American politicians have always had a close link between their politics and their personal lives, even from America’s first days as a nation. According to Gentlemen’s Blood: a History of Dueling by Barbara Holland, “In our early years a man’s political opinions were inseparable from the self, from personal character and reputation, and as central to his honor as a seventeenth-century Frenchman’s courage was to his. He called his opinions ‘principles’, and he was willing, almost eager, to die or to kill for them.”
As such, any insult to or disagreement with a politician was seen as a threat, and the politician usually responded by challenging his opponent to a duel. According to Joannie B. Freeman in Affairs of Honor, “Longtime political opponents almost expected duels, for there was no way that constant opposition to a man’s political career could leave his personal identity unaffected.”
The best known example of a political duel was the Burr-Hamilton Duel of 1804. Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been political enemies for some time, when rumors that Hamilton had been saying “despicable” things about Burr prompted Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel.
The accounts of the duel are somewhat conflicting, however, it is generally believed that Hamilton fired first, aiming high and missing. Burr then returned fire – his bullet pierced Hamilton’s torso, lodging in the man’s spine. Hamilton died the following morning.
Other famous American political duels included the Jackson-Dickinson Duel, the Clay-Randolph Duel, and the Lincoln-Shields Duel.