Alexander Hamilton Vs. Aaron Burr: A Bloody Feud (Book Review)

Alexander Hamilton was one of the primary architects of the American Republic. At the moment, he’s never been more popular.

The play about him, “Hamilton,” a rap musical, was a smash hit on Broadway. It has won all kinds of awards. It’s now on its third tour of the U.S. Most recently, it has evolved into a movie (Hamilton – 2020 Film) with a release date of July 3, 2020.

Hamilton’s spirit – he’s buried in the graveyard of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan – is, I’m sure, pleased with this happy turn of events. Even before the musical, yours truly was a big fan of Hamilton, who literally battled his way up from the bottom to the top.

By the end of his life, however, Hamilton’s political star was in sharp decline. He was a protege of the legendary General George Washington, serving as his aide-to-camp during most of the Revolutionary War.

As an artillery officer in the Continental Army, Hamilton fired the first shot at the battle of Trenton. He ended his army career participating in the American victory at Yorktown, VA, over the British Army, in October 1781.

Hamilton was also the creator of the Federalist Party and contributed in a major way to the making of the U.S. Constitution. Washington appointed him the first Secretary of the Treasury. His achievements in the political and government arenas, and in the Revolutionary War, (1776-1781), too, are monumental in scope, no matter what some historical revisionists currently think of our Founding Fathers.

Final Resting Place of Alexander Hamilton (Bill Hughes photo)

When Washington retired to his farm in Virginia, in December 1797, after serving two terms as president, Hamilton’s national political influence began to fade. This had to be hard on Hamilton’s ego. The Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had taken center stage.

Hamilton, 47, died tragically, on July 12, 1804, as a result of a duel with a fellow patriot, who was also an attorney – Aaron Burr. It took place in Weehawken, NJ. Hamilton is buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.

Burr was charged with Hamilton’s murder. Rather than contest the case, however, he stayed out of New York and New Jersey. Burr eventually fled to Europe from 1808 to 1812. The charges were later dropped. He died in NYC, in relative obscurity, (which he rightly deserved), in 1836.

Washington never took to Burr and refused him any sinecures. Whether Burr blamed Hamilton for the rebuffs is not known for sure.

To say that Burr was seriously jealous of Hamilton would be an understatement. He comes off as suffering from delusions of grandeur. Burr’s reckless conduct, as he aged, bordered on treason.

Hamilton was a resident of Manhattan. He left behind a grieving widow and seven children, one of whom was adopted. (His oldest child, Philip, had also tragically, died in a duel, in 1801.) The then-young American nation was shocked by Hamilton’s death.

New York City was “consumed with grief.” A state funeral, with the militia marching and “church bells ringing out sorrowfully,” was held with the patriot, Gouverneur Morris, giving “a stirring eulogy.”

A recent book, “War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Duel That Stunned a Nation,” penned by author John Sedgwick, brilliantly captures events leading up to the fatal clash between the feuding duo. The author, in a breezy, scholarly style, traces the origins of Hamilton and Burr, their early family histories, schooling at Princeton, war-years exploits, and their days practicing law in New York state. Sedgwick fills in their backstories with many interesting anecdotes along the way.

Burr came from “a nearly divine American lineage,” Sedgwick wrote, while Hamilton, on the other hand, was a “solitary immigrant of unknown ancestry.” He was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His mother was of French Huguenot stock. Hamilton was born out of wedlock. His father was supposedly a Scottish sea Captain. But, Sedgwick speculates that a man named Thomas Stevens, formerly of St. Croix, was his real father.

Thomas Stevens was Hamilton’s major patron when he landed in New York City, at age 16, in 1773. Stevens also had a son, named Ned, who was two years older than Hamilton. Their resemblance was striking. Hamilton’s friend, Timothy Pickering “thought they must be brothers.” Question: Why would Stevens extend “guardianship to a non-relation,” absent a closer kind of bond?

Burr’s main claim to military fame was his involvement in the expedition to take Quebec from the British. The daring campaign, in 1775, up through 600 miles of Maine’s freezing Kennebec River, was led by none other than Benedict Arnold. The weather was harsh, the terrain difficult and food was in short supply.

“Only 650 of the original 1,100” brave soldiers survived the passage. Arnold was wounded in the attack. The Americans were roundly defeated, but Burr emerged from the hellish ordeal as a “man of honor.”  One of the “brave soldiers” in the battle for Quebec was the young patriot – Daniel Morgan.

Burr did have a very successful political and legal career. He served two terms in the New York State Assembly; one term as the state’s Attorney General, one term as a U.S. Senator; and one term as Vice-President, with Jefferson as President (1801-05). Some of the Burr’s legal cases were against Hamilton; a few were, oddly enough, when they both served as co-counsel for the same client.

The pretext for the duel was a comment Hamilton made at a dinner party. He referred to Burr as “a dangerous man.” History has surely proved him right on that score.

Instead of ignoring the off-the-cuff remark, Hamilton made at the party, some low life made sure that easily-heated Burr heard about it. The rest, as they say, is history.

There is so much more in this book that I’m sure the readers will find highly entertaining. The vicious political backstabbing in the Hamilton/Burr era made the Hillary Clinton/ Donald Trump presidential campaign, in the 2016 election battle, look like a  grade school picnic.

The print media at the time behaved very badly, too. Hamilton and Burr both had dirty hands for sure in this realm of cut-throat politics, as did the supposedly saintly Jefferson.

Finally, John Sedgwick has written a winner of a book. I am recommending it to American history buffs and political aficionados alike.