamilton and Burr studied law and were admitted to the New York Bar in 1782. They served in the law courts brilliantly, often collaborating or opposing on the same case. Such was their renown that by the late 1780s they were referred to as much the greatest men in this state, and perhaps the greatest men in the United States.
Entering politics, Hamilton became a leader of the Federalist Party, firmly dedicated to the principles of a strong central government. He was a member of the Continental Congress, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a co-author of The Federalist, the first secretary of the treasury, and second-in-command of the U.S. Army with the rank of major-general.
Burr’s more independent political career, spent largely in the republican camp but often guided by personal objectives, frequently caused his motives to be suspected by both parties. He became attorney general of New York, U.S. senator, and Jefferson’s vice president.
A political rivalry developed between the two men, with Hamilton repeatedly using his influence to oppose Burr’s ambitions, often attacking his motives and character. A reference printed in the Albany Register of April 24, 1804, at the time of Burr’s defeat for governor of New York, finally led to the fateful correspondence which culminated in the tragic “interview” at Weehawken.
During the course of the correspondence, both men declined to resolve the dispute when such opportunities arose. Hamilton’s long practice of criticizing and vilifying Burr had finally exhausted Burr’s patience; Hamilton felt he would destroy his own reputation if he refuted a position he believed to be based in the truth. Burr demanded a “general” disavowal of all derogatory remarks Hamilton had ever made about him. Hamilton would only respond to a particular instance. Both men refused to make the statements which would have enabled them to defuse the confrontation.