All school children know the story of the fatal duel between Hamilton and Burr - but do they really? In this remarkable retelling, Thomas Fleming takes the reader into the post-revolutionary world of 1804, a chaotic and fragile time in the young country as well as a time of tremendous global instability. The success of the French Revolution and the proclamation of Napoleon as First Consul for Life had enormous impact on men like Hamilton and Burr, feeding their own political fantasies at a time of perceived Federal government weakness and corrosion. Their hunger for fame spawned antagonisms that wreaked havoc on themselves and their families and threatened to destabilize the fragile young American republic. From that poisonous brew came the tangle of regret and anger and ambition that drove the two to their murderous confrontation in Weehawken, New Jersey. Readers will find this is popular narrative history at its most authoritative, and authoritative history at its most readable.
Readers could be forgiven for mistaking this study for a historical novel - not because the account is embellished with fictional characters or details, but because Fleming brings his novelistic flair to this portrait of power and politics in early America. Duel is not thesis-driven; instead it offers a sweeping overview of the lives and careers of Hamilton and Burr, the duel itself, and the political context out of which it arose. Fleming (The Wages of Fame, 1998; Over Here, 1992; etc.) situates the duel, which resulted in Hamilton's death, in the larger context of Burr's political fortunes: although once assumed to be Thomas Jefferson's successor to the presidency, Burr, whom Fleming tags as America's first professional politician, had lost favor within his own party by 1804. But Fleming also shows that the duel was the culmination of years of political infighting involving not only the two principle protagonists, but also Jefferson, DeWitt Clinton, and other prominent politicos of the day. To his credit, Fleming remains impartial, depicting both Hamilton and Burr sympathetically. If anyone looks less than admirable in this tale, it's Jefferson, who appears at times disloyal, churlish, and conniving. Though set in the early 1800s, this is clearly a story for our day; gossipy and irrelevant asides about the characters' sexual dalliances recall nothing so much as recent newspaper accounts of current leaders. Details such as these, along with observations that New York Federalists' favorite watering hole was the Tontine Coffee House and descriptions of ladies' fashion, make this an entertaining read - but they also render the book more antiquarian than historical. No innovative historical analysis here. But history buffs who have decried professional historians' move away from both narrative and Great Man history will relish Duel. (Kirkus Reviews)