Book Review: “Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America” by Thomas Fleming

After many, many, many weeks, I finally finished reading Thomas Fleming’s exhaustively detailed Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America.  The book, while a relatively modest 400 pages, moves at a glacial pace, and is not for those but the biggest of history dorks.  To be honest, I think all but the most devoted dweebs will find their eyelids fluttering at some point.

Fleming’s focus is specific: what events directly led these two Founding Fathers to take up arms against each other?  The fact that the historical record is as complete as it is means that Fleming can paint us a picture, practically day by day, of how their difference in political philosophy evolved into professional competition and later bitter personal enmity.

The story begins at the dawn of the 19th century.  Hamilton, Washington’s former Secretary of the Treasury, was working as a lawyer in New York City.  Burr, himself an accomplished politician in the Empire State, was now serving as Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President.  But in those days, there was no such thing as a ticket to run on.  In presidential elections, the winner was named President, and the runner-up was Vice President.  As such, Burr was often in disagreement with his boss.  Jefferson took no dissent lightly, and as his agenda became more bold, the rift between them grew.  Burr began to look for an escape route, and started to curry favor among the leading members of both major parties back in his home state.  These attempts at securing his future brought him into direct conflict with Hamilton, who saw himself as the patriarch of New York’s Federalist party; someone to be respected, admired, and above all things, favored.

Alexander Hamilton

With elections approaching, and knowing that his time in Washington was growing short, Burr made a run for governor of New York, only to lose after a concentrated smear campaign irreversibly tainted him in voters’ eyes.  With his career at a premature end, Burr sought justice on those who maligned him.  Among them was Alexander Hamilton, from whom Burr demanded an explanation for his slander.  Hamilton, who was by Fleming’s account a bit of a prick, made light of Burr’s challenges, which escalated through correspondence until violence was threatened.  And so, bound by some sick sense of pride and gentlemanly duty, they agreed to meet on July 11, 1804, and shoot it out.  Burr, much to his apparent horror, blasted Hamilton in the gut, mortally wounding him.  Even before the former general had expired, Burr began to feel the repercussions of his crime.  Fleming goes on to recount Burr’s life post-duel, and the many outrageous directions it took.

Duel is important for shedding so much light on Burr, a figure who has been relegated to the status of historical ne’er-do-well.  It is also exemplary in its depth of research.  It has a lot of fun facts that dorks like myself can enjoy.  But I would hardly call Duel a readable book.  While more direct and engaging than a textbook, it is almost overwhelming in its detail.  There were many times when I lost the narrative thread in mountains of minutiae.  Even at my most focused, I sometimes found myself turning back a few pages to recall what subplot I was supposed to be following.

Thomas Jefferson

The other drawback of Duel is that, at least to me, this book was incredibly depressing.  As someone who pays attention to politics, Duel stripped the polish from the earliest days of our country and revealed these men of greatness to be just as petty, selfish, and hypocritical as we now accuse our elected officials of being.  Hamilton was an unfaithful husband, an incredibly sore loser, and–for a former Secretary of the Treasury–completely irresponsible with money.  Fleming shows Thomas Jefferson to be cheerfully two-faced and practically disdainful of his duties as President of the United States.   Burr’s portrait is that of a serial womanizer who, professionally and personally, could dish it out but couldn’t take it, a fault that gave birth to a hunger for validation which grew at an exponential rate.

The supporting players fare no better in Fleming’s estimation.  New York newspaper editors James Cheetham and William Coleman shamelessly played both sides of the evolving Hamilton-Burr dispute solely for profit.  Outgoing New York governor George Clinton and his vicious nephew, DeWitt, the influential mayor of New York City, saw no qualms in using their power and wealth to further their own ambitions, which included getting George the vice-presidency Burr had been so thanklessly pushed out of.  Outdoing them all in deceitfulness, greed, and sheer audacity was General James Wilkinson, the commanding officer of the young American army.  Enamored with pomp and pageantry, lusting for power and notoriety, and on the payroll of the Spanish Empire, Wilkinson suggested nothing less to a demoralized Burr after his loss in New York than the open rebellion of the western states and the subsequent conquest of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, with he as the brawn and Burr as the brains of a rival continental power.

Perhaps I was naive to expect more of these figures of the past.  Perhaps I’m naive for not making more of an effort to place these men in the context of their time.  Fleming does an admirable job of that.  During this sad saga, America was a quarter-century old, barely one-third of its current size, and already tiptoeing towards another war with England.  Its neighbors were the colonial outposts of hostile or barely tolerant superpowers.  Internal divisions were already deep and acrimonious.  And there was a great sense of uncertainty in the world, an uncharacteristic anxiety about the future, which festered specifically among these American leaders, spurned by a man who never once actually set foot in the New World himself.

Yeah, that guy.  Napoleon Bonaparte may have done as much to influence this portion of American history as anyone else.  His sale of the Louisiana Territory to Jefferson and the United States drove Hamilton back into public discourse, forced Burr to abandon his hopes of ascending to the presidency, and put dollar signs in the eyes of men like General Wilkinson.  It frightened the British into escalation and fortified the Spanish resistance to acquiescing Florida.  His swift conquest of Europe both terrified and inspired men like Hamilton and Burr.  Neither one of them looked fondly on the French Revolution, and seeing Napoleon craft order out of chaos was inappropriately appealing to two men who fought for an independent democracy, yet remained passed over for its highest honor and greatest power.  Napoleon himself had no direct influence on the feud between Burr and Hamilton, but he would cross paths with the survivor many years later, when Burr went into a brief self-imposed exile in Europe.

Now, as for those fun facts, here are the three most memorable:

1) When Burr needed a loan but couldn’t get one, he decided to found his own bank.  Disguising it as a water purification company with autonomous financial power, this outfit survives today as Chase Manhattan Bank.

2) When he later found himself in far more debt and far more danger, Burr fled New York.  To meet his financial obligations, he sold his expansive Manhattan estate to a former fur trader named John Jacob Astor.

3) Dueling was illegal in the state of New York, which meant that those looking to settle their disputes with gunpowder had to do so across state lines.  A favorite spot was–you guessed it–downtown Jersey City.  My neighborhood had not sprung up yet, but I can walk from my apartment to the location of many a colonial shoot-out in about fifteen minutes.  The Hamilton-Burr duel, however, occurred in Weekawken.

Aaron Burr

The last thing I think worth pointing out is the remarkable achievements Burr made after the duel.  Sure, he eventually went off the deep end, what with his plans to create a western confederacy as the ultimate fuck-you to Thomas Jefferson.  But he successfully defended himself at the trial for said crime, in turn laying a precedent in which hearsay, rumor, and innuendo would be inadmissible in a court of law.  Prior to that, he returned to Washington after losing the election in New York, and served out his term as president of the Senate with as much dignity and devotion as anyone since.  It was Burr who successfully defended Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase at a frivolous impeachment trial, a ruling which Fleming argues cemented the independence of the judiciary.

In the great clash of egos between Hamilton and Burr, it’s hard to say which one of them was truly the victor, even in light of the duel’s outcome.  Both men made their contributions to history, but both appear to have done so without any immediate benefit to themselves; curious but perhaps not unbecoming of two men who saw themselves as inexplicably tied to something far grander and more enduring than even they were.

~ T

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