This week we mark one of the oddities of history. It's the anniversary of the day when a sitting U.S. vice president shot another man and got away with it.
No, not Dick Cheney. It's happened before. Americans are pretty familiar with the incident, a duel between vice president Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton is a fascinating character. He was a relatively poor boy, born on one of the smaller British Caribbean colonies, who was sponsored for higher education by family friends who recognized his intelligence. He was sent to the American colonies, studied, became a revolutionary and self-taught artillery officer, was aid to George Washington, and became a lawyer, federalist, and early opponent of slavery.
He founded, among other things, the U.S. Mint, the Coast Guard, and the national debt.
He was far from perfect. He opposed slavery but once returned an escaped slave. He was not corrupt in office, but he had an affair with a married woman. He retired from formal politics, but kept a great deal of influence.
It was his use of that influence to block Burr's political career that cost Hamilton his life.
Burr, like Hamilton, was a Revolutionary officer and a lawyer. They had known one another for years, and Burr's soldiers had even come to the rescue of Hamilton's unit.
But they were in opposite parties, Hamilton supporting the Federalists, and Burr the Democratic-Republicans. (Yes, the parties were different back then.)
Burr beat Hamilton's father-in-law in an election. Then in 1800, Burr ran on the Democratic-Republican ticket for president, alongside Thomas Jefferson. (I could explain how weird the whole system of presidential elections was back then, but space is limited, and you might just drift into a coma from boredom.)
Jefferson and Burr were tied in the electoral college, and Hamilton lobbied legislators to make sure that Burr lost.
Then in 1804, Burr ran for governor of New York, Hamilton's home state. Hamilton again blocked him.
Finally, Hamilton may (or may not) have said some nasty things about Burr, which got back to the veep. He demanded satisfaction, i.e. the right to shoot Hamilton in the face.
Hamilton agreed, and brought along the same duelling pistols that had killed his own son some years earlier.
Both men fired at one another in the dawn hours in New Jersey. Hamilton missed, Burr did not.
This led to the only incident ever recorded in which the sitting vice president of the United States had to scamper out of town and lay low for a while, charged with murder in two states.
Eventually, the charges were dropped and he was never punished for the duel. This is less surprising than you might think, as duels were incredibly common at the time, and politicians, army officers, lords, and rich merchants in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and on Continental Europe were gleefully shooting and stabbing one another on an almost daily basis.
The duel did cost Burr his spot as veep in the next election, and he then tried to start his own country somewhere around Texas, leading to charges of treason. They were dropped too.
Today, Hamilton is on the U.S. $10 bill, and is remembered for his many accomplishments, even as he remains a controversial figure. Burr, on the other hand, is not remembered for much other than shooting Hamilton.
You can kill your opponents, but it might kill history's opinion of you.
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