If you thought last year’s gubernatorial race between John Bel Edwards and David Vitter was nasty, or if you think the presidential campaign has reached new lows in political animosity, then John Sedgwick is here to offer some perspective.
Sedgwick has authored a new book, “War of Two,” that recounts how a couple of titans of 19th century American politics decided to settle a long-running feud. Pistols in hand, they opted to take shots at each other. It ended on July 11, 1804, when Aaron Burr, a sitting vice president of the United States, fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton, who had served as the secretary of the treasury, and whose son had been killed in a previous duel.
Unthinkable today — but perhaps what’s more incredible is that Burr wasn’t prosecuted for the killing. There was a public outcry, but Burr was let off, and he was able to complete his vice presidential term. Three years later, Burr faced another scandal when he was brought to trial for treason for allegedly conspiring to separate some territories from the United States. He as acquitted of treason, but the controversy left him a broken man.
Although he lost the duel, Hamilton seems to have prevailed in posterity. A hit musical on Broadway these days celebrates Hamilton, a rags-to-riches founding father who did much to establish the foundations of the American economic system. Hamilton’s chief legacy, writes Sedgwick, is U.S. capitalism, “a built paradise that is the envy of the world, one that has extended from New York to Pittsburgh to Kansas City to Des Moines to San Francisco and to hundreds of cities more, in the steady advance of prosperity across the land. Great men do great things. As he made himself out of nothing, he created a country out of nothing.”
Burr, on the other hand, is largely forgotten. “If a visitor were to look out ... scanning the horizon in search of Burr’s lasting contribution to the country, let alone the world,” Sedgwick tells readers, “he might detect a certain glow of roguery that, at this distance of time, can seem charmingly American. But that’s vaporous. If our visitor were to seek something more solid, he could look everywhere in this vast country, from the east to the west, and be very hard-pressed to find anything at all.”
Part of Burr’s disgrace grew from changing attitudes about dueling itself, which was once considered an honorable way for gentlemen to settle their differences.
Today, of course, politicians tend to answer their rivals with tweets and soundbites rather than pistols and 10 paces.
Which is why none of the candidates for president this year have fired a bullet at a fellow contender.
At least not yet.