On the morning of July 11th, 1804, in a field in the town of Weehawken, New Jersey, the sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, shot and mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton while the two men were engaged in a duel! The contest was the result of years of rivalry and acrimony between the two men.
Over the last several months I have read biographies of both men: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg and Alexander Hamiltonby Ron Chernow. My general commentary on Isenberg’s book is here. My general commentary on Chernow’s book is here.
While both authors agree on multiple points concerning the rivalry, there are many differences presented, some in the forms of opinions, but a few as to the facts. I find that comparing both works makes an interesting case study regarding the interpretation of history and human events.
Both books agree that when dealing with his political rivals, Hamilton had a combative personality. He would often publish anonymous, personal, often scathing attacks upon those that he differed with. Though Chernow professes the opinion that Hamilton lived by a code of honor, Isenberg argues that such behavior was outside the bounds of what would be considered honorable behavior in Hamilton’s time as well as in our time. Furthermore, both authors concur that in Burr’s writing and political campaigning, he almost never engaged in such personal vitriol.
Each biography makes clear that as one of Hamilton’s chief rivals, Burr was the subject of these vituperatively written and spoken assaults. Isenberg emphasizes that based upon Burr’s personal conception of honor these attacks were outrageous and unacceptable. Though Alexander Hamilton includes many of Chernow’s opinions, he remains nonjudgmental but honest about this aspect of Hamilton’s behavior. This is contrasted by the fact that Chernow is highly critical of Burr, describing him as a man without convictions or honor. Chernow uses words such as “roguish” and “opportunist” to describe Burr.
In turn, Isenberg is also honest concerning the negative facts about Burr. He was a lifelong slaveholder. He did initiate the famous duel that led to Hamilton’s death. However, as Chernow does with Hamilton, she provides little comment about these flaws while she labels Hamilton as dishonorable and at times “outrageous, hypocritical, even hysterical".
Consequentially I detect some bias in both authors. I must conclude that at times, even honest biographers and good scholars, as I believe that both Isenberg and Chernow are, become a little too fond of the people whom they are writing about!
Both biographers also agree that Hamilton provoked the duel with incendiary comments about Burr, and that early on, in written jousting between the parties, that an apology by Hamilton would have been appropriate and perhaps would have avoided bloodshed. It is Chernow who argues that Hamilton was so stubborn and fractious over the course of his life that he had a great deal of difficulty ever admitting that he was wrong, and would not likely have made such a concession.
A major issue of contention between Isenberg and Chernow are the circumstances of the duel itself. As per both books, in the era and place in question, while these contests at times ended in injury or death, often they did not. The pistols used were notoriously inaccurate and each participant got only two shots at most. Furthermore, duelists would often intentionally fire their weapons into the ground, or “throw away their shots”, not actually wanting to shoot the other combatant.
Both writers as well as online sources indicate that eyewitness accounts of the duel are conflicting and confusing. Chernow pieces together the diverging sources and contends that Hamilton either threw away his shot, or intended to throw it away, and only fired after he was hit in a reflexive action.
Isenberg believes that Hamilton fired first at Burr, probably prematurely and inadvertently. She asserts that Burr then returned fire and hit Hamilton with the fatal shot.
Isenberg has publicly criticized Chernow and others for what she believes is sub par scholarship on the matter. In this 2007 interview she states:
“I challenge Ron Chernow's interpretation of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow presents a very one-sided story about the duel: Hamilton's side. He relies on a lengthy document prepared before the duel by Hamilton, about how he intended to shoot in the air, and why he was morally opposed to dueling. Hamilton's close friend, Gouverneur Morris, who gave the eulogy at his funeral, confessed in his diary that he found Hamilton's claim about opposing dueling to be inexplicable. Hamilton opposed dueling - but died in a duel? Everyone - Chernow, Joe Ellis - ignores the fact that Hamilton, before the duel, put on his glasses, made adjustments for the sun, and aimed his gun. This is hardly the behavior of someone who intended to shoot in the air. This idea that Hamilton was so noble that he shot in the air and Burr shot to kill - it's so one-sided! It hardly reflects the whole story. Yet it's been told so often that it has acquired legitimacy. This is a perfect example of the vilification of Burr and the deification of Hamilton, in which a morality tale of good versus evil has been substituted for historical accuracy.”
