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Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming

This was a good book, a mixed biography of my favorite Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and his long and increasingly disintegrating relationship with Aaron Burr. As such a book is inevitable to do, it also crosses paths with Madison, Jefferson, and some other notable figures from America’s Founding generation.

The focus of the book is on Hamilton’s late career as an increasingly overworked and politically irrelevant New York lawyer. His days in government are now largely behind him, as his chief benefactor, George Washington, has passed on. Hamilton, without Washington’s support, finds himself increasingly marginalized by the dwindling support of the Federalist Party as well as the ascension of the Jefferson Republicans. In addition, his political star is largely destroyed in a sex scandal, to which he takes the odd step of “setting the record straight” by explicitly detailing what sexual scandals he is guilty of, and which innocent. As a politically diminished man, he finds that his former wealthy supports have now largely fled him, making him work long hours as a lawyer to avoid defaulting on his debts.

In contrast to Hamilton’s collapse, during this same period Aaron Burr’s star is on the rise. He’s been able to thread the delicate needle of New York state politics (which largely consists of not pissing of the Clinton-Livingston alliance, which runs the entire state as if it was their own private province), and has managed to build an electoral base within the state that will allow a Republican victory in the election of 1800.

Of course, in this case, that victory is anything but an easy one. Burr and Jefferson deadlock in electoral votes, and it’s left to the House of Reps to sort out the mess. The ballots go on multiple times, with Jefferson and Burr tying on every vote. At this point, Hamilton steps in and brokers a deal with Jefferson: If Jefferson will agree to leave the Bank of the United States alone, Hamilton will use his remaining influence to swing the votes in his favor. Jefferson agrees, and eventually becomes President.

This incident has two consequences. First, Jefferson moves into the Presidency without trusting his Vice President. Second, it is an example of Hamilton interfering in Burr’s affairs.

Moving forward, the relations between Burr and Jefferson during the first few months of their presidential tenure is formal, but very civil and polite. Burr is invited to Jefferson’s parties, and publicly they seem to be good company. However, behind the scenes, Jefferson is constantly working to undermine his vice president as well as find some way of getting rid of him. Burr, meanwhile, is actually doing some credible work on his own. He’s probably the first VP to do anything to expand the power of the position by taking an active role as President of the Senate. During his tenure, he makes sure that the entire Senate body works according to established rules of decorum and procedure. His attention to detail and civility in the Senate earns him a wide array of friends, which furthers the growing breach between him and Jefferson, the latter seeing his viper VP’s political base growing, and not trusting him to use it to further the administration’s goals.

The Louisiana Purchase essentially destroys anyone’s hope of challenging Jefferson for the Presidency in 1804 (ironically, a purchase made easy by the resolute success of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States). In addition, by the time of that election it’s officially open-daggers between Burr and Jefferson. As a result of Jefferson dropping Burr from his ticket, Burr feels he has but one option left open to him — running for Governor of New York.

The state politics are too intricate to get into here, but Burr runs a competent campaign, but is no match for the men against him — Hamilton working to undermine Burr, and Clinton-Livingston working to eliminate their new rival for control of the state, as well as Burr’s questionable involvement with a range of real estate scams, Burr’s candidacy is doomed.

So, at this point, Burr’s career is now rock-bottom. He’s almost finished with his tenure as VP, and he has but one political prospect going forward — war. Burr had a distinguished career during the Revolution as a capable commander who was capable of earning victory over the Redcoats. However, he has one chief rival to his claim for command of America’s armed forces during time of war… Alexander Hamilton, the man that Washington put in charge of the nation’s defense during the Whiskey Rebellion, has a claim which is above reproach. To add to Burr’s woes, his debt is now likely to blow up in his face, as his political offices were the only things holding his creditors at bay.

So, in what essentially seems to be a contrived argument over political slanders, Burr and Hamilton agree to duel. Hamilton, who has lost a son to a duel, is reported as saying he won’t fire at Burr. There are only two things we’re sure that happened after the duel — Hamilton was murdered, and Burr escapes unscathed.

The aftermath is an interesting one. Burr’s conduct forces him out of New York, and he eventually returns to D.C. to some very enthusiastic applause from people who hated Hamilton. Oddly enough, his last major act as VP involves him presiding over the case of Justice Samuel Chase, who is being impeached because Jefferson and his supporters don’t like his rulings (the fact that he may have been insane, seemingly irrelevant). With Burr presiding over the trial, it becomes clear beyond a shadow of doubt that Jefferson is trying to impeach the man for political, rather than professional, shortcomings, and Chase is acquitted as a result. It’s an interesting end to Burr’s VP career, because he managed to stop an impeachment that Hamilton had been urging his friends to vote against, for the very reason of it being shameless politics intruding on the judiciary.

