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Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr – teaming up on a court case?

'Duel with the Devil' author Paul Collins explains how Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, best known for their fatal duel, came to serve as the defense team for a sensational trial.

By Randy Dotinga / January 27, 2014

'Duel with the Devil' is by Paul Collins.


If many Americans know about founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr at all, it may be courtesy of a famous milk commercial from the early 1990s.

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Yes, a bullet did indeed end the rivalry of these two men who helped the United States come to life. (And yes, peanut butter is better with milk.) But these two enemies – or frenemies, if you want to be all modern about it – had been partners before. They'd worked together to represent an accused murderer of a young woman in one of the most sensational criminal cases of the colonial era.

A sensational crime, that is, that's been utterly forgotten until now. Paul Collins, a Portland State University professor of English and one of America's premier historical true-crime writers, reopens the case in his new book Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery".

Collins previously wrote several books, including 2011's "The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid." In a Monitor review, I called it a page-turner enlivened by "a novelist's touch and an eye for the absurd."

There's more where that came from in "Duel with the Devil," a captivating blend of real-life police procedural and courthouse thriller with tons of vivid historical detail.

I reached Collins in Portland, Ore., and asked him to paint a picture of the political tensions of 1799, describe the tense relationship between these two men, and explain why a young woman's murder inflamed New York City.
Q: What drew you to this case?
The sheer unlikelihood of it. I came across this case in a collection of celebrated criminal trials that came out in 1900. I had never heard of the case and when they talked about Hamilton and Burr being the defense team, it sounded like a buddy movie. I couldn't believe it.

It was such an unlikely combination that I had to look it up.
Q: Tell us about the political world that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr inhabited, not too long after the Revolutionary War. What sides existed, and which were they on?
A: They came from opposing political parties.

Hamilton was very much part of the Federalist Party, a political movement aligned with merchant class and bankers and pushing toward working more closely with Great Britain. That's where they saw the country's prosperity coming from.

Burr, who wound up being Jefferson's vice president, was more closely aligned with the rural, farming, agrarian economy, had more of a progressive view on things like women's rights and slavery, even though he had a slave.


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