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The 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.
The Duel also introduces the crucial themes of Ellis' 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.