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

Thomas Fleming, Author
Thomas Fleming, Author Basic Books $30 (446p) ISBN 978-0-465-01736-2
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
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A hero of the Revolution, Aaron Burr served as vice-president under Jefferson and is rumored to have been the biological father of Martin Van Buren. Nevertheless, Burr remains best known as the slayer of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and for afterwards conspiring to create his own empire in the Southern United States and Mexico. He is by far the darkest character in the generation of American founders and has been the object of complex portraits in such novels as Gore Vidal's Burr and Anya Seton's My Theodosia. Fleming (Liberty! The American Revolution) dives deep into the causes and aftermath of Burr's duel with Hamilton on the banks of the Hudson at Weehawken, showing that, while not an innocent, Burr was no more guilty than Hamilton in provoking the exchange. Fleming's account is most useful when he scrutinizes the correspondence that passed between the two as their quarrel came to a head, an argument that erupted when dinner-table criticisms of Burr, which Hamilton thought private, wound up being published. Where Hamilton could on several occasions have easily extricated himself from the disagreement, he instead chose to escalate the rhetoric and thereby sealed his fate. Burr remains guilty of being the quicker shot. Fleming adds no new material to the conflict but does a good job of telling a good story. The subtitle, however, is misleading, for Fleming never clarifies how the duel affected the future of America, other than expressing the obvious: that it ensured that neither man would ever be president. (Oct.)
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