On this day in 1804, Alexander Hamilton dueled the vice president, Aaron Burr … and lost. Ron Chernow gives us the scene:
Fanned by a light morning breeze, Hamilton and Burr now assumed sideways poses, presenting the slim silhouettes preferred by duelists. The sun was rising fast, and when Pendleton asked if they were ready, Hamilton, unnerved by light bouncing off the river, called out, “Stop. In certain states of the light one requires glasses.” He lifted his pistol and took several sightings, something that might have misled Burr about his intentions. Then he fished in his pocket for spectacles, put them on with one hand, and aimed the pistol in several directions. Burr and Van Ness later made much of the fact that Hamilton aimed the pistol once or twice at Burr. “This will do,” Hamilton finally said, apologizing for the delay. “Now you may proceed.” That Hamilton put on his glasses has been given a sinister meaning by some commentators, but he may have wanted to ensure that he didn’t hit Burr. We also know that he had not ruled out firing accurately on a second round.
Apparently, Hamilton had vowed to fire into the woods, a vow of which Burr—who later claimed that Hamilton glared at him “like a convicted felon”—was unaware.
Hamilton and Burr now braced for the event that Henry Adams later described as “the most dramatic moment in the early politics of the Union.” When Pendleton asked if they were ready, they both answered yes, and he then uttered the word Present. Hamilton lifted his pistol, as did Burr. Both guns were discharged with explosive flashes …