Aaron Burr is considered one of American history’s biggest villains — but is that how we should remember him?

Aaron Burr Musical

A performance of the hit Broadway show Hamilton, a retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life, ending with the duel in which he was killed by Aaron Burr. Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Ever since the musical Hamilton hit theaters last year, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton’s infamous rivalry has enjoyed renewed popular interest. But what’s the true story behind two of America’s most controversial founding fathers — and is the popular villainization of Aaron Burr warranted?

The Fire Before The Duel

Hamilton Burr Duel

Wikimedia Commons

The story goes like this:

Alexander Hamilton, entrenched in a longstanding, bitter political and personal conflict with Aaron Burr, publicly defames his rival in a newspaper during 1804’s New York gubernatorial race, in which Burr, then vice president, is a candidate.

Finally — after more allegations are made about Hamilton’s denigration of Burr, for which Hamilton refuses to apologize — Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel. They travel to Weehawken, New Jersey, where they are less likely to be prosecuted for engaging in the outlawed practice.

Hamilton fires first, into the air — perhaps it’s a mistake, or perhaps he missed on purpose to avoid hitting Burr (there’s still some debate about his intentions, and in his “Statement on Impending Duel With Aaron Burr,” Hamilton says that he was “strongly opposed to the practice of Duelling.”).

Burr immediately returns fire and mortally wounds his opponent, who dies the next day.

Burr faces murder charges in both New York and New Jersey, but never goes to trial; with some help from his friends in the Senate, the charges are dropped and Burr finishes his term as vice president.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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