Unless you are living under a rock, you’ve heard of the smash hit Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a brilliant story of two of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. I have been listening to the soundtrack non-stop for several days.
Hamilton, an immigrant, war hero and dear friend of George Washington, went on to be the Secretary of the Treasury. Burr, also a war veteran and brilliant lawyer, went on to be Vice-President of the United States. He blamed Hamilton for his loss of the Presidential race against Thomas Jefferson and the race for Governor of New York against Morgan Lewis. Through the years there were many other instances of contention between the two men.
Without question, Alexander Hamilton was an absolutely brilliant man. He was far ahead, intellectually, of most others of his time. They were simply unable to understand what he was saying. He enjoyed humiliating people with his superior intellect and wit. He was charming when he wanted to be, had a burning desire to be rich and famous, was astonishingly politically ambitious and worked like a man possessed.
And he was a womanizer.
A serious hound-dog.
This is not at all unusual for our dear Founding Fathers. Many of them had a personal weakness in this area. As did Aaron Burr.
Burr was the son of a fire and brimstone preacher and a genius mother. He was a quiet thinking man, with a unique skill as an attorney. Alexander Hamilton, also an attorney, deeply admired Burr’s skill in the courtroom. And, perhaps, Burr’s greatest contribution to our country came from his role as President of the Senate while Vice-President. Many of his decisions and procedures are still in place.
While both men had character flaws to be sure, the thing that sticks out with me is what Burr did following the duel with Hamilton (who had been involved in duels about 9 times previously, although they all were settled before shots were fired).
After shooting Hamilton through the liver, leaving the bullet lodged in his spine (which means Hamilton suffered and died two days later rather than instantly), Burr went home and had a large, hearty breakfast. He entertained a visitor there, never mentioning the duel he was involved in earlier that morning. Following Hamilton’s death, both New York and New Jersey wanted to prosecute the V.P. Burr for murder. Burr makes mention of this: “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey,” he dryly noted in a letter to his daughter Theodosia. “The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President.”
Burr flees to a friends plantation in Georgia when things get to hot for him in New York. He comes back to preside over the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, in his role as President of the Senate, and eventually Burr’s charges of murder are dropped.
Here’s where his true character shines as bright as the sun for me: Burr began to implement a plan to seize the Western Territories. He recruited allies, and even began building his own army when he was arrested and charged with treason. He was ultimately acquitted of the charges and fled to Europe to avoid his creditors.
Burr returned several years later, after people forgot what an utter ass he was, and revived his law practice in New York. He married for a second time and ran through his new wife’s money at an alarming speed. She separated from Burr after only four months of marriage and the divorce became final on the day of Burr’s death, September 14, 1836. He was 80.
Both men were flawed, as we all are, but Burr seems to me to be a conniving, manipulative man with a hidden agenda. Burr yearned for power and was willing to destroy the fledgling United States in his quest for it. Hamilton was singular in purpose; he wanted the United States to succeed and did everything in his power to make that happen.
Burr would say in referencing the duel, “Alexander Hamilton, my friend, whom I shot.” Hamilton had told several people prior to the duel he would intentionally avoid shooting Burr, which seems to me to be an honorable and remarkable thing. Hamilton did not want to kill Burr and made that clear when he shot first, missing Burr deliberately. After a significant pause, Burr shot Hamilton. This indicates to me a cold-blooded determination to murder a political rival. I do not believe, from all I’ve read on the subject, that Burr regretted the death of Hamilton. He merely regretted the reaction to it and his own political death as a result.
Yes, Aaron Burr became the villain of this story. But, in my opinion, with good reason.