DUEL: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America

DUEL: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America

Robert K. Landers

By Thomas Fleming. Basic. 446 pp. $30

Read Time:
2m 43sec

Historians have been hard put to explain just what led Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to their fateful encounter on a grassy ledge near the Hudson River in 1804. Why did Burr, the vice president of the United States, insist on the fatal "interview"? And why did Hamilton, who now professed to oppose dueling and whose own son had been killed in a duel three years earlier, take part—and throw away his first shot? Was the one man bent upon murder and the other on suicide? Historian and novelist Fleming offers an ingenious, complicated, and plausible explanation in a narrative that affords a superb view of the early republic and its flawed leaders.

The pretense for Burr’s challenge was a published letter, belatedly brought to his attention, reporting that Hamilton had stated an unspecified "despicable opinion" of him. At last, exclaimed Burr, here was "sufficiently authentic" proof to enable him to act against his longtime adversary. But despicable was mild compared with what (Democratic) Republican editors had called the apostate Republican Burr; and if authenticity was what he required, Fleming points out, an earlier published report "that Hamilton had called Burr a degenerate like Catiline would surely have done as well or better than this single word." Hamilton had played little role in Burr’s recent defeat in the election for governor of New York. "If Burr’s purpose was to exact revenge for losing the election, his only logical target was Mayor DeWitt Clinton" of New York City.

Fleming says Burr challenged Hamilton because "he was a soldier, competing for the same role Burr was now seeking—the Bonaparte of America." Having lost the governorship (and with it, any chance of running as the Federalist candidate for president in the fall against incumbent Thomas Jefferson), Burr thought that a triumph in the field of honor over Washington’s heir, Hamilton—a triumph that could consist merely in securing a retraction—would help him realize the dream he had begun to entertain: armed conquest of Texas and Mexico.

Hamilton, meanwhile, was "a man riven by conflicting emotions and necessities." A humble apology was sure to be made public, destroying whatever influence he had in the New York Federalist Party. With Yankee Federalists threatening to secede from the nation in response to the Louisiana Purchase and Virginians’ perceived political hegemony, apologizing might also destroy Hamilton’s chances to lead a New England army. And it "would certainly disqualify him as the leader of a national army if Napoléon . . . headed across the Atlantic to regain France’s colonial empire."

Hamilton had lately turned to Christianity and may have believed, wrongly, that a Christian must abjure self-defense. Fleming thinks Hamilton was unconsciously seeking to atone for having advised his 19-year-old son, facing a duel with a Jefferson supporter whom the youth had carelessly insulted, to throw away his first shot. In addition, the historian suspects that Hamilton hoped his death, if it occurred, would destroy the hated Burr as a political and military leader. Fleming expertly tells how the gripping drama played out.

—Robert K. Landers


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