Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: War of Two - Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation, by John Sedgwick

The title of John Sedgwick’s book [perhaps the 100th or so such work on the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton over the past 200 years] – War of Two – comes from the Latin derivation of “duel”, duo bellum – “war of two”.

But the battles between Hamilton and Burr from the mid-1770s to that fateful July day in 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey, involved far more than two. Indeed, had it just been Burr and Hamilton involved – and not their assorted sycophants, followers, enemies and true friends – there would have been no schism between them. No insults. No challenges. No duo bellum. So, while clever, I found the title misleading.  This was more than a war of two.

How these two men came into each others' orbit is the story of early America itself.  Hamilton was born in the West Indies, a bastard – a fact which, Sedgwick claims, “was a stain that Hamilton could never wash off, as desperately as he tried." Burr, conversely, came from virtual American royalty: his father and grandfather were nationally renowned clergy.  While not ‘to the manor born’, Burr was as close to that status as 1770s America provided. Yet – in America in the latter quarter of the 18th century – these two men with vastly different backgrounds would inhabit each others' world in an uneasy balance.

The Revolutionary War would be a central event in the lives of both men.  Burr joined Benedict Arnold's failed campaign to take Quebec from the British in October 1775. Hamilton was permitted to form his own company of men at the same time, and he drew the attention of General Nathaniel Greene, who saw Hamilton working his men on the parade ground one afternoon and was impressed by how much this young captain seem to know about soldiering. Impressed with what he had seen of Hamilton himself, at the end of January 1777, General George Washington invited Hamilton to join his staff, with the promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. [Ironically, Burr too had an opportunity to join Washington's staff. The two men met, but it did not go well. Burr was gone within ten days. Although neither Burr nor Washington ever spoke about what transpired, it would be Hamilton – and not Burr – at Washington’s side for the next four years of the war.]

After the War, Hamilton and Burr both came to New York City as young lawyers. Soon, they came to be regarded as the two finest lawyers in New York City. They knew each other well. As Sedgwick writes, "Because of their celebrity, Hamilton and Burr took part in virtually all of the major cases of the day, usually in opposition, but sometimes in collaboration." The main difference between the two was that Burr hated the work [but liked the money]. For Hamilton, the money was a secondary compensation to the ability to work out his political philosophies of government within the practicing of the law.

Thus it would be Hamilton – and not Burr - in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention starting in May 1787. While Hamilton took a major role in getting the Constitution ratified, Sedgwick notes that Burr, “was that rare man in public life who did not take sides. As someone who enjoyed secrecy he preferred to keep his options close to the vest and not make enemies by taking a stand one way or the other.”

While Burr was not steeped in politics, Hamilton was. Although not Washington’s first choice [that was Robert Morris, who demurred and strongly suggested the eventual choice], Hamilton became the first president’s his first Secretary of the Treasury. It was from this post at Treasury that Hamilton shaped the American economy.  As Sedgwick notes, “By creating the economic basis for a strong central government, Hamilton...made real the federalism evoked by the Constitution. And it created a party [Federalists] that believed in it - and made Hamilton that party’s leader. Washington may have been the apolitical king, but Hamilton was the highly political prime minister, and he would wield the greater power both to design policy and to execute it."

As mentioned earlier, this was a war of more than two.  If we really needed to limit the main parties, we could perhaps call it a “war of three”.  That third key figure was Thomas Jefferson.  With the Federalists of Hamilton and Jefferson’s founding of the Republican party in opposition, as Sedgwick writes, "(Jefferson) became politically (to Hamilton) what Burr became personally - Hamilton's diametric opposite..."

Still, Hamilton’s outrage at Jefferson was one thing.  As Sedgwick writes, “With Burr [Hamilton’s] antagonism went beyond policy, for the threat was more than just political. To Hamilton, Burr must've been a ghoul, haunting him first at Elizabethtown, then at Princeton, in the war, in New York Court rooms, and now in government…It is not so hard to imagine that Burr went so deep he threatened Hamilton’s reasons for being, making [Hamilton] not just purposeless but vulnerable, and raising the specter that must have always been there, on some level, of [Hamilton being] forced to return to a bankers life [back in the West Indies]…And Burr’s shameless disregard of proper political conduct was exasperating, as Hamilton saw him as a man devoid of political beliefs."

