By Paul Hicks
Although the hit musical, “Hamilton,” deserves many kudos for artistic excellence, it is widely spreading an unfortunate image of Aaron Burr as an unmitigated villain and traitor.
Historian Nancy Isenberg, author of a biography of Burr, “Fallen Founder”, noted in a recent article that, “Burr is reviled in ‘Hamilton’ and in popular consciousness as a cowardly, unprincipled man who was unwilling to believe in or fight for anything. But in fact, Burr was in most ways more forward-thinking, by our standards, than his nemesis Hamilton, and the romantic recasting of Hamilton’s life story comes at the expense of a true progressive champion.”
In 1775, at the age of 19, Burr joined the Continental Army and quickly was appointed aide-de-camp to General Richard Montgomery, who was killed in the battle at Quebec. Burr received a commendation from Congress for courage under fire and, after serving on General Washington’s staff, was given command of a regiment with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1777.
Based in Westchester County, the regiment conducted raids on British camps on both sides of the Hudson. It was during these excursions that Burr met Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a member of the Bartow family of Pelham, whom he married in 1782.
According to Isenberg, “Burr and his wife Theodosia educated their daughter, Theodosia, as they might have a son: She could read and write by the age of three, then mastered French, Italian, Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, and geography. The idea that women were the intellectual equals of men was a radical one, and Hamilton attacked Burr for supporting it.”
In 1791, Burr was elected to the U.S. Senate by the New York Assembly, serving one term from 1791 to 1797. In the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr remained tied in electoral votes, until Jefferson was elected, on the 36th ballot, by Congress. Under the then rules, Burr became Vice-President.
“Hamilton” suggests that in the fateful duel, Burr (then Vice President) fired after seeing Hamilton shoot a bullet in the air. However, eyewitnesses at the duel agreed that the men had fired within seconds of each other, although they disagreed on who shot first.
The real cause of the duel was that Hamilton openly insulted Burr before a group of prominent men when Burr ran for the New York governorship in 1804. When Burr demanded an apology, Hamilton refused, knowing Burr would then be honor-bound to challenge him to a duel. Amazingly, Hamilton had lost his eldest son in a duel not long before.
Three years later, Burr was arrested by order of President Thomas Jefferson and charged with treason, allegedly for plotting to create an independent nation in the Southwest. Nancy Isenberg writes in her biography that “Burr never planned the grand conspiracy that attached to him, and neither did he seriously contemplate the assassination of the president or his own installation as emperor of Mexico” (all things he was charged with at various points)…”
After a trial that gripped the new nation, presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Burr was acquitted of treason. After the trial Burr lived in England and Europe from 1808-1812. His daughter died tragically in 1813, when a ship she was sailing on from Charleston to New York, was lost at sea with many of her father’s personal papers. Burr eventually returned to New York and resumed his law practice. He died in 1836, and, without his papers, that might have better defended his actions, many have filled the vacuum with “alternative facts” about this complex founding father.