DUEL: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA, by Thomas Fleming, Basic Books, 446 pages, $30.00.
THAT Aaron Burr shot and mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel of honor on July 11, 1804, is a well-known fact. The circumstances surrounding that encounter and its aftermath are more obscure and provide the subject for the latest book by Thomas Fleming. Concentrating on a single year, the author leads the reader through the morass of New York and national politics at a time when passions, inspired as much by personality as principle and fueled by a vitriolic press, created an overheated political environment scarcely imaginable today.
Presiding over a declining Federalist Party and in private law practice, Hamilton was roused to action by Vice President Burr, whom he detested. Burr, also despised by President Jefferson and rejected by most New York Republicans, sought to salvage his political career by seeking the governorship of the Empire State with Federalist help. According to standard interpretation, following his electoral defeat, Burr accused Hamilton of defaming his character. After observing all the rituals of the code duello, the “personal interview” then took place.
Fleming, however, stresses how much both men’s military aspirations played a role in events. Hamilton held the rank of general during the Quasi-War with France in 1798-1800 and appeared ready to take up the sword again to rescue the Republic from Jeffersonian “Jacobinism.” Burr’s own Napoleonic vision involved either the Federalist dream of a secessionist state that included New England and New York, or some grand design encompassing Spanish Mexico and portions of the Western United States. The duel did rid Burr of a potential military rival. The negative public reaction, however, led Burr to undertake a desperate (and still somewhat ill-defined) scheme to detach Western territory from the United States.
Burr’s subsequent trial for treason provides a fitting conclusion to this meticulously researched volume. Fleming artfully captures the tone and almost paranoid atmosphere of public life in the early Republic when greatness and vision vied with unbridled ambition, and anything seemed possible.
DAVID J. KOVAROVIC teaches European and Early American history at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Oklahoma.