One of many fascinations of Sedgwick regarding his main subjects are their sexual habits.  While the reader learns that Burr more than likely bedded more women than Wilt Chamberlain [albeit without his rebounding and shooting skills], Hamilton’s most famous dalliance became a public spectacle. For those unfamiliar with the story, a Reader’s Digest version: Hamilton met Maria Reynolds in 1791. She was 23-years old and married to James Reynolds.  In the pursuit of money after his finances went bad, James pushed Maria into prostitution. James - knowing of Hamilton's reputation with the ladies - thought Hamilton would be a perfect target for blackmail if he could get him to bed Maria. It was almost too easy and the plan quickly worked, with the expected results. First, Hamilton brought Maria money for food and living expenses when he thought James had abandoned her.  Soon, though, Maria told Hamilton that she and James had reconciled. Virtually the next day, James showed up at Hamilton’s office asking for a job at Treasury.  When Hamilton refused, in December 1791 James demanded money - $1,000. Hamilton paid and continued to do so as the affair continued off and on through 1792.

When Jefferson learned of the Reynolds affair [from James Monroe, among others], he selected James Thomson Callender to ruin Hamilton in print. As Sedgwick notes, Callender wrote in pamphlets that, "The Reynolds letters proved that Hamilton indulged in illicit financial speculation at Treasury. The most electrifying charge came toward the end, almost as an afterthought: ‘this great master of morality… had and an illicit correspondence with another man's wife.'" Sedgwick argues – convincingly – that even as salacious as this was, the issue would have died down had Hamilton not decided to go public with all of the sordid details, to prove that he’d done nothing financially improper. Sedgwick said even if Hamilton had just defended himself on the charges of financial impropriety alone, “his whole life would have been very different." Instead, he chose to defend himself against those charges by, "humiliating himself in the most embarrassing possible fashion...And in confessing to the sexual embarrassment, he only added a second crime. Once a figure of probity, Hamilton became an adulterer and a cheat."

As would become apparent, if Hamilton’s affairs were sundry, they were for the most part not illegal. Not so Burr.  His constant financial troubles generally led Burr to look at illegal means of making money.  Unfortunately for him, Burr had terrible instincts when it came to investments, particularly in land. When a speculative bubble burst in 1796 he was ruined. As a member of the New York State Assembly he found opportunities to remedy – or at least ease – his financial situation.  One such case involved his work to repeal the Alien Law to allow foreigners to own land. Because Burr owned a great deal of land, if foreigners could now buy land, that would drive up land prices and help Burr recover his losses. Shortly after the bill was repealed April 2, 1798, Burr received $3,000 for his “efforts” from foreigners seeking land.  When Hamilton learned about it, he passed on the details to his brother-in-law, John Barker Church.  Church made the mistake of using the word "bribe" in public to describe the story about Burr. Burr challenged Church to a duel – Burr’s first. Each man took one shot at the other. Church then apologized and Burr accepted. The matter was settled.  For now. In many ways, though, this was the first Hamilton-Burr duel, as Church was merely a proxy for Burr’s true enemy in the matter.

The role of the Election of 1800 in the Hamilton-Burr duel is immeasurable.  The story is well known: when the Electoral College voted in December 1800, Jefferson and Burr were tied at 73 votes each, with John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney trailing with 65 and 64 respectively. Thus, the presidency would be decided in the House of Representatives. The House voting was by state – not individual membership. So, although the Federalists outnumbered the Republicans in House membership, they controlled only six states to the Republicans’ eight [with two other states lacking the majority needed to be officially for one candidate or the other].

