“Duel,” Thomas Fleming’s stunning panorama of the fledgling nation, is a parable of titanic intellect and potential subverted by ambition; of vindictiveness, venality, lust, chimerical visions of empire and, finally, murder. While this description sounds less Aaron Burr than Aaron Spelling, the book is infinitely more complex than TV. To draw a comparison Burr and Alexander Hamilton would understand, “Duel” approaches Greek tragedy in its breadth.
When George Washington died in 1799, his Olympian hand could no longer contain the centrifugal pressures of regionalism, the economic and party factionalism and the competing constitutional interpretations that menaced the young nation. Add the frequent hostility of the major foreign powers and it’s easy to see why many wondered whether a civil war or European intervention would administer the coup de grbce.
The cherry on top of this mess was the infamously rancorous presidential election of 1800. Burr, a brilliant political operative, garnered national attention by knocking aside Hamilton’s Federalists and their dream of having a strong central government in New York, and instead delivering the Empire State to Thomas Jefferson. Burr’s reward? The nomination to serve as Jefferson’s vice president. Burr didn’t exactly accept or decline. But when the election was thrown into Congress and wound up as an electoral tie, he refused to step aside for Jefferson. Although Jefferson prevailed, Burr’s maneuvering earned him the Virginian president’s lifelong enmity. Hamilton already loathed Burr for the New York debacle. And virtually all of Burr’s peers remained suspicious of him thereafter.
Cut to Jefferson’s administration. Burr becomes perhaps the least loyal veep in history, and Hamilton is out of the loop. All three men hate one another. (Hamilton and Jefferson had clashed before, as Washington’s secretary of the treasury and secretary of state, respectively.) Virulent animosity was not the only salient vice these giants of the republic shared; Fleming correctly notes that mistresses were a way of life for powerful men.
Burr and Hamilton also shared a military background, and Fleming, carefully referring to the former as the Colonel and the latter as the General, spies a cause as well as a symptom in the relentless and prideful officer’s code of the era. All three politicians also nursed ambitions on an amazing scale; for fame was, as Hamilton put it, the “spring of action.” Isolated from political influence, Hamilton and Burr each had megalomaniacal fantasies of taking an American army to sweep the Spanish from Florida and the Mississippi Valley. (After killing Hamilton, Burr would, incredibly, act on his dream — with the collusion of the commander of the United States Army!)
“Fame was inextricably linked with honor and a special kind of achievement,” Fleming writes — honor mingled with the mud of politics under rules that included killing to defend one’s good name. Indeed, the duel of the title is just one among many. Incredibly, a Jefferson supporter killed Hamilton’s son in a duel at the same spot where Hamilton would die three years later.
So how did Burr’s and Hamilton’s mutual abhorrence finally distill itself into actual murder? To sift even their last increasingly shrill exchanges is an exercise for a 19th century Ken Starr. Let’s hear, instead, from others on the subject: “Ambition,” said the tersely eloquent John Quincy Adams. “Peculiar necessity,” wrote Hamilton. Fleming’s prose trumps them both: “Public prejudice required a man who wanted to remain in politics to conform to the code of honor.” And so, on a sweltering summer morning in Weehawken, N.J., Burr shot Hamilton through the hip. He died slowly, after great agony and amid pleas to a skeptical bishop to receive communion after his half-hearted embrace of religious ritual.
To be as masterfully concise as Fleming manages to be is an achievement in itself, for this epic would have challenged Tolstoy. The author deftly ushers us through the Gordian strands of the early American political scene and onto the world stage, where Napoleon reigned, then telescopes back to a meticulously reconstructed page-turner recounting the events leading to the killing that sadly reunites the various threads. The men were larger than life; the stakes included our new Constitution and world domination. In the end, “Duel” does a scintillating job of restoring salient edges that decades of historical buffing have rounded.