War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation

War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation

by John Sedgwick


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592408528
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/20/2015
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 849,952
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

John Sedgwick is the bestselling author of thirteen books, including Blood MoonWar of Two, his acclaimed account of the duel between Hamilton and Burr, two novels, and the family memoir In My Blood. A longtime contributor to GQNewsweekVanity Fair, and The Atlantic, he wrote the first national expose of the exploits of Whitey Bulger in GQ in 1992.

Read an Excerpt

The case of dueling pistols owned by Hamilton’s good Federalist friend New York senator Rufus King. Similar to the Robert Wogdon flintlock pistols used in the fatal duel between Hamilton and Burr, these were made by H.W. Mortimer. They were never fired but demonstrate that such equipment was de rigueur for a gentleman of the political class and indicate the elaborate machinery involved in defending one’s honor.

One fall afternoon several years ago, I was in the reading room of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a splendid brick bastion in Boston’s leafy Fenway neighborhood. I was prowling through the society’s extensive collection of Sedgwick family papers for a book I was writing about my family’s history when the head librarian, Peter Drummey, came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said he had something to show me.

“We’ve got this one on display up front,” he whispered. “Come, you should see it.” He led me through a series of rooms to an exhibition space showing the society’s prized holdings in long glass cases. Peter stopped beside one of them and pointed toward a wrinkled letter, yellowed with age, its once-black ink long since faded to brown, that was propped up on glass. “There. Take a look.”

I bent over the case. “New York, July 10, 1804,” I read out.

My Dear Sir

I have received two letters from you since we last saw each other—that of the latest date being the 24 of May. I have had in hand for some time a long letter to you, explaining my view of the course and tendency of our Politics, and my intentions as to my own future conduct. But my plan embraced so large a range that owing to much avocation, some indifferent health, and a growing distaste for Politics, the letter is still considerably short of being finished—I write this now to satisfy you, that want of regard for you has not been the cause of my silence—

“Wait, this isn’t—?” I asked.

Peter nodded. “Yes—Alexander Hamilton’s last letter. Written the night before he was shot.” By the sitting vice president Aaron Burr, he need hardly have added, in the famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804, an event that Henry Adams called the most dramatic moment in the politics of the early Republic.

“And look, it’s to one of yours.” He beamed. “His good friend and legislative ally Theodore Sedgwick.” Of course—the name was scrawled hastily across the bottom.

I’d known about the letter, but I’d never seen it. Theodore was my great-great-great-grandfather. A career politician, he’d helped push Hamilton’s economic agenda through the House when he was a representative from Massachusetts, and ultimately rose to become Speaker of the House for the fateful election of 1800 that wrested control away from his Federalist Party and turned it over to Thomas Jefferson and the Republican “Jacobins,” as he thought of them, alluding to the bloodthirsty radicals of the French Revolution. Much to Hamilton’s distress, Theodore had tried fruitlessly to steer the election to Burr, a friend from the Berkshires. Still, Theodore had been one of the only politicians who’d remained a trusted friend of both men, which was why Hamilton was writing him then.

We will return to the letter later, in its time. Taken out of context, it may seem tangential and, unusually for Hamilton, wildly overblown. It is likely to defy expectations as to why Hamilton crossed the Hudson at daybreak and faced his doom. In a few choice sentences, Hamilton offered a better explanation about his part in the duel, and a better prediction of what would come from it, than he did anywhere else. Theodore Sedgwick never responded, since by then there was no one to respond to.

When earlier members of the family encountered the letter, they could see its value to history, for several added urgent notations on the back before they passed the letter down to the next generation. All conveyed the same message: This letter must be preserved.
The Fatal Dinner

Searching for the true origins of the fatal hatred between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is like trying to trace the wind to its source. It is easier to detail how the gusts are knocking tree limbs about. There was never any question that Burr shot Hamilton in anger. As for why, everyone turned to a remarkable series of letters, eleven in all, that Hamilton and Burr, or their surrogates, volleyed back and forth in the run-up to the slaughter and that filled the newspapers afterward. The letters have much of the quality of legal arguments, as befits the work of the two most prominent lawyers in the city, as each tried to pin the blame on the other, and they make up a duel of their own, a war of words.

While each man clearly disdained the moral character of the other, the issue at hand was far more limited, and more precise, as it turned, remarkably, on a single word, spoken in haste at a dinner party in Albany that February, in the midst of an abominable winter that, from November to May, was the coldest and snowiest on record. Only the steep roofs of the city’s Dutch houses were clear of the otherwise endless freezing white. The event was held at the State Street home of a powerful local judge named John Tayler, whose mouth seemed always down turned in displeasure. He ran nearly everything in town from the waterworks to the local New York State Bank, which he’d conveniently located directly across the street, and he was at work on plans for a new granite statehouse a few blocks away. The city had long been so Dutch that, it was said, even the dogs barked in Dutch. The Reformed Protestant Dutch Church still commanded one end of State Street—but a sturdy new Episcopal church had risen at the other, reflecting the developing political tensions of the city.

