On July 4, 1804, one week before the infamous duel, the rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, were together at Fraunces Tavern at an event sponsored by the Society of the Cincinnati, whose members were American and French veterans of the Revolutionary War. Fraunces Tavern is one of the stops on the “Hamilton & Washington In New York” Walking Tour.
While the challenge had been established, the date for their encounter at dueling ground in Weehawken was still days away. The artist John Trumball was at Fraunces Tavern and noticed their unusual moods. He reflected on his observations years later in his published autobiography:
“On the 4th of July, I dined with the society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, among others, Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr. The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song. A few days only passed, when the wonder was solved by that unhappy event which deprived the United States of two of their most distinguished citizens. Hamilton was killed–and Burr was first expatriated, and then sunk into obscurity for life, in consequence of their compliance with a senseless custom, which ought not to have outlived the dark ages in which it had its origin.”
While many people know about the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and Hamilton’s unfavorable opinion of Burr as a public and private man, it is less known that they were on the same legal team in the scandalous trial of Levi Weeks in 1800. Weeks was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Elma Sands, by throwing her down a well, in what is today SoHo, in December 1799. Weeks retained Burr, Hamilton and Henry Brockholst Livingston, all well-known lawyers to defend him. Weeks was acquitted after only a few minutes of jury deliberation. With strong public sentiment against the verdict, Weeks left New York for Mississippi where he became a builder and architect. His Auburn Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi is National Historic Landmark. Burr and Hamilton would engage in a duel in Weehawken a little over four years later in July 1804. The portrait is of Aaron Burr.
Mention Weehawken and Aaron Burr and most people will think of the duel with Alexander Hamilton, July 11, 1804, but Aaron Burr has earlier history to the New Jersey township. On July 6, 1778, while New York City was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War, General William Alexander (also known as Lord Stirling), at the direct request of none other than George Washington, sent Colonel Burr a letter requesting him to provide surveillance on the “motions of the enemy’s shipping” in Weehawken, Hoboken and Bergen Heights. This is the letter:
“General Washington desires me to state that he wishes you would employ three, four, or more persons, to go to Bergen heights, Weehawk, Hoebuck, or any other heights thereabout, convenient to observe the motions of the enemy’s shipping, and to give him the earliest intelligence thereof; whether up the river particularly. In short, everything possible that can be obtained.”