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Hamilton and Burr had a long history of political animosity, stemming from a 1789 incident in which Burr shifted his alliance from a candidate Hamilton supported in order to secure himself the position of Attorney General of New York. Although they remained friends during the Revolutionary War, all ties were officially severed once Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law for a Senate seat in 1791. As Senator, Burr continuously opposed Hamilton’s fiscal politics, which he proposed as Secretary of the Treasury. In the election of 1800, Hamilton supported Jefferson, his foremost political enemy, over Burr for the Presidency, viewing Jefferson as less offensive than Burr, whom he considered “beyond redemption” (42). Burr then became Jefferson’s Vice President by default; at the time, the candidate receiving the second most electoral votes was automatically given that position.
Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel when the latter publicly called him “despicable” for again shifting his political allegiance, this time to aid a campaign to become Governor of New York. As it turned out, Burr was seeking the governorship to spearhead a scheme wherein the New England states would secede from the Union. A staunch defender of national unity, Hamilton's final letter before his death read, “Tell them from ME, at MY request, for God’s sake, to cease these conversations and threatening about a separation of the Union. It must hang together for as long as it can” (44). Hamilton knew that the wily and ingenious Burr could cause great harm if elected Governor, and so she publicly maligned the man, a serious offense. When Burr did lose the position, he angrily challenged his foe to duel.
However, Ellis points out that both of these men were already suffering fading reputations by 1804. Hamilton's Federalist Party was in serious decline, and Hamilton himself had held no political office for almost a decade. After his lackluster Vice Presidency, Burr had lost the support of his own Republican Party. This fear of political oblivion helps to explain why they would be so willing to risk their lives for political reputation.
However, Ellis also views their decades-long "war of words" as a reflection of the fragile state of the U.S. government. The fact that words could have such a profound effect on them reveals that the government they had built had always been only as strong as the individuals who led it. A still nascent invention, it could only subsist if reputations remained firm, and so it was that an attack at reputation could inspire such a vicious response.