Joint Statement by William P. Van Ness and
Nathaniel Pendleton on the Duel between
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr1
[New York, July 17, 1804]
Col: Burr arrived first on the ground as had been previously agreed. When Genl Hamilton arrived the parties exchanged salutations and the Seconds proceeded to make their arrangments. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of positions as also to determine by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the Second of Genl Hamilton. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others presence, after which the parties took their stations. The Gentleman who was to give the word, then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing which were as follows: The parties being placed at their stations The Second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready—being answered in the affirmative, he shall say “present” after which the parties shall present & fire when they please. If one fires before the other the opposite second shall say one two, three, fire, and he shall fire or loose his fire.2 And asked if they were prepared, being answered in the affirmative he gave the word present as had been agreed on, and both of the parties took aim,3 & fired in succession, the Intervening time is not expressed as the seconds do not precisely agree on that point. The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col: Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell.4 Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl H——n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew. Being urged from the field by his friend as has been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognised by the Surgeon and Bargemen who were then approaching.5 No farther communications took place between the principals and the Barge that carried Col: Burr immediately returned to the City. We conceive it proper to add that the conduct of the parties in that interview was perfectly proper as suited the occasion.6
ADf, in the handwriting of Van Ness and with revisions in the handwriting of Pendleton, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York; AD (incomplete), in the handwriting of Pendleton, New-York Historical Society, New York City; [New York] Morning Chronicle, July 17, 1804; New-York Evening Post, July 19, 1804.
1. In the [New York] Morning Chronicle, July 17, 1804, where this document appeared as item No. 13 in Van Ness’s account of the duel, it was preceded by the following statement: “The occurrences of that interview [the duel] will appear from the following statement, No. 13, which has been drawn up and mutually agreed on by the seconds of the parties.” On the cover of his incomplete statement Pendleton wrote: “facts agreed between N. P. & Wm. V. Ness.”
Minor word variations between the document printed above and the newspaper versions of this document have not been noted
2. Up to this point, the Van Ness and Pendleton documents are alike. The rest of Pendleton’s incomplete document reads: “The Gentleman who was to give the word asked if they were prepared, being answered in the affirmative he gave the word ‘present.’ Both the parties presented. The Pistols were both discharged successively, (but the time intervening between the two is not here Stated the seconds not agreeing on that fact. The fire of Colo.”
3. On July 18, 1804, an item entitled “A Correction” appeared in the NewYork Evening Post, which reads: “It is agreed by the gentlemen who attended General Hamilton and Colonel Burr in the late unfortunate affair, that the document No. 13, in the statement which appeared in the Morning Chronicle of yesterday, should be corrected in the following manner:
“In the interview between General Hamilton and Col. Burr, both parties agreeably to the word of command presented: this term should therefore be employed as more correct than the expression “took aim,” inserted in document No. 13, of the statement published in the Morning Chronicle of yesterday.”
The [New York] Morning Chronicle published this correction on July 19, 1804.
4. This sentence originally read: “… ⟨and⟩ the body of Genl Hamilton who instantly fell.…” The word “almost,” which was substituted for “who,” is in the handwriting of Pendleton.
5. These two sentences, which were revised, originally read: “Col: Burr then advanced toward [the] gentleman with an expression of concern on his countenance and gestures, but was stopped by his Second with a view as has been subsequently stated to prevent his being recognized by the Surgeon and Bargemen who were then approaching.” Some of the changes are in Pendleton’s handwriting.
6. This sentence was revised by Pendleton. Van Ness originally wrote: “We conceive it proper to add that the conduct of both parties was perfectly correct and honorable.”
