A Founding Genius and His Nemesis


War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation

John Sedgwick – Oct 2015
Berkley Books – New York
408 pages; photos, notes, bibliography, index

For marketing purposes, the timing for this new book was genius times three: concurrent with genius Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award winning, Broadway musical, Hamilton – which is about the genius who created financial infrastructure for our young republic, Alexander Hamilton.

John Sedgwick wrote for general readers, not for scholars, making this an accessible and (in parts) a thrilling narrative. However, Sedgwick, absolutely, did his homework. A clear and succinct, chapter-by-chapter, notes section gives sources that include works of historians Joseph Ellis, Gary Wills and Ron Chernow, as well as the papers of the two at war, Hamilton and Burr.

At the core of the book are two unanswerable questions about these two fascinating personalities, (neither of which is Who shot first?):

(1) What thing, exactly, triggered longtime antagonists, Burr and Hamilton, to tempt fate that particular morning?

(2) What caused two brilliant, accomplished, respected public men to lose their bearings, slide into decline, and, ultimately, destroy themselves?

Technically, it was Burr who destroyed Hamilton with a bullet at Weehawken (New Jersey), killing him before his 50th year in 1804. However, long before that July day, Hamilton’s actions could be characterized a self-destructive; letters show his paranoia, and rage had been on the increase for years. Hamilton’s prodigious powers and influence had ebbed. At the end, despite having lost his adored son Philip to a duel in the same spot,* Hamilton kept his appointment with the Vice President.

Aaron Burr appears to have triumphed, living 30 years more than his foe, to the ripe age of 80, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. Readers unfamiliar with Burr’s life after the duel are in for one crazy ride. Sedgwick’s account of Burr’s headlong rush down the road to perdition is hard to put down.

Burr fled from the authorities who wanted him for murder. He engaged in epic adventuring that included traitorous plotting against the infant United States in hopes of becoming emperor of sorts himself. Chased to Europe, he was at times without friends, without funds and trapped without a passport. He suffered illness and painful dental troubles. He lost his grandson and namesake at 10 years, and his 29-year-old daughter, Theodosia, in a shipwreck on her way to see him. (It is thought, Theodosia is the only person Aaron Burr ever truly loved.) As terrible a human being as Burr was, his terrible end left me feeling sorry for him.

This is a worthy entry for history lovers looking to revisit the duel, and learn more about the ill-fated men at the heart of our nation’s early efforts at government. It would general readers realize that divisiveness, nasty discourse and rancor in political discourse is nothing new, and may have even been worse during the founding fathers era.

I had minor quibbles with War of Two. Right off the bat, I don’t like the title. Once you learn the etymology of duel, –  from the Latin duellum, archaic and literary form of bellum (war), with the meaning ‘combat between two persons,’it makes sense, but a sexier title might attract more readers. Also, Sedgwick breaks the narrative into four parts, the first three presenting each subject’s life in alternating chapters. While it’s a logical structure, not all transitions are fluid, so the read, in places, felt disjointed.

Lastly, early in, Sedgwick conjures a metaphor I thought apt and evocative, – a cosmic spider spinning silken strands that wisp by delicate wisp – linking Hamilton to Burr. I was disappointed Sedgwick didn’t carry the thread through. It’s natural to envision the two gradually, inescapably bound with one another inside an cocoon, cut off from a more reasonable world. And Hamilton death didn’t free Burr, who dragged a corpse tethered to him, until, he himself became a dried-out husk.

    Notes | Sources | Resources

* Philip, firstborn of Alexander and Elizabeth (Schuyler) Hamilton, called out George I. Eakin, who had made disparaging remarks about his father. On November 24, 1801, the 20-year-old was killed by Eakin’s pistol shot.

* Definition of duel; http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/duel

* Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2004) is the definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton. It is Sedgwick’s go-to source for Hamilton in War of Two, as well as the inspiration for Hamilton the musical, after Lin-Manuel Miranda read it.

* Alexander Hamilton – Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Hamilton

* Hamilton (musical) – Wikipedia; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamilton_(musical)

* Lin-Manuel Miranda – Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin-Manuel_Miranda