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DUELING PISTOLS

The original dueling pistols used by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the 1804 duel that killed Hamilton were on exhibit from May 25 – September 16, 2018. This rare public showing marks the first time these pistols have been displayed in Washington, D.C.

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The Burr and Hamilton Duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, 11 July 1804

The Burr and Hamilton Duel at Weehawken, New Jersey

In this popular image from the late nineteenth century, a cool and calculating Burr (right) takes deadly aim at the doomed Hamilton, who fires into the air. Incredibly, the fatal scene takes place in full sight of a passing carriage when in reality the principals took great pains to conceal their participation in this “affair of honor.”

Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
 

English-made flintlock smoothbore dueling pistols by Wogdon & Barton

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English-made flintlock smoothbore dueling pistols by Wogdon & Barton, before 1797

In a scene that is scarcely imaginable today, on July 11, 1804 the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, killed former secretary of the treasury and retired two-star army general Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr had lost both the U.S. presidential election of 1800 and the New York governor’s race of 1804. He blamed Hamilton's outspoken opposition for both losses—especially a letter attributed to Hamilton and published in the Albany Register that referred to Burr as "despicable"—and issued the challenge to a duel.

Made of walnut, brass and gold, and each weighing several pounds, this pair of flintlocks is described by noted Hamilton scholar Ron Chernow as having "the best claim to authenticity" as the pistols used in the famous duel. This same pair of pistols likely killed Hamilton's son, Philip, when he became involved in an affair of honor over his famous father's reputation in 1801.

They were manufactured in England by the celebrated gunsmith Robert Wogdon and owned by Hamilton's brother-in-law, John Barker Church, who had himself dueled with Aaron Burr in 1799 over a different matter (and using a different set of pistols).

Far from vindicating himself as he had hoped, Burr instead became a pariah. Indicted for the capital crime of murder in both New York and New Jersey, he was forced into hiding. President Thomas Jefferson dropped him from the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket, and later ordered Burr's arrest on treason charges stemming from an alleged plot to set up an independent country in the Louisiana Purchase territories. Having been acquitted of murder, dueling and treason he resumed a modest law practice in New York but died bankrupt and living in a Staten Island boarding house in 1836.

Loan from JPMorgan Chase Corporate History Program