Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America is the haunting and illuminating story of two talented American founders who were ruined and driven against each other by three factors: their own ambition, their passionate natures, and the vicious designs of their powerful rival Thomas Jefferson. Fleming, skilled at presenting great detail without boring the reader, tells what happened in the years from the contentious election of 1800 to the duel that took Hamilton’s life in 1804. This book also provides a revealing look at the poisonous political atmosphere at the beginning of the republic.
Hamilton was less adept than Burr at reigning in his sensitivity to injustice and his craving for “the praise of persons of judgment and quality” (per Francis Bacon). Noah Webster warned Hamilton about his “ambition, pride, and overbearing temper.” But Hamilton had admirable leadership qualities as well: a brilliant intellect; bravery in battle; passionate support of political causes that seemed infinitely preferable to the Jacobinism of Jefferson; and consummate skills at speaking and writing to convince others of his arguments. (He was George Washington’s speech writer on many occasions.)
Burr had also proven brave and competent in battle; inspiring in the courtroom, and better able to broker political deals than Hamilton (if a bit too reluctant to commit to one side or another). While Vice President, he made sure Congress was conducted with dignity and decorum, precedents that were continued after his departure.
Jefferson, whom Fleming calls “at best a lukewarm friend of the Constitution,” engaged in unrelenting calumny and slander against these two political rivals, but always behind the scenes. He hired newspaper editors, he orchestrated moves and feints in Congress, and drafted (anonymously) documents to be presented by others – always working “in deep background.” His pet projects were characterized by emphases on loyalty and submission rather than the democracy he touted publicly.
Fleming’s accounts of the defamations issued by agents of Jefferson against Hamilton and Burr are shocking and depressing. Most people had no alternative means of obtaining information and tended to believe what they read in the Jefferson-sponsored diatribes. The lives of these two great men were ruined and nothing could be done. In the end, both men lost their families, their fortunes, their political careers, and in Hamilton’s case – his life – while Jefferson went on to be worshipped as the embodiment of “We the People”.
Published by Basic Books, 1999