Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Southern History Book of the Month: The Rivals: A Tale of the Times of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

The Rivals: A Tale of the Times of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton 
Hon. Jeremiah Clemens

With the smashing success of the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is once again front-page news with fans taking sides and discussing how and when the relationship became a rivalry that led to a deadly duel. However, this is no new phenomenon. In 1859 the Hon. Jeremiah Clemens, an Alabama senator, published a historical novel titled The Rivals: A Tale of the Times of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The very order of the names gives a clue right away about how he regards the two men. The novel is relentlessly pro-Burr and makes no apology for this viewpoint. Early on we have a scene where the young Burr is ill in a field hospital during the American Revolution. Upon hearing the news that Benedict Arnold is preparing an invasion, he intends to join the expedition to prevent it:
The commands, and then the entreaties of his uncle and guardian, were alike in vain. All the kindly arguments of friends and relations were answered in a spirit equally kind; but his determination was unshaken.
“You are not well enough to leave your room,” urged his physician.
“I will be to-morrow,” was the reply.
He did leave it. By a mere effort of will he shook of disease as a loose garment and, enfeebled and emaciated as he was, went forth to brave hardships and dangers from which the stoutest frame and the boldest heart might have shrunk without disgrace.
Nor does Clemens conceal his estimate of Hamilton’s character, after telling us he had tried to look at “[Hamilton’s] character in the light of reason alone”:
The more I studied it, the more I became convinced that the world never presented such a combination . . . of daring courage and vile malignity, of high aspirings and low hypocrisy. Shrewd, artful, and unscrupulous, there were no means he might not employ to accomplish his ends . . .
In short: nothing that might not apply to modern politics, though pistol duels among political rivals have fallen out of fashion. In fact, Clemens dispenses with the duel in a few brief paragraphs, but practically the last words of the novel are Burr’s conviction that Hamilton deserved to die:
Face to face in the presence of the God who must pronounce our several dooms, I shall say that he deserved the death he received at my hands; and never, for one moment, has a thought of repentance obtruded itself upon my soul!
The Rivals is an interesting historical artifact of a time when the duel between Burr and Hamilton was within living memory, not some dry page out of a history book. The event took place on July 11, 1804 and Clemens was born in 1814; in his boyhood the duel would have been a part of the immediate past and he admits in the foreword of The Rivals that he had entertained “strong prejudices” against Hamilton from the time he was young. At this time when Alexander Hamilton is enjoying a period of unprecedented glamour in the public eye, a pro-Burr document is a fascinating counterbalance.

Our copy of The Rivals is housed in Southern History’s Rare Book collection. Come and visit us if you would like to view it, or if you can’t come for a visit, there are numerous online sources available.

What are your thoughts on the Burr and Hamilton conflict?

For more information:
The Rivals online
Jeremiah Clemens at Encyclopedia of Alabama
Jeremiah Clemens at Find A Grave
Aaron Burr
Alexander Hamilton
The Duel Site
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (the book that inspired the musical)
Hamilton’s America (coming to PBS in October)

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Linn-Henley Research Library
Central Library

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