Hamilton v. Burr: The Story behind the Duel
by Kathy White
Students will develop an understanding of the tensions in the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr prior to their famous duel in 1804. They will read and analyze key excerpts from primary source documents that enable them to understand the issues and the personalities that led to the conflict.
Students will be able to
- Read critically and analyze excerpts from primary sources
- Draw logical conclusions regarding the relationship between the authors of the primary sources
- Demonstrate their knowledge through critical thinking activities and class discussions
Number of Class Periods
One 45-minute class period
Common Core State Standards
To what extent was the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr inevitable?
Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury under Washington, and Aaron Burr, sitting Vice President of the United States, had feuded publicly for years. In the tied presidential election of 1800, Hamilton had advised fellow Federalists to vote for Thomas Jefferson over Burr, even though Hamilton and Jefferson had been political adversaries for a decade.
Four years later, when Burr tried to revive his political career, Republicans and Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton, helped deliver Burr a crushing defeat in the New York gubernatorial election. When some of Hamilton’s disparaging comments about Burr became public in the spring of 1804, Burr refused to ignore them, and Hamilton refused to apologize. After an exchange of letters, and meetings between intermediaries, a duel was scheduled for July 11, 1804.
- Excerpts from Alexander Hamilton’s Letter to Harrison Otis, December 23, 1800, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC00496.028
- Critical Thinking Activity: Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Otis, 1800
- Excerpts from Aaron Burr’s Letter to Alexander Hamilton, June 22, 1804, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 26, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), pp. 255–256.
- Critical Thinking Activity: Letter from Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, 1804
Have the class work in small groups of no more than three or four students.
- Distribute copies of the excerpts from the letter from Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Otis, December 23, 1800.
- "Share read" the text with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while you begin reading aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Ask the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while you continue to serve as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English language learners (ELL).
- Distribute the Critical Thinking Activity worksheet for the letter from Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Otis. Complete the first row of the table with the students to model the activity. As an example, you might choose the characteristic "wealth" or "finances." Then select a quotation about Jefferson and a quotation about Burr relating to "wealth": for Jefferson, "a man of easy fortune," and for Burr, "a bankrupt beyond redemption." Then let the students work in their groups to complete the worksheet.
- Moderate a class discussion in which the student groups report their answers. Encourage the students to ask each other questions about their findings. Make sure they understand how Hamilton’s position increased the tension between Hamilton and Burr.
- Distribute copies of the excerpts from the letter from Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, June 22, 1804. Share read the text with the students.
- Distribute the Critical Thinking Activity worksheet for the letter from Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton. You may choose to complete the first item with the students to model the activity. Then let the students work in small groups to complete the worksheet.
- Moderate a class discussion in which the student groups report their answers. Encourage the students to ask each other questions about their findings. Make sure they understand how Burr’s position increased tension between Hamilton and Burr and compare it to the discussion the class had about the letter from Hamilton to Otis.
Assessment and Summary
Each student, working individually, composes a bumper sticker that succinctly and creatively represents either Burr’s or Hamilton’s opinion. They will then present and explain their bumper sticker to the class.