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We Come Not to Praise Washington: 12/15/08

The facts are these: George Washington was the first president of the United States for two terms from 1789 to 1797. In 1793, President Washington was forced to flee Philadelphia due to a yellow fever epidemic which killed around ten thousand people. On July 11, 1804 Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, thus destroying Washington's Federalist Party.

"We Come Not to Praise Washington " by Charles Coleman Finlay asks the question: what would happen if Washington had died in the 1793 epidemic. Of course, like all good alternate histories, the central thesis isn't presented in a nice, neat package. The characters involved don't know that they are in a history that should not have happened, they are just living it and trying to make the best of a bad situation.

The hero of the story, really more of an anti-hero, is Colonel Aaron Burr. He and his compatriots, Nathaniel and Gabriel, are trying to sneak into Philadelphia to meet not with the first Washington, but the second one. To keep the momentum of the new nation alive despite the death of the new president, his replacement has taken his name and in the process set the nation on a very different path.

Yet history has a way of forcing events even in alternate histories. The duel still happens but for different reasons and under different circumstances. The result of the duel may very well propel the nation into Civil War decades early.

"We Come Not to Praise Washington " is well written but to truly appreciate it, one needs a basic understanding of American history. I read it once, going on my memory of dates and then a second time after having checked my dates. As the story is densely packed with details, I probably would pick up more on a third or forth time through the story.

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