Another area where the authors differ is on Burr’s personality and behavior. Though Chernow does grant that Burr had positive traits, for example he was an ardent Feminist, avoided personal attacks on his opponents, and often moderated disputes among his associates, he ultimately concludes that Burr was an unprincipled man who lacked morals and convictions. Chernow asserts that Burr did not have any political convictions and would take any side that would benefit his own career prospects. In contrast, Isenberg looks at the facts of Burr’s political and legal career and concludes that he was a moderate who sometimes agreed with the opposition party and was also willing to compromise.
Another disagreement between the writers concerns the presidential contest of 1800. In the run up to the election, Jefferson and Burr were both Republicans (This party was not the predecessor of the modern American Republican Party) and were running mates. Jefferson stood for President while Burr stood for Vice President. At the time, electors voted for President, not the general public. Due to quirky, arcane election rules as well as chance, when the votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr tied for Presidential votes. In these cases a tie was to be broken in the House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists, who were the opposition party to the Republicans.
For weeks, the Federalists hemmed and hawed and threatened to pick neither man for President. Some Federalists suggested that they might choose Burr if he agreed to come over to their side. Chernow’s account repeats the tale that Burr was quietly keeping the door open to an underhanded selection of himself as President. Chernow provides no evidence for this charge other than the speculation of various Federalist politicians. Isenberg refutes this by detailing Burr’s actions and statements during the time period. Burr clearly stated to everyone who would listen that Jefferson should be chosen for President. Once again Isenberg and Chernow seem to be in agreement on the facts but differ in their interpretations. When I consider both views, Burr’s actions seem to me to be beyond reproach on this matter.
Chernow also takes swipes at Burr for his promiscuity as well as indebtedness. Isenberg convincingly argues that in both of these areas both Hamilton and many other contemporaries had similar shortcomings.
Chernow is a biographer, not a professional historian as Isenberg is. In Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, Isenberg, who is a Professor of History at Louisiana State University, criticizes writers who have vilified Burr as often being non- historians who overly rely upon negative accounts of Burr drawn heavily from the writings of Burr’s enemies including Hamilton himself. Furthermore Isenberg contends that she has used sources never accessed by other historians. When reading both books I did look at the reference notes. Indeed, Chernow’s accounts of Burr draw very heavily upon the writing’s of Hamilton and well as Hamilton’s son.
It is important to keep in perspective that both of these men were flawed. Hamilton was downright nasty and malicious when dealing with political opponents. Chernow even concedes that at one point he threatened to use military force against the opposition. For his part, Burr did kill Hamilton in a duel that he initiated. In my opinion even if we accept Isenberg’s version, the circumstances of this killing at least rise to the level of manslaughter. In addition, while giving lip service to abolition, Burr was a life long slaveholder.
I find that Isenberg’s Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burris the more balanced work. Her notes indicate that she relied on a broader variety of sources. The portrait that she portrays of Burr, as a fairly well rounded but flawed human being who was by far more principled and affable then Hamilton was, rings truer then Chernow’s account.
As for the circumstances of the duel, due to conflicting eyewitness accounts, the actual facts will likely never be known for sure. Again however, as she herself points out, Isenberg cites more credible sources then does Chernow. Therefore, her assessment of the circumstances surrounding the incident seems to me to be more reliable.
My conclusion here is that both Isenberg and Chernow have produced mostly accurate and enlightening works. They actually agree on the vast majority of the facts. In my opinion this lends respectability to both scholars.
Both writers do ultimately draw very different conclusions. In these opinions both writers treat each of their respective subjects with greater understanding then their respective rivals. Reading these two works as well as other sources concerning the two antagonists, illustrates the need to hear multiple sides whenever attempting to understand historical or contemporary events or controversies.