On July 18, 1804, Burr wrote to Charles Biddle a brief, one-paragraph description of the duel. In this letter he emphasized that the actual firing was delayed by H’s insistence on taking his glasses from his pocket and placing them on his nose (copy, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York). In an undated letter Burr asked Van Ness to explain in detail the duel to Biddle and to stress the fact that H’s decision to use his glasses had delayed the duel (AL, New-York Historical Society, New York City). In an undated letter that was apparently sent to Biddle, Van Ness wrote:
“After the necessary pre-arrangements heretofore detailed, had been made—the parties had taken their stations, & received their pistols cocked (Mr. Hamilton’s being a remarkably high-finished pair, of a very large bore carrying, I should judge, nearly an ounce ball). After the mode of proceeding had been explained and Mr. Pendleton was about to give the word, ‘Stop’, said Mr. Hamilton, ‘in certain states of the light one requires glasses.’ He then levelled his pistol in several directions, as if to try the light; then drew from his pockets & put on, a pair of spectacles, and again levelled his pistol in different directions. and once, as appeared to me, at Mr. Burr who was all this time silent at his station. After the latter experiments of the light, and begging pardon for the delay Genl. H. said, keeping on his spectacles, ‘this will do; now you may proceed.’
“The Gentleman whose duty it was to give the word then asked the parties whether they were prepared?—which being replied to in the affirmative, the word ‘present’ was given; on which both parties presented, and Genl. H. fired. After a few seconds of time Coll. B. fired; and instantly Genl. H. fell. Mr. B immediately approached, but Mr. P. at the same time called out very loudly for Doctr. Hossack; and hearing the Doctr. coming through the bushes, I urged the propriety of his (Mr. B’s) repairing immediately to the barge: he accordingly retired and I soon followed him. When I arrived at the barge I found Coll B. in the act of stepping from it, and as I approached he said ‘I must go & speak to him.’ I observed that it would be obviously imprudent, as Genl. H. was then surrounded by the Surgeon & Bargemen by whom he (Mr. B.) ought not to be seen; but that if he would remain I would go & see the General again, which I did; and on my return ordered the bargemen to proceed immediately to the City.
“On the point of the first firing, although in my opinion of no consequence, I am so unfortunate as to differ from the friend of Genl. H.:—and without doubting the sincerity of his opinion, I can safely declare that I can not conceive the slightest ground to question the fact as above stated; and I was never more confident of any matter subject to the examination of my senses. If any doubt had even existed it would have been removed by the following circumstances: 1st. When Genl. H. fired I observed a jar or slight motion in Mr. B’s body, from which I supposed he was struck; but seeing him immediately afterwards standing firm on his station—I concluded the wound could not be serious: Under the impression still, however, that he was wounded, as soon as I had an opportunity I enquired where he was struck?—and after explaining to him the reason of my impression, he informed me that his foot had got upon a stone or piece of wood which gave him pain and had sprained his Ancle.
“2 It is agree’d, I believe, by all who were within hearing, but particularly attested by Doctr. Hossack, that several seconds intervened between the two discharges; and it is also agree’d that Genl. H. fell instantly on Mr. B’s firing, which contradicts the idea that Mr. B. fired first.
“3d. Immediately after our getting into the boat I asked Mr. Burr why he had so long delayed his fire? He answered that the smoke of Mr. H’s pistol for a moment obscured his sight, and that as Mr. P. did not instantly begin to count, there was nothing to hurry him. It is here to be observed that there was, at the time, a light breeze from the north and that Mr. H. had the northerly position: besides, the bushes surrounding the place caused the Wind to move in eddies.
“Thus, Sir, have I detailed to you, as minutely as I am able, such circumstances relative to the late unfortunate interview between the Vice President and Genl. Hamilton as have not hitherto been published.
“As to the pretence that Genl. H. did not intend to fire and that Coll. B. knew it, it is more dishonorable to the deceased than the survivor: but nothing appears more destitute of foundation. The above circumstances, as well as every other which fell under my notice or observation throughout the transaction, indicated on the part of Mr. H. a determination to take, if possible, the life of his adversary. If Genl. H. did not intend to fire it is most certainly a fact never intimated to me before the rencountre—of which I had not the least expectation—and which I am convinced from every circumstance, & most conclusively so from that of his having made & committed to me final arrangements respecting his pecuniary Affairs & business generally.
“It is but justice to add that the Vice President so far from manifesting any degree of levity upon the occasion which is the subject of my letter, or from expressing any satisfaction at the result, his whole conduct whilst in my company was expressive of regret & concern.” (AL, New-York Historical Society, New York City.)