By Jennie Cohen writing for History.com
From the Middle Ages until the late the 19th century, pairs of quarreling men—and, in some cases, women—regularly settled their disputes with duels. Find out how a bitter rivalry cost a U.S. vice president his life, how a friendly spot of tea took a violent turn and how jealousy spelled doom for one of Russia’s greatest writers.
On July 11, 1804, years of escalating personal and political tensions culminated in the most famous duel in American history: the standoff between Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist and former secretary of the treasury, and Aaron Burr, who was then serving as vice president under Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton had come to detest Burr, whom he regarded as an opportunist, and vehemently campaigned against him during his failed 1804 bid to become governor of New York. Burr resolved to restore his reputation by challenging Hamilton to an “affair of honor,” as duels were then known.
The enemies met at the dueling grounds near Weehawken, New Jersey—the same spot where Hamilton’s son had died defending his father’s honor in November 1801. (The loss inspired Hamilton to denounce dueling and lend his voice to the growing movement against the practice.) According to some accounts, Hamilton never planned to aim at Burr, hoping instead to fire a symbolic shot into the air and resolve the matter peacefully. Whatever his intentions, Hamilton missed his opponent but was promptly shot in the stomach; he died the next afternoon. Few affairs of honor actually resulted in deaths at the time, and the nation was outraged by the killing of a man as eminent as Alexander Hamilton. Public opinion turned against Burr, who was charged with murder and later arrested for treason in an unrelated incident. Acquitted on a technicality, he fled to Europe before returning to private life in New York.