Tayler had invited in a few gentleman friends who were staying in the city for an ample repast before a roaring fire. The men duly arrived by sleigh on the snow-packed street. Their cheeks must have been raw as they came stamping into the front hall, their top hats and capes dusted with white. Federalists all, they dressed in the Federalist fashion; for clothing, too, was divided by party. Unlike Republicans, these good Federalist men all wore traditional knee-high silk stockings and buckled shoes, eschewing the blowsy shirts and crude trousers affected by the Republicans. Or worse. Even on formal occasions, President Jefferson was known to lounge about the President’s Mansion in a dressing gown and slippers.

The purpose tonight, however, was not mere conviviality. Since this was Albany in an election season, and one that featured the almost lubricious prospect of the disgraced vice president Aaron Burr’s attempt to seize the governor’s chair, the topic would be politics and, for a diversion, more politics. But for its designation as the state capital, after all, Albany would have remained what it once was: a nice piece of land along the Hudson, rich in strawberries. And these men possessed political opinions of value. Among them were the eminent James Kent, chief justice of the New York State Supreme Court, and the Dutch aristocrat Stephen Van Rensselaer, the eighth patroon, or lord of the manor, a onetime candidate for governor himself whose estate, Rensselaerswych, once encompassed all of Albany. But the prize guest of the evening was Alexander Hamilton.

In his younger days, Hamilton had cut a girlish figure, wasp-waisted, slim limbed, with none of the manly chest you’d associate with an orator who could dominate a hall for hours. He’d had a dancer’s grace, too, pirouetting and gesturing as he kept up an endless stream of talk. (No one had ever talked as much as Hamilton—the world might have drowned in his words.) Now it was only the talk anyone remembered. At forty-nine, he’d aged noticeably, thickened up, slowed. Even his electric, violet-blue eyes had dimmed, like a fire that had burned down to embers. And his hair, once a lustrous strawberry blond—a token of his Scottish heritage, it was said—had gone pale and brittle, but Hamilton still wore it straight back, clasped in his trademark club behind.

America was still a thinly populated country of only a few million free whites, most of them clumped in a few cities from Georgia to the Massachusetts coast that was not yet called Maine. If the elite weren’t related by blood or marriage, they’d served together in the war or gone to college together. So here, Hamilton knew Kent from his earliest days as a lawyer, and he knew Van Rensselaer because Van Rensselaer was married to Hamilton’s wife’s sister. But, of course, familiarity doesn’t always guarantee warmth. Among intimates, a slight can cause a cooling, and then chill into an icy fury, and so the political world of the young America was driven by the dual polarities of Anton Mesmer, the German physician who believed that everyone and everything is held together by a magnetic force. Those who loved, loved like newlyweds. Those who hated, hated like demons. Thinking he was among men he loved and who loved him, Hamilton ventured an opinion of a man he didn’t. When questioned about Burr’s candidacy for governor of New York, 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.

Hamilton had said so many words, it was probably inevitable that he would say a wrong one. This was a wrong one, and no more words from him could make it right. For there was another man there that night, one whom Hamilton failed to take into account. It was Tayler’s young son-in-law Dr. Charles D. Cooper, who was staying over. He was so taken by Hamilton’s fevered denunciations of the vice president that he did something dangerous. He jotted down a summary for a political friend in Manhattan, and that man—unidentified—must have found the comments of larger interest, for he passed them along to the Evening Post’s editor, William Coleman, who was eager to run them, but with a disclaimer in case Burr take offense and make a challenge against him. The editor persuaded Hamilton’s father-in-law, the former New York senator General Philip Schuyler, to add a line expressing doubt that Alexander Hamilton would say anything so harsh about Burr after he’d pledged neutrality in Burr’s gubernatorial contest. That was a howler. Everyone knew that Hamilton had been anything but neutral in that election.

Up in Albany, Dr. Cooper read the Schuyler note in the Post, and he took offense at Schuyler’s insinuation that he’d gotten the story wrong or possibly had made it up entirely. Furious, he wrote a stiff letter to the Federalist Albany Register, to reiterate that Hamilton absolutely had called Burr “dangerous,” and that was not all. He added, tantalizingly, “I could detail for you a still more despicable opinion which Mr. Hamilton has expressed to Mr. Burr.”

Still more despicable.

That did it.

As Burr told a friend later, with the lightly veiled anger that was the purest expression of his breeding: “[Hamilton] had a peculiar talent of saying things improper and offensive in such a manner as could not well be taken hold of.” Dr. Cooper’s letter in the Register didn’t come to Burr’s attention for a full two months, in the middle of June, by which time Hamilton had succeeded in snatching the governorship from him in humiliating fashion: Burr lost by the greatest margin of any gubernatorial candidate in the state. Burr was not inclined to be forgiving. He intended to extract from Hamilton the full meaning of Cooper’s words, if he had to use pincers to do it.

On June 18, 1804, he dispatched a note to Hamilton at his law office in New York.

