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Friday, July 17, 2020

Badge of Honor

RON CHERNOW'S MIGHTY BIOGRAPHY of Alexander Hamilton stares at me, unread, from a nearby bookshelf. I’m also unfamiliar with the massively popular Broadway musical. What I know of our colonial statesman was gleaned in history classes, and suggested that Aaron Burr was a far more interesting character.

Two things are quickly apparent about Jack Casey’s new novel Hamilton’s Choice: It’s challenging to draw a compelling portrait of a textbook hero when that hero is up against so fascinatingly dissolute a character as Burr – and Burr comes off sounding an awful lot like Donald Trump.

I don’t know how long Jack Casey spent working on this book, and I’m suspecting that the Burr-Trump connection wasn’t deliberately intended. We’re simply dealing with two narcissistic sociopaths. As to the first point, Casey succeeds admirably in giving us a flesh-and-blood Hamilton by using the tools available to the novelist. It’s very evident that the book was scrupulously researched; in addition, we’re given scenes and dialogue invented around those kernels of history.

That’s what brings the novel to life. We’re inside the heads of these dynamic characters. Burr, of course, is shooting sparks all the time as we follow his inner rage into the tragic climax of the story. Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth (née Schuyler), comes to life through the dialogue and inner monologues. And it’s especially helpful for Hamilton himself, who can come off as too much of a goody-good without the credible speculation of his thoughts and ambitions.

And it’s those thoughts that fuel the heart of the book and the challenge of the title: Why did Hamilton choose to meet Burr on the lonely Weehawken dueling ground in 1804? Hamilton was brilliant jurist, but he was a man of his time. And the time demanded an overweening sense of honor.

The novel is framed by duels, beginning with one fought by Hamilton’s son, Philip, in 1801, when the boy was 19. He’d taken issue with falsehoods delivered in a speech by George Eacker, a Burr confederate, and hot-headedly challenged Eacker. It cost Philip his life, and sent his father into an emotional spiral that, as shrewdly followed by Casey’s narrative, inevitably culminated in the Burr confrontation.

Along with the meticulously researched biographical details, Hamilton’s Choice presents a detailed portrait of life at the dawn of the 19th century, as the adolescent nation is building and booming. Hamilton himself is overseeing the construction of a family mansion near Upper Manhattan’s West 141st Street – at that time a stretch of woods and farmland – where he intends to settle in semi-retirement.

But politics are in turmoil. President Jefferson has been undoing the financial precepts put into place by Hamilton, and generally undermining Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which had placed John Adams in the White House before Jefferson moved in.

Vice-President Burr is angling for the Presidency as the 1804 election approaches, and he’s found a base in the baser instincts of the proletariat, a group that he can count on to reward him with their votes as long as he plies them with food and strong drink. Hamilton, meanwhile, is proud of the patrician status he has won for himself even as he’s unable to see how much his effete tendencies isolate him from the masses.

What’s fascinating about this sage is the interleaving of the various political threads running through New York – and the country – at the time, particularly the threat of a New England secession, prompted by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the effect it would have upon states’ rights and the legal disposition of slaves, uncannily presaging the South’s complaints 60 years later.

Casey pulls off the difficult challenging of aligning Hamilton’s idealistic beliefs in legal and political matters with the stubborn streak that would cause him to pursue a defense of his honor – against all common sense – in his fatal confrontation with Burr.

We know what’s going to happen, but the characters we’ve met, which include Revolutionary War hero General Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s father-in-law) and the rest of Hamilton’s family, have such a compelling presence that we hope against hope that Hamilton will come to his senses and change the course of history. It doesn’t spoil the narrative to note that it’s true to what happened, but you’ll have a far greater emotional investment in this story that you ever could get in a history text.

Are we sharing Hamilton’s actual thoughts on the situation? Was Burr truly such a cretinous miscreant? We’ll never know for sure, but I’m willing to believe it of both – especially the latter, seeing how he has such a frighteningly similar double in the White House right now.

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