J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Reading about Rick Beyer’s Rivals unto Death

Rivals Unto Death: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is a retelling of the political rivalry that led to the most famous fatal duel in U.S. history. It comes from Rick Beyer, an author and filmmaker from Lexington.

Rick’s behind the “First Shot” film, the “In Their Own Words” pageant, the annual Lexington tea burning, and more to come. I invited him to answer a few questions about his new book.

What was the genesis of Rivals Unto Death? How did you come to write it?

I have Lin Manuel Miranda to thank for that! With the musical Hamilton getting hotter and hotter, the editor who shepherded my first book into print invited me to write about the rivalry. The idea was to squeeze the whole story into a compact and accessible volume. I’ve long been fascinated by this tale, and I jumped at the chance. The publisher had a hurry-up deadline, but I had an ace up my sleeve. A dozen years ago I researched the duel for a History Channel documentary I was supposed to produce. At the last minute Richard Dreyfuss decided he wanted to produce that show, and for some strange reason they went with him instead of me! That research stood me in good stead for this project.

What were the biggest surprises for you as you researched and wrote the book?

To start with, Burr saved Hamilton from capture during the Revolution, and may well have saved his life later on when he extricated Hamilton from what was shaping up as a duel with future President James Monroe. You won’t find that in most history books—or the musical! And there are many more fascinating and little known connections. The two men switched back and forth from allies to adversaries multiple times…so tracing their relationship makes for a fascinating journey.

I was also surprised by the degree to which I revised my opinion of Aaron Burr. He’s not quite the cardboard cutout villain history has portrayed. He was a war hero, a feminist, an abolitionist, a supporter of immigrant rights (far more so than immigrant Alexander Hamilton), a patron of the arts, a loving husband and father, and a brilliant innovator in political campaigning. All and all a fascinating character.

The bulk of Rivals Unto Death is about the tangled legal, commercial, and political world of New York in the early republic. How did you get a handle on that topic?

Important as it was, NYC was tiny by modern standards. When Burr and Hamilton started practicing law there in 1783, there only about two dozen lawyers in the entire city. Today you can find that many in a Wall Street Starbucks! A great source on the crowded cockpit that was early 19th-century New York is the Pulitzer Prize-winning history Gotham by ‎Mike Wallace‎ and Edwin G. Burrows.

One of the things that history tends to paper over is the passion and partisanship of the time. The founders weren’t marble statues; they were flesh and blood men who were often at each other’s throats. So many events and controversies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries seem remarkably familiar today. Street protests ending in violence, hysterical predictions about presidential candidates, accusations of vote fraud, anger over immigration and deficits—it was all there in the time of Hamilton and Burr, and it forms the context for their rivalry. A great source of insights on that score is the website founders.archives.gov, a searchable archive with more than 175,000 pieces of correspondence and other writings from the first five presidents and Alexander Hamilton. Thank you, National Archives!

How did you structure your narrative for readers?

This is a murder mystery in which there is no doubt about who pulled the trigger, but the why is endlessly fascinating. The book opens one week before the duel, at New York’s Fraunces Tavern, where Hamilton and Burr sat side by side at a convivial July 4th dinner. No one else there knew that they already set in motion their duel, and they gave no hint of it that night. How could they share an enjoyable evening when they were dead set on shooting it out? What in the world was going on? That’s what I wanted to explore, and the book goes back to the time of the revolution in a search for clues.

I structured the book as a countdown to the duel. The chapters literally count down from ten to one, and at the beginning of each chapter I note how much time is left until the duel. Burr and Hamilton are on a slow-motion collision course, and as the years tick down, the causes of their ultimate confrontation become clear.

You write that the roots of the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr lay in the two men’s relationships to George Washington. Tell us more about those relationships and how they steered the men.

Hamilton and Burr were each offered a chance to serve on Washington’s staff during the Revolution, Burr when he was twenty, Hamilton when he was twenty-two. Burr lasted ten days and left with a bitter taste in his mouth, harboring a lifelong enmity toward Washington. Hamilton stayed four years, becoming Washington’s most important aide and his lifelong protégé. Over the years, this fundamental divide over Washington shaped their politics and soured their relationship.

Burr challenged Hamilton to their duel after reading a reference to “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton had expressed.” Do you have any suspicions about what that opinion was?

Gore Vidal posited that Hamilton accused Burr of having an incestuous relationship with his daughter, but I think that is just a novelist’s invention. Hamilton had written privately to people about his fear that Burr might be secretly scheming to create a new country out of New England and New York, largely for the sake of his own personal aggrandizement. I suspect his “more despicable opinion” involved some variation on that theme. As an immigrant who had adopted America as his own nation, Hamilton was unalterably opposed to breaking apart the nation he had worked so hard to create. “I view the suggestion of such a project with horror,” he once wrote. It seems like just the kind of thing he would expound on at a political dinner not knowing it would eventually bring about about his own demise.

Thanks, Rick! If you have your own questions about Hamilton and Burr, you can ask Rick at these upcoming appearances:

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