Sir:— I send for your perusal a letter signed Charles D. Cooper, which, though apparently published some time ago has but very recently come to my knowledge. Mr. Van Ness, who does me the favor to deliver this, will point out to you that clause of the letter to which I particularly request your attention.

You must perceive, sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.

I have the honor to be,
With that, the game was on. Those eleven letters passed between them, but when the third, from Burr, declared that he had been dishonored, it became clear that the men would be headed across the Hudson to the dueling ground in Weehawken to resolve the matter at dawn with pistols.

BUT IT IS the rare lethal dispute that stems from a single word, or even several words. And, while “dangerous” was insulting, and “despicable” more so, the words merely evoked a string of calumnies that Hamilton had leveled against Burr at every presidential election up through the last one, the epic contest of 1800, when Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College, throwing the matter to the House of Representatives. While Hamilton had always disdained Jefferson, he loathed Burr so utterly that he fought to counter every attempt by the Federalists to cut a deal with him that would award him the presidency, not Jefferson. It is a mark of Hamilton’s aversion to Burr that he embraced the anti-Christ instead.

As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement. . . . If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth. He is truly the Catiline of America.

As every classicist knew, the dissolute Catiline was one of the greatest traitors of the classical age, leading troops against the Roman Republic in a monstrous conspiracy that was foiled by Cicero, the canny orator in whom Hamilton may have seen a little of himself.

But Hamilton’s political antipathy dated back to the presidential contest of 1792, when Burr rather audaciously put himself forward as a vice presidential candidate for the nascent Republican Party against the Federalist incumbents, Washington and Adams. At that point, Burr had been elected New York assemblyman, then appointed attorney general by the governor, who later persuaded the Assembly to make him senator from New York just the year before his vice presidential bid. He was hardly a political threat to the Federalists, and certainly not in a campaign against Washington. Yet Hamilton savaged him:

I fear [Burr] is unprincipled both as a public and private man. . . . I take it he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest or ambition. . . . I am mistaken if it be not his object to play the game of confusion and I feel it a religious duty to oppose his career.

A religious duty, no less. Divinely inspired, and permanent. And this for a man who went on to garner just one electoral vote, from South Carolina.

While Hamilton did not hesitate to say such things, and more, against Burr, Burr never responded in kind, preferring to answer Hamilton’s contempt with silence, which may have been all the more infuriating. Hamilton’s vituperation was unanswerable in any case, as it stemmed from something far deeper than any transient political disagreement but may have been embedded in his psyche. But in seeing evil in Burr, he brought some out in himself. The duel did not derive from circumstances, but from the essence of who these men were and aspired to be.


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Copyright © 2015 John Sedgwick.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note xv

Introduction: The Fatal Dinner xvii

Part 1 The Roots of the Hatred

1 In the Hands of an Angry God 3

2 Contentment 12

3 Platonic Love Is Arrant Nonsense 20

4 The Predictions Glare of Almost Perpetual Lightning 28

5 Refinement 37

6 In the Roseate Bowers of Cupid 41

7 Six Slayloads of Bucks and Bells 46

8 Holy Ground 51

9 A Fever for War 57

10 Liberty or Death 61

11 When in the Course of Human Events 74

12 The Malcolms 88

13 A Lady with a Beautiful Waist 96

14 Beauty Is Woman's Sceptre 102

15 The Schuylers 106

16 But a Single Word, Burr 111

17 A Little Sorceress 117

18 In Ill Humour with Every Thing but Thee 126

Part 2 The Battle Is Joined

19 Commentaries on the Laws of England 135

20 Children of a Larger Growth 145

21 Come My Charmer and Relieve Me 155

22 You Will Become All That I Wish 159

23 Two Men of Politics 165

24 A Dreaded Dilemma 174

25 To a Mind like His Nothing Comes Amiss 181

26 Another Long Nose 191

27 And We Had a Bank 198

28 Botanizing 202

29 Embryo-Caesar 206

30 Other Than Pecuniary Consolation 211

31 Sober Among the Drunks 216

32 I Have Been So Cruelly Treated 224

33 Louis Capet Has Lost His Caput 230

34 The Best Woman and Finest Lady I Have Ever Known 235

35 Root out the Distempered and Noisome Weed 242

Part 3 To the Death

36 To Fight the Whole Detestable Faction 249

37 The Bubble of Speculation Is Burst 262

38 An Absolute and Abominable Lie 267

39 Strut Is Good for Nothing 274

40 The Lady in the Well 281

41 The Fangs of Jefferson 286

41 The Gigg Is Therefore Up 295

43 A Damn'd Rascal 306

44 Tant Mieux 322

45 A Still More Despicable Opinion 329

Part 4 And Then There Was One

46 Have No Anxiety about the Issue of This Business 347

47 A Good Many Incidents to Amuse One 351

48 Motives of Profound Political Importance 364

49 A Terrible Whirlpool, Threatening Everything 376

50 A Slight Expression of Contempt 386

51 G.H. Edwards 392

52 In the End 403

Envoi 405

Acknowledgments 409

Notes 413

Bibliography 425

Photo Insert Credits 435

Index 437

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