Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: War of Two

War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation
John Sedgwick
Biography, history

This vitae parallelae is a good companion piece to Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton, which I read last year. War of Two focuses specifically on the relationship between Burr and Hamilton. As a history, it's decent; when it's dealing with the two main characters, who are positively novelistic in scale, it's first rate.

One of the pleasures of reading history is that it gives perspective. Aaron Burr, vice president of the U.S., not only killed Hamilton; he also had a shadowy plan to set himself up as a sort of trans-Appalachian emperor. Some modern historians have expressed doubt about how serious the matter was, but War of Two doesn't give me any reason to doubt its scope. Whatever you think about the current crop of candidates, this seems an unlikely development (well, in most cases).

This gives rise to my only substantive gripe about the book. Hamilton thought Burr was a menace: unprincipled, utterly self-interested, and devious. Sedgwick presents this as an unbalanced obsession ... but why? Not only did others think the same, but Burr's later career tends to lend credence to Hamilton's warnings. It's reasonable that War of Two should be less partisan than the Chernow biography, but this smacks of a novelist's misreading of the evidence, in order to portray the two men's lives as more parallel than they were.

Otherwise, War of Two is a pretty good read. This war wasn't a war of ideas (unlike Hamilton's tussles with Jefferson and Madison), possibly because Burr was largely devoid of any ideas other than the good of Aaron Burr Esq. It was a bitter personal feud, pure and simple. So if the story seems a little soap-opera-ish ... that's how it really happened.


  1. I don't have much context, not really knowing the stories of either man, but your comparison to current politics was interesting. Sounds like our current crop "a menace: unprincipled, utterly self-interested, and devious... largely devoid of any ideas other than the good of [insert candidate name here]"

    I wonder if there is a gene that makes you want that much power that also makes you an @$$.

    1. You can't be a successful politician without being ambitious. Being ambitious is surely corrosive to the moral fiber. So I think there's a correlation.

      Burr seems to have had few or no principles, political or otherwise. Hamilton was a Federalist, meaning he was broadly in favor of:
      * more power for the central government
      * limited rather than unlimited democracy (property qualifications for voting, etc.)
      * banks, manufacturing, and cities, as opposed to Jefferson's agrarian utopia

      As I remarked in re: the Hamilton biography, everyone concedes that we live in a Hamiltonian society, economically speaking.