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Books: Dueling politicians

Books | In the historical mystery of Hamilton and Burr, the real difference was getting right with God

Issue: "Beyond bread and circuses," Aug. 15, 1998

The central question addressed by author Arnold Rogow in A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is the question historians have asked for two centuries now: What terrible thing did Alexander Hamilton say that pushed Aaron Burr into issuing the challenge to a duel? Neither man ever said publicly, but that duel was fought on July 11, 1804, on a Jersey bluff overlooking Manhattan. Hamilton was shot in the abdomen and died 36 hours later.

But there's a more important and more interesting theme running through the affair that Mr. Rogow infrequently touches on: Two men, from vastly different spiritual backgrounds, were in their natures very much alike. They were both deeply flawed, but in the end, it was Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a Scotch peddler, born in the West Indies, who came to Christ. Aaron Burr, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, son of a minister who headed the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), died years later, alone and, according to historians such as Mr. Rogow, unrepentant.

For most readers, Aaron Burr will be the more mysterious character. As Mr. Rogow rightly points out, Mr. Burr "achieved little and contributed nothing of lasting value to his country," so most of us have read but little about him. Mr. Rogow corrects this ably, outlining the Burr boyhood and showing us glimpses of the good training-indeed all the advantages-he was given, but squandered.

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As a college student, according to a friend at Princeton, Aaron Burr wrote an essay on "The Passions": "The passions, if properly regulated, are the gentle gales which keep life from stagnating, but if let loose, the tempests which tear everything before them." Are not men, he writes, "of the most sprightly genius, by giving the reins to their passions, lost to society, and reduced to the lowest ebb of misery and despair?"

Interestingly, as a young man Alexander Hamilton made the same sort of observation. Writing to John Jay in 1775, he warned that "when the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch there is a great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multitude ... for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority."

Both men had deep moral failings. One political ally of Burr, Matthew L. Davis, said he was "licentious in the extreme, and regardless of the consequences in the gratification of his desires." Alexander Hamilton had similar sins; Mr. Rogow notes that Martha Washington named her tomcat "Hamilton."

Both young men were promising but volatile; either could have been president, Mr. Rogow speculates, but for poor and profligate decisions made earlier in life.

At the time of the duel, Mr. Burr was vice-president of the United States, under President Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Hamilton was out of office but still had considerable clout. As for the reason for the duel, Mr. Rogow's book is very unsatisfying. There are two theories, and Mr. Rogow focuses on the more sensational, though less likely one. Mr. Hamilton made anti-Burr remarks-but were they about treason, or were they about the Burr relationship, possibly sexual, with his own daughter? Like Gore Vidal in his novel Burr, Mr. Rogow goes for sex. Treason is much more likely, and indeed, in light of Mr. Burr's famous later trial, much better supported by historical evidence.

In either case, the remarks were made, were not taken back, and the challenge was issued and accepted. And here Alexander Hamilton's theological transformation gained velocity. He had recently lost his son and seemed prepared to die himself. He went ahead with the duel but seemed to be thinking more about God than about Aaron Burr-who, on the other hand, "died as he lived, an agnostic."

Mr. Rogow's book is well-written history and only occasionally drifts into the realm of the soap-operatic. He neither demonizes nor deifies either party, but he shows that sin ruled the lives of both. The difference between the men was, in the end, how they addressed that sin.


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