The Infamous Duel Between Aaron Burr And Alexander Hamilton

Download Audio

In 1804, former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and sitting Vice President Aaron Burr faced each other in a duel. Only Burr survived, but the legacies of Hamilton — and that infamous duel — are still with us today.

This conversation was originally broadcast on November 2, 2015.


John Sedgwick, author of "War Of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, And The Duel That Stunned The Nation." He tweets @_JohnSedgwick.

Interview Highlights

On what brought the two men gun-point-to-gun-point:

John Sedgwick: "Everything and nothing. It was just one word, literally, it was one word. It was the word 'dangerous.' Hamilton had called Burr a dangerous man at a private dinner party in Albany in February of 1804, four of five months before the duel itself. You would think that would be the end of it, but it wasn't. Because there was an in-law there who took that word 'dangerous,' took it to the newspapers, and ultimately, Burr read it. Burr was deeply offended.

"In those days, a gentleman had something that a gentleman no longer has, which is honor. It's terrible to think that this could have gone from current life, but it has. ... To defend his honor, he demanded that Hamilton either take it back or report to the dueling ground. And Hamilton couldn't take it back, because he'd said it so many times. And he absolutely believed it.

On his personal connection to Hamilton:

JS: "I developed this idea of womrholes in history,a nd by that I mean, there are certain documents, certain ideas, certain events, that make the distant past very immediately present. And one of those is this particular document. Alexander Hamilton's last letter that he wrote on Earth was sent to my direct ancestor, Theodore Sedgwick, six generations back, who had been the Speaker of the House in Washington and was a close legislative ally of Hamilton's."

"Hamilton was enclosed in a terrible despondency ... people had turned on him. He had this terrible and embarrassing affair revealed ... He lost a lot of face in public, and worst of all, his son had been killed in a duel just three years before."

On Hamilton's eloquence and hatred of Burr:

JS: "[Hamilton] makes it a religious duty to oppose this man [Burr]. That's a pretty serious charge that you've taken upon yourself. And yeah, he could be extremely eloquent. It's funny about eloquence though, isn't it? Because eloquence sometimes runs of itself — you kind of get carried away with your own words and your grandiloquence. And you sometimes say more than you mean to. I think that Hamilton had that disease ... He never said with a single word what he could say with 500."


The Boston Globe: War Of Two

  • "Sedgwick, one of whose ancestors was a contemporary of both men (and known to them in his position as speaker of the House), ably blends two biographies, setting them against the birth story of a new nation. He sketches with great compassion both the brilliant, self-created Hamilton, an immigrant of illegitimate birth and boundless ambition, and the equally brilliant Burr, an American aristocrat, grief-haunted, private, composed of contradictions."

GQ: Sorry, GOP, But The Greatest-Ever Beef In Politics Was 200 Years Ago

  • "America loves a good feud between politicians, and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr set a high bar 200 years ago. Hamilton’s popularity only climbed after his death, in large part due to fascination over the duel with Burr that killed him, and thanks in part to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, there's a renewed, fetishlike enthusiasm for Hamilton."

This segment aired on December 24, 2015.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live