So, after he leaves the Vice-Presidency, Burr runs west to join forces with Gen. “Judas” Wilkinson. Wilkinson is an active double-agent on the Spanish payroll, and for a long while he baits Burr with offers of possibly forming their own confederation in the American West. Eventually, however, he decides he needs a show of loyalty to Washington to keep suspicion off his back, so he throws Burr under the bus and lets him get arrested for treason. The ensuing trial lets Burr off the hook, and he dies in large obscurity in New York in 1836.

I’d give the book three stars. It’s an interesting read, and one that does justice to an interesting chapter in American history. That being said, there’s nothing particularly amazing about it.

Some stray observations:

I hate Jefferson. Seemingly every book about this era can’t help but make you conclude he’s a complete hypocrite. The slave-holding writer of, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ” can never come off as anything but a hypocrite. In addition, while he railed against the Alien and Sedition Acts (which allows the shutting down of newspapers, among other things) while he was outside of office, once he was in office he had no qualms about using them to his own ends.

There’s a funny anecdote in the book about Martha Washington’s cat. Apparently this cat humped everything that moved, at which point she gave it the nickname, “Hamilton.”

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

In large part a book of mini-biographies, this book was written by JFK while he was interred at a hospital for several months recuperating from back surgery. In this book, JFK seeks to illustrate a few examples of politicians obeying the dictates of their conscience instead of making the “right” move politically by playing ball. The book contains about a dozen or so examples of politicians who displayed such courage, on topics ranging from slavery to Union to adoption of the silver standard. Some of the biographies it contains are fairly obscure to modern audiences, but it contains a few entries I’d agree with, namely Daniel Webster, and Sam Houston.

Briefly, Webster sacrificed his immediate legacy and career by speaking in eloquent defense of the Compromise of 1850. His speech began with the immortal line, “Mr. President, I wish to speak not as a Massachusetts man, nor a Northern man, but as an American.” Webster’s speech goes on to testify to something which was the hallmark of his legacy, namely his being a Union man first and foremost. The speech succeeded in its aim, and prevented the Civil War from breaking out for almost a decade. Himself close to death’s door, John C. Calhoun was so impressed with Webster’s ability to keep the country together that he remarked, “he deserves the presidency.”

Of course, Webster’s perceived capitulation to the Slave interest was vilified throughout the North and New England. Despite his critical efforts in preventing the outbreak of Civil War, Webster has to resign his Senate seat, somewhat disgraced.

The story of Sam Houston is a worthy one in its own right, but I’ll refrain from expounding too deeply upon it. In way of brief summary, the man was a friend of Andrew Jackson and had a long military career under his belt. He was a central player in Texas’ fight for independence, as well as the two-term president of the short-lived Republic of Texas. After the annexation, he served as one of Texas’s senators, and also as the governor of Texas during the outbreak of the Civil War. While governor, he worked tirelessly to prevent the state’s succession, and in doing so almost got himself lynched by an angry mob. Realizing that he had done all he could do to prevent the succession, he resigned and spent time trying to rally the citizens against the war, saying to a crowd:

“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

Overall, I give this book a three. It was nothing earth-shattering, nor particularly compelling to recommend it. After reading it in its entirety, I found the most interesting feature of the book was JFK’s ability to delicately address the Southern Slavery issues in such a way that he comes off as condemning them, but without doing so explicitly nor doing so in such a way as to re-open old wounds. I felt that this aspect of the book showed more of the acumen of the author than was probably ever intended.

3 stars.

The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I had such high hopes for this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite of the books I had to read in high school, and I was hoping that the book hailed as that author’s masterpiece would finally earn a five-star rating from me, but it was simply not meant to be. While certain aspects of the book were quite interesting, I found that others dragged, sometimes painfully so. (As a favor to my readers, I won’t go into depth as I typically do so as to not spoil anything should any of you find yourself reading it). I always enjoy Dostoyevsky wrestling with issues of faith, and this book offers plenty of it, but at the end of the day, it simply doesn’t work as well as I would’ve hoped.

4 stars.