he Founding Fathers desperately feared that a breakdown in the federal government would result in civil war. Much of their anxiety and passion was driven by this all-too-present danger. As indicated in the Preface, these men were not certain that their Union would survive, and so did they have to safeguard their creation closely to ensure its success. Hamilton and Burr’s confrontation is a manifestation of this fear of breakdown.
For one, Hamilton was willing to fight to defend the spirit of '76 against a secessionist plot. He was willing to confront an opponent - an opponent he was not planning to actually oppose - partly to uphold his honor, but mostly to defend his political ideals. Honor is a significant motif in this chapter, as is the separation between the private and public lives of the Revolutionary generation. Unlike in our day, the press at the time kept a respectful distance from personal lives. And indeed, Hamilton had attacked Burr publicly for decades; what was different about this final insult was that it addressed the man's personal character. It was one thing to attack a person's politics, but far worse to attack his personality.
Their conflict also draws attention to how well these Founding Brothers tended to know one another. Hamilton and Burr had worked together on the battlefield and in the early legislation halls, all of which is true of most of the figures Ellis speaks about. As is often the case, their closeness meant that Burr's eventual betrayals stung all the worse. Because they had fought so hard to found the Union, Hamilton considered it particularly offensive that Burr would work to dismantle it. In Hamilton’s mind, Burr was dangerous to the new government. Ellis describes Burr as “self serving” and “manipulative,” but also as a political genius. Many of the Founding Brothers Ellis will later discuss were not so extreme as Burr, but as the political parties split, a person's opponent became less able to distinguish extremity from simple difference of opinion. The harsh tones of betrayal would be used by many others, even in situations less violent than this one.
So what Ellis accomplishes by placing this chapter first is more than opening with an exciting physical story. He also introduces the crucial themes of his book: the importance of compromise, the centrality of the specific relationships in the early Union, and the strict expectations that these Founding Fathers had for one another. Because they knew one another so well and were so well aware of the importance of reputation, their squabbles reflected extremely high stakes. By starting with a violent clash, Ellis establishes the stakes for which these men had learned to debate one another. No other stories end in violent death, but the reader now understands that Ellis views these relationships as fiery and passionate. The line between private and public is often difficult to discern among political figures whose lives and ideals were so closely intertwined. This idea will be most specifically expounded on in Ellis's version of the Jefferson/Adams relationship.
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