What is so important about the duel between Hamilton and Burr in Founding Brothers?
Much of this chapter is spent in an almost forensic attempt to uncover what actually happened in the duel, with the effect that the relationship between the actual event itself and the larger political questions that dominate the rest of the book is not always evident. Ellis does argue that
the exchange of words that preceded the exchange of shots was merely a culmination of long-standing personal animosity and political disagreement that emerged naturally, in retrospect almost inevitably, out of the supercharged political culture of the early republic.
The dispute between Burr and Hamilton that brought them to the duelling ground that day was, Ellis suggests, a "momentary breakdown in the dominant pattern of nonviolent conflict within the American revolutionary generation." He uses the event, which opens the book despite the fact that it occurred chronologically later than the other events described, because it provides a window into the politics of the period. In particular, it underscores the face-to-face nature of the political debates, in which character was paramount.
Source: Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 20-47.