He was the man willing to “wait for it” and who wanted to be in “the room where it happens”, but ended up the “villain in your history” for being “the damn fool that shot him”. That’s the Aaron Burr of the global smash hit musical, Hamilton, which has brought his story and rivalry with fellow Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, to new generations to his story.


Burr’s reputation has always been defined by others: with few of his writings surviving the centuries, posterity was left to piece together a picture of him from what contemporaries, and political enemies, wrote of his character. Yet there is much to admire in Burr. He was a war hero, a skilled lawyer, progressive politician and loving father.

Portrait of Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States from 1801-1805 – and the man who killed Alexander Hamilton (Photo by Getty)

But his ambition put him in conflict with heroic figures of the day, of course resulting in his fateful duel with Hamilton. His career was then ended, and reputation sealed, in an extraordinary scandal, with accusations of treason hanging over his head.

The Burr-Hamilton duel: what happened?

Shortly after dawn on 11 July 1804, former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and current Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr faced each other, flintlock pistols in hand, at Weehawken, New Jersey.

Duels were illegal, but the penalties were less severe in New Jersey than New York, which is why they chose this spot. It was known for duelling; in fact, Hamilton’s son Philip had died there three years earlier.

Pair Of Flintlock Dueling Pistols With Case And Accessories
These flintlock dueling pistols would have been similar to the ones used by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in their duel of 1804 (Photo by H.W. Mortimer & Company/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

The details of what happened are sketchy, since Hamilton and Burr’s seconds gave contradicting accounts.

They, along with a doctor, had their backs to the scene to ensure plausible deniability. It is possible that Hamilton intended to shoot wide on purpose, which was a standard duelling practice to maintain honour without actually killing a rival.

While it is unknown who shot first, the result was clear: Hamilton hit in the abdomen – a fatal shot that claimed his life 31 hours later – and Burr unscathed. He would be wanted for murder, and worse was yet to come.

Who was Aaron Burr?

Aaron Burr Jr was born on 6 February 1756 to a prominent New Jersey family. His father was a Presbyterian minister and second president of what would be Princeton University, and his maternal grandfather was the leading philosophical theologian in colonial America, Jonathan Edwards.

Orphaned by the age of two, Burr was raised along with his sister by an uncle. An intelligent and studious child, he looked set to follow his forebears into theology, but at 19 he began training in the law.

Then in 1775 came the American War of Independence. Burr left his studies to join the Continental Army, serving during the legendary expedition to British-held Quebec.

Despite ending in heavy defeat, the campaign made a hero out of Burr as he was lauded for risking his life to recover the body of his commanding officer, General Richard Montgomery.

Rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Burr went on to play a crucial role in both the American retreat from New York – saving hundreds of lives and much-needed military hardware – and defending George Washington’s winter camp at Valley Forge.

But his regiment was decimated at the battle of Monmouth and he had to resign his commission due to ill health in 1779.

How well did Aaron Burr know Alexander Hamilton?

Having returned to the law and passed the bar, Burr built a successful practice in New York, where he occasionally clashed with another young lawyer he had met during the war, Alexander Hamilton. It was not in the courtrooms, though, but the political arena that their long rivalry was kindled.

Portrait Of Alexander Hamilton
Portrait of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr's great rival (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Burr started out in the state assembly before being appointed New York’s attorney general and running for the US Senate. This meant going up against – and defeating – the incumbent Philip Schuyler, who happened to be Hamilton’s father-in-law.

As a politician, Burr spearheaded an array of progressive policies, including tax reform and debtor relief. He defended a free press, fought against anti-immigration rhetoric, and, most striking of all, he proposed a bill for the emancipation of slaves.

An ardent supporter of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, he also put forward a bill for women’s suffrage. In his personal life, he educated his daughter Theodosia – named for his wife, who he met when she was married to a British officer – better than most boys.

Popular and, unusually for the time, willing to throw himself into electoral campaigning, Burr ran for vice president in 1796, coming in fourth. But he was an opportunist rather than idealist, which didn’t sit well with many in the fledgling United States.

He continued to clash with Hamilton, now Treasury Secretary under Washington. Burr challenged his authority in New York, establishing Tammany Hall as a political powerhouse and setting up his own bank against the monopoly of Hamilton’s Bank of New York.

Why did Aaron Burr kill Alexander Hamilton?

In 1800, Burr ran as the vice-presidential candidate again, this time on the Democratic-Republican ticket with Thomas Jefferson. Due to the idiosyncrasies of the process, however, the two men ended up tied on 73 electoral votes and it fell to the House of Representatives to vote for the winner. Hamilton went to great lengths to influence them against Burr.

It took 36 ballots before Jefferson was eventually elected. He quickly sidelined Vice-President Burr, concluding that he could not trust him, and by 1804 it was clear that Burr would not be renominated.

He ran for New York governor, but once again lost. He blamed a smear campaign partly orchestrated by Hamilton. A newspaper had published remarks in which Hamilton called Burr a “dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government” and hinted at a “more despicable opinion” of him too.

In a series of letters Burr demanded an explanation and apology, neither of which would be given. The pair’s animosity escalated – Hamilton was dealing with his own dwindling reputation amidst a sex scandal, so could not be seen to back down – until Burr challenged him to a duel.

What happened to Aaron Burr after Alexander Hamilton’s death?

If Burr hoped the duel would restore his honour, he quickly found that Hamilton’s death galvanised opinion against him. He fled the murder charges, although these were soon dropped anyway, and soon became embroiled in an even more disastrous scandal.

Burr headed west with sights on the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase and appeared to be building a force of armed men on the frontier. Theories differ: he may have been planning to invade and annexe Spanish-held Mexico, or to convince parts of the US to secede with himself as leader. If the former, he could be a hero; if the latter, a traitor.

Courtroom scene
Aaron Burr was charged with treason for his activities in Mexico (Photo by Getty)

Allying with General James Wilkinson, the highest-ranking officer in the US Army and governor of the Louisiana Territory (and unbeknownst at the time, a Spanish spy), Burr’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Rumours swirled of his intentions all the way to President Jefferson’s desk.

In 1807, Burr was arrested and tried for treason, with US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. Despite Jefferson’s wishes for a conviction, there was no evidence of an “overt act” of treason and Burr was acquitted. His career, however, was utterly finished.

How did Aaron Burr die?

Burr spent the next few years in Europe, failing to drum up support for a proposed invasion of Mexico from Britain or Napoleon’s France. He returned to New York in 1812 and resumed his law practice – under a different name – and managed to live out his later years in obscurity.

Grave Of Former Vice-President Aaron Burr
The grave of former US Vice-President Aaron Burr (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

His end was a not a peaceful one, though. He married a wealthy widow, Elizabeth Brown Jumel, in 1833, but squandered her fortune in land speculations. She filed for divorce, which was granted on 14 September 1836, the same day that Burr died at the age of 80.


And the lawyer that Elizabeth chose for the divorce proceedings: another of his sons, Alexander Hamilton Jr.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.