If you are looking for a comparative biography of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr I would avoid John Sedgwick’s WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION. I would turn to Ron Chernow’s magisterial work on Hamilton and Nancy Isenberg’s excellent life of Burr. To his credit Sedgwick makes no pretensions to have produced similar all-encompassing works, and states that his goal was to prepare a more personal and intimate portrait of Hamilton and Burr as they careened through the late 18th and early 19th centuries toward their eventual collision. There is a great deal that is attractive in Sedgwick’s work, but his seeming obsession with his subject’s attitudes and actions toward women detracts from some substantive insights. There is much that can be praised, but careless errors abound. I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, which is reflected in his prose, and not a trained historian.
The title of the book is an apt description of the end of the Hamilton-Burr relationship that dated back to the American Revolution. Sedgwick’s goal is to present an analysis and history of the two men and determine why their relationship soured. Sedgwick’s quest is to determine the turning point that pushed them on to the dueling field in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804.
(Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, “Hamilton: The Musical”)
It is ironic that two men who had much in common ended up with such antipathy for each other. On the one hand Hamilton was particularly vocal about his disdain for Burr that seemed to originate in the election of 1792 and continued as he successfully contributed to Burr’s failed quest for the presidency and the governorship of New York State. Or perhaps it was Burr’s defeat of Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for his New York Senate seat. In either case it appeared that Burr could swallow Hamilton’s demeaning and insulting comments for over a decade, but once Hamilton blocked him from the New York governorship in 1804, it was the last straw, especially due to Hamilton’s remarks at an Albany dinner at the home of Judge John Tayler. Also in attendance was Dr. Charles D. Cooper who passed along Hamilton’s remarks to the editor of the New York Post, William Coleman. Once Hamilton’s words reached the public, Burr was pushed over the edge.
Sedgwick recounts the most important aspects of the Hamilton-Burr association, mostly in a somewhat superficial manner. Beginning with their upbringing and the fact that both grew up without parents, Burr, an orphan; Hamilton the son of an illegitimate pairing abandoned by his father, with a mother who was jailed for illicit behavior and passed away when Hamilton was a boy. What sets Sedgwick’s narrative apart is the attention he offers to certain aspects of their lives that other biographers do not. A case in point are Sedgwick’s ruminations concerning Burr’s attraction to women and resulting sex life, and Hamilton’s true lineage. Sedgwick seems to hold a fascination with the sex lives of both men, noting the many affairs in which they were involved that are explored in detail. As a novelist I guess he is drawn to tawdry aspects of his story and spends an inordinate amount of time on Hamilton’s idiotic pursuit of Maria Reynolds and the ruination of Hamilton’s career.
As previously mentioned, Sedgwick is prone to a number of historical errors. As the eminent historian Gordon Woods points out;
He has Benjamin Franklin in Paris negotiating the peace all by himself. He mistakenly makes John Adams the minister to France when in fact Adams was never minister and was only a member of a peace commission. He says that President Washington pardoned the rebels in Shay’s Rebellion when in fact it was Massachusetts governor John Hancock. He has Washington selecting Hamilton to make the a ‘grand summation’ of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention ‘at the end’ of the meeting, when actually Hamilton gave his six-hour speech on June 18 near the beginning, and it was not a summation at all but an effort to make the Virginia plan seem more moderate. He says the Senate decided to call the chief executive the president, when actually it was the House of Representatives that overturned the more monarchial title suggested by the Senate. (”Federalists on Broadway,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016)
I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, and at times is also prone to overstatement and hyperbole; for example, “When Laurens died, it was as if the true Hamilton died too.”
Sedgwick mostly alternates chapters between his two protagonists as he compares his subjects. Burr is described as a man who was always short of money or in debt, charged the highest lawyer fees he could obtain, engaged in land speculation, and never committed to a position unless it could benefit him – a man without an ideology. Hamilton, on the other hand maintained a consistent ideology and was not obsessed with wealth, though he was concerning his reputation and social station. Sedgwick explores the marriages of both men in detail with Burr deeply in love with Theodosia, a widow of a British soldier he had had an affair with and was ten years his senior. It was more of an intellectual relationship than a physical one and despite his meanderings he worshiped her. Hamilton who suffered from his own peccadilloes, loved the “matronly” “Betsy,” but she was more of a traditional wife with womanly skills, and not a feminist. Sedgwick also spends time comparing their approach to fatherhood. Though away a great deal of the time Burr adored his daughter, also named Theodosia who was educated as if she was a male. Hamilton was a good father who was thrilled with his large “brood” and was very involved in the lives of his children.
My concern with Sedgwick’s approach is that he does not provide enough information when he introduces a topic and fails to provide the necessary historical context for the many scenes he introduces. For the novice his presentation is inviting, but I imagine too many times it is confusing. Further, the author seems to spend more time on inconsequential aspects of the story rather than the more important events that surround his subjects. A case in point is that he spends more time on why Federalists did not shake hands with each other, or even touch each other, than discussing the development and importance of Hamilton’s National Bank. In addition, Sedgwick’s approach to citations is somewhat cavalier. He presents a rationale for the approach he takes and it seems like a cop out. Stating that the existence of Google provides the best sourcing for readers, Sedgwick does provide a short paragraph for each chapter reflecting a few main sources to let the reader know where the information originated. Since he states that he used a myriad of sources it could not have overly taxed him to provide the proper affirmation.espite these shortcomings Sedgwick does provide some interesting insights particularly Washington’s disdain for Burr who he saw as arrogant, untrustworthy, unsoldierly, and one who would not conform. Another is his remarks pertaining to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s view of Burr that he would do for them in the political world what Philip Freneau did in the newspapers by backing him for the Senate from New York State. It was designed to “drive Hamilton to a frenzy of irritation, causing him to bring about his own ruin with no further help from them.” Sedgwick is also insightful as he explores Burr’s machinations as vice president, after the duel with Hamilton, and his plot to create his own western empire.
Overall, Sedgwick’s work can be categorized as entertaining and as a stylized historical narrative the book seems to be a success, but as a work of history, it is rather weak.