A key factor to remember – and one underlined throughout Sedgwick’s book – is that, unlike Hamilton, Burr had no political philosophy. Thus he was free to redefine himself to be whatever anyone wanted to see in him. And while he did nothing to dispel the notion that he could become president, he seethed at the idea that he should withdraw so Jefferson could win. Indeed, Burr hoped enough Republicans would desert Jefferson to join with enough Federalists to secure the presidency for himself. The question that’s been asked for 200 years is whether or not Burr did anything to try to make that become a reality.  Sedgwick concludes that he can find no evidence that Burr overtly made any attempt to make that happen. Sedgwick strongly implies, however, that Burr covertly did his best to make it happen. This would be Aaron Burr’s undoing. It was a terrible miscalculation and was the beginning of the end of his political career.  In this, his actions were quite similar to Hamilton’s aforementioned act of political suicide – his treatise on the Reynolds affair. 

The House ballot began February 11, 1801. Over 33 ballots over the next three days, the vote remained the same: Jefferson won the eight Republican delegations; Burr won the six Federalists; with the remaining two yielding majorities for neither man.  It was only when a Burr supporter, Federalist James A. Bayard, demanded that Burr categorically state his intentions that, "Burr, at long last, became crystal clear: Words he should have spoken immediately after the popular election, he now said after a calamitous and protracted House procedure had almost split the nation in two. He 'explicitly resigns his pretensions' to the presidency...'"

By 1804, both Burr and Hamilton were considered men of the past  As Sedgwick points out, by that point honor was about the only thing either man had left. It explains why Hamilton would be involved in a total of 11 duels – most of them toward the end of his life. While Burr would be involved in only one more after his “appointment” with Church mentioned earlier.

After Jefferson decided to replace Burr, the Vice President decided to return to New York to run for governor. Against Hamilton's wishes, Federalists supported Burr. This, Hamilton could not allow.  Throughout the campaign, Hamilton fed newspaper editor James Cheetham with a steady stream of assassinations of Burr’s character.  The campaign against Burr worked.  Burr lost. And while there were many factors, Sedgwick notes that, "Burr instinctively attributed his loss to one man: Hamilton."

The insult that led to the duel was just one word: “dangerous”. With that one word, Hamilton – unbeknownst to him when he loudly uttered it at a party in February 1804 in talking about Burr – sealed his fate. The conversation stemmed from Burr’s run for governor. When asked about Burr’s candidacy at the party, according to Sedgwick, “Hamilton was dismissive, but, being Hamilton, he expressed himself with memorable acuity. He said that he found Burr to be dangerous. He said other things too, but that was the only one that mattered."

The exact chain connecting Hamilton’s words at a party to the attention of Aaron Burr is a bit murky.  Sedgwick does a fine job, however, of piecing together what seems likely to be the path: while Hamilton assumed he was talking among friends, one person at the party was not, a Dr. Charles D. Cooper. Cooper was so taken aback by Hamilton’s words about Burr that he jotted down a summary for a political friend [unknown], who then passed them on to The Evening Post’s editor, William Coleman, who eagerly ran them in the next edition, where they were read by Burr.

Sedgwick argues that it was the impreciseness of the word "dangerous" that infuriated Burr.  It was a word whose meaning Burr – in his political wilderness – would be desperate to pin down.  Sedgwick argues it was the ambiguity of the word that helps account for why Burr, who could ignore so much, could not ignore this. It did not help that Cooper, defending himself afterwards from the charge that he had fabricated Hamilton's comments, said that he could relate a "still more despicable opinion" that Hamilton held of Burr.

Burr demanded to know from Hamilton exactly what was meant by "more despicable" opinion. Now Hamilton was caught in a bind - he had a choice of just admitting that he had said it and apologizing; or he could engage [as was often his wont] in a lot of legalistic hairsplitting with Burr, not unlike Bill Clinton’s testimony in his 1998 deposition in the Paula Jones case.  Hamilton chose the latter, with fatal results.

A series of back-and-forth letters between the two men ensued.  By the third letter of their correspondence on the matter, Sedgwick accurately points out that Burr is the predator and Hamilton is his prey.  Negotiations closed June 27, 1804, with the duel set for July 11th. Amazingly, during the interval both men lived their lives as if everything was normal. Most who encountered them had no idea that a possibly fatal standoff was pending.

The duel itself remains a controversy to this day.  Did Hamilton really "throw away" his "first fire" at Burr as he indicated he would in a letter written the night before? Burr didn’t think so afterward, believing Hamilton had simply missed with his first shot.   Sedgwick describes the moment and the struggle in the years afterward to define it: "The shots were almost simultaneous...but according to one eyewitness were about four or five seconds apart. It is an unusual gap....Who shot first? That has never been clear, and competing narratives have sprung up to support either position...Both sides labored mightily to persuade the world that the other man fired first....If the evidence favors (Burr), it has been (Hamilton's) position that has won the day. In this, the dead Hamilton outdid the living Burr."

The aftermath of the duel is adequately covered in Sedgwick’s concluding chapters.  Burr's ball hit Hamilton on his right side and he cried out in pain. Burr quickly fled the scene. "I am a dead man", Hamilton said to his physician, "This is a mortal wound." The bullet had cracked through his ribs, shredded his lungs, and pierced his liver before lodging tight against his lower spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. Almost immediately after the duel, the crowds in New York City were alerted by a bulletin that went up at the Tontine Coffeehouse: GENERAL HAMILTON WAS SHOT BY COLONEL BURR THIS MORNING IN A DUEL, THE GENERAL IS SAID TO BE MORTALLY WOUNDED.  Throughout the country the word was not that two men had fought a duel – it was that Alexander Hamilton had been murdered by United States Vice President Aaron Burr.

Burr had planned to stay on and continue living in Manhattan with Hamilton finally out of his hair.  He believed that the people would be with him and that they understood what he did, and even supported what he did to defend his honor.  Burr was grievously mistaken. Within days he realized he had to flee. He traveled first to New Jersey and then Philadelphia.  Meanwhile, before the end of the month a grand jury in New York had delivered a murder indictment against Burr.

Burr’s life after the duel was a series of machinations in treason, treachery and sex with women. He almost certainly committed treason in seeking to detach much of the land in the Louisiana Purchase from the United States and rule that new country as an emperor.  Although he was exonerated on these charges later, Sedgwick provides ample evidence demonstrating Burr’s complicity in the plot. 

After that acquittal, Burr spent the next years out of the United States, looking for a permanent home.  He went to England, Sweden, Germany, and then France.  He returned to the United States and lived on in obscurity until his death on September 14, 1836.  

Although Burr rarely spoke of the duel in years afterward, Sedgwick surmises that it was never for from his mind. A few years before he died, in fact, Burr was persuaded by a friend to revisit the dueling ground at Weehawken. As Sedgwick recounts, “It was a bright summer day, but Burr seemed unusually quiet, lost in thought, as they rowed over to the Jersey shore. After they clambered up the cliff, he had his friend stand where Hamilton had squinted into the sun. As the memories tumbled forth, Burr’s voice rose, according to his first biographer, James Parton. [Burr] recounted how much he’d had to put up with from that popinjay [Hamilton], until he could no longer bear it. Either he would have to slink out of sight…or make a stand against the slanderer, who would keep at it until he was cornered.”

The War of Two is a remarkable tale.  That two men from such varied backgrounds would come to share the same convictions about affairs of honor says much about early America.  As Sedgwick concludes, “That one [Hamilton] was a solitary immigrant of unknown ancestry, the other [Burr] is a scion of a nearly divine American lineage. That one burned with the fire of the dispossessed, the other displayed the coolness of an aristocrat. That one was determined to attain the highest rank it is adopted country, and the other, confident of his place in society, cared merely to follow his whim. That one created the first American political party, and the other nearly served as president in the second American political party. And on it went, the bright contrasts between these two, extending from their school days in the Elizabethtown of 1775 to a fatal disagreement in New York City in 1804. They were two men of nearly the same age, physique, talent, and magnetism. It seemed, ultimately, as if the country had room for only one of them."

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