That Duel

211 years ago today, Aaron Burr (the Vice President) shot and killed Alexander Hamilton (the former Treasury Secretary and still leader of the Federalist Party) on a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey.Aaron Burr

In addition to a) being a fabulous story, and b) playing a peripheral role in my book (mainly because Burr, under indictment for murder in New Jersey, undertook a bizarre Western “adventure” that had all sorts of consequences in New Orleans), this happens to be c) the first historical event I can remember having any specific awareness of.

It was like 5th grade or so, and I was reading my US history textbook in class — whether directed to, or surreptitously, who knows — and I came across a paragraph about the duel. Double take — wait — what? The Vice President shot the Secretary of the Treasury? Why? Where? How? He didn’t get prosecuted? What exactly was going on in this strange foreign world of this early American republic?

I don’t consider Burr a villain, nor do I make him out to be a hero as some of his contrarian advocates do. He was an interesting blend of democratic ideology and self-interested opportunism — in other words, a really good emblem of the early republic writ large. Hamilton, on the other hand, although he gets tons of great press lately, was basically Mitt Romney, an advocate for the banks and the wealthy, and a skeptic on democracy. (No wonder he gets lots of great press lately!) They’re both among the most interesting figures of this whole period, and reading about the Duel will teach you a lot, if you’re willing, about politics and society in Jeffersonian America.

I’d suggest Thomas Fleming’s Duel and while it is slightly eccentric and idolizes Burr way too much, Roger Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character; also, if historical fiction is your bag, Gore Vidal’s Burr is a loose but entertaining treatment of the episode and Burr in general.

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