On the anniversary of the Hamilton/Burr duel let’s look at the little known tragedy in Burr’s life
With the new excitement over Hamilton the musical being released on the Disney channel comes a surge of interest in Alexander Hamilton again with little forethought to Aaron Burr. Neither men were easily defined in a 2 hour musical, which is an amazing way to get history into the view of the public, who rarely give accurate history a second thought because of its complexity.
The years 1800–1804 were packed with huge amounts of land speculation, emergence of two parties and the impending perceived death of the Federalist ideology, and growing power of the Jeffersonian platform. The epicenter of this was New York City and Philadelphia, all while the emergence of D.C. being instilled as a compromise to aid the burgeoning power of the southern planter class in politics, specifically Virginia and South Carolina. That is way too simplistic, but helps fit the complexity into a nice tidy sentence. Forgive my generalities.
Hopefully, reading the below books and even start with Yale historian, Joanne Freeman’s litany of books, lectures, book talks on youtube to get more background, not only on Hamilton, but the history behind the period. Below is an article I wrote two years ago for this duel anniversary. I’m reposting it as just another small window into the life of the “other guy”.
Aaron Burr. The name still makes people uneasy even though he was exonerated of any wrong doing in a supposed plot to overthrow the government, and went on to live a long life riddled with tragedy.
I’ve read both Ron Chernow’s book on Hamilton and Susan Isenberg’s book on Burr and have concluded that both Burr and Hamilton were just as complex characters as Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton, well known for his duel challenges, and Burr well know for his aversion to dueling. Yet, there they were in Weehawken, NJ (Burr being the duel instigator this time) doing what irrational men do when their history of conflict and rivalry reaches a boiling point.
We can debate many aspects of Hamilton and Burr, but I would like to focus on Aaron Burr’s relationship with his only child, Theodosia, and the tragedy of her very short life.
One thing I found fascinating about Burr and his relationship with his young daughter was their practice of writing daily letters to each other. Regardless of whether they were apart or together. I have been using this practice with my son. I have to say it has been a tremendous bonding experience that I hope to continue as long as possible.
Say what you will about Aaron Burr, but his devotion to making sure his daughter had every educational opportunity available to her was surprising for the time. Not only that, Burr opened his home to foreign struggling artists and guests of all varieties, including Mohawk chief Joseph Brant1, giving Theodosia an upbringing many woman would have cherished for it’s progressive atmosphere. Not to mention the family background of philosophical and religious thought. Aaron Burr was the son of a minister and president of Princeton. His maternal grandfather was the famed Rev Jonathan Edwards.
With this ready made lineage it’s no wonder Alexander Hamilton may have felt defensive of his rocky family lineage and foreign birth, possibly feeling he had to work ten times harder than those of privilege. Not an excuse, but a possible window into his “chip on the shoulder” attitude that had him challenging several individuals to duels, including the father-in-law of Albert Gallatin, Commodore James Nicholson. Hamilton was a Federalist in the New York City area surrounded by up and coming Jeffersonian Republicans such as Gallatin, Nicholson, and Burr, with Clinton and Livingston seeing less influence in NY politics. It’s easy to imagine Hamilton seeing a connected vision to unseat Federalist, and against him.
The irony of Theodosia’s upbringing cannot be more devastating than when, at age 17, she chose to marry a rich older man, whom by most counts she didn’t really love or hardly knew, all to save her father from massive debt. Theodosia married Joseph Alston from South Carolina who was a wealth plantation owner. Add to that the sale of her family estate to John Jacob Astor who parceled off the land, sold it for a huge profit establishing his rags to riches climb from fur trapper to entrepreneur, all under the eyes of Aaron Burr and his loss of status throughout his life2.
His beloved Theodosia died at sea, age 29. While the duel with Alexander Hamilton started his downward spiral, it’s hard to image surviving the loss of a beloved wife (1794), [remember the duel was in 1804] the trial for treason 1807, his daughter’s death 1813, and his living until 1836, thus losing his entire past.
I’m reminded when studying history that people are just as complex as I, sometimes much more so, but it is up to us to dig deep enough for a true glimpse into human beings, their flaws and their strengths.
Below picture is public domain painted by artist John Vaderlyn
1Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, Nancy Isenberg, Penguin Books, 2007. This is a very readable, in-depth study of Burr’s life and is highly recommended. The new