John Sedgwick is a journalist and a descendant of Theodore Sedgwick, an early national politician who was friend to both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was while going through his ancestor's papers that Sedgwick's interest in their duel was sparked, but alas, Sedgwick is out of his depth in attempting to explain what is not only the most famous duel in American history but also the most puzzling.
One of the main problems with the book is the number of factual errors. Any one of these taken by itself might be seen as trivial, but the accumulation of such errors indicates careless research and detracts from the author's credibility. Two examples will suffice. Sedgwick states that Burr's wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost was born in Europe. Not true; she was born in New Jersey. He also claims that Burr was buried in an unmarked grave. Not true; Burr's tombstone was supplied by a cousin and is still there for all to see. Another category of error is Sedgwick's methodology, particularly a lack of footnotes. Instead Sedgwick offers a mini-bibliography for each chapter, which does not suffice for a topic that is so contentious and has such a varied historiography, even for a work of popular history aimed primarily at a non-academic audience. [End Page 558] Sedgwick continually makes assertions for which he supplies no evidence. The curious reader, trying to track down a source, will be left at a loss. A related flaw is Sedgwick's almost complete reliance on secondary sources (except for Hamilton's published papers). He openly admits that he has done very little actual research and has relied extensively on a few secondary sources. While there are some excellent works in his bibliography such as Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York, 2007), he also cites as equally authoritative such poorly researched works as Richard Coté's Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy (Mount Pleasant, SC, 2003) and David O. Stewart's American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America (New York, 2011).
The book's thesis is that Burr deliberately killed Hamilton in the duel. Sedgwick even uses the word "murderer" (343). This is asserted as undisputed fact, based on no evidence other than Sedgwick's setting up of the straw man Burr as a villain practically from birth. While Hamilton's character flaws are not overlooked, Sedgwick accepts at face value Hamilton's contention that Burr was a dangerous person and a threat to the nation, thus justifying Hamilton's many attempts to derail Burr's political career.
One need not defend Burr or vilify Hamilton to see that this book makes no pretension to fairness or objectivity—or even accuracy. It is a clumsy attempt to make Hamilton a martyr and Burr a murderer (and in the later chapters, a traitor). Even the discussion of the duel itself has many inaccuracies. Sedgwick makes no mention of the pistols (supplied by Hamilton) having secret hair triggers. While the significance of the hair triggers, and whether they were set or not, is a matter of contention among historians, to not mention it at all is a grievous omission. At the very least it showed that Hamilton cheated at an activity that, while illegal, nonetheless followed a strict etiquette. Indeed, Sedgwick shows very little understanding of dueling and the rules governing it. He maintains that Hamilton, as the recipient of the challenge, was obliged to accept, but this was not true. Duels could often be prevented, even at the last minute, by an apology. The Burr–Hamilton duel has always fascinated and there is still much about it that can only be speculated upon. But this book, offering no new research and shoddy methodology, does not shed any light. An interested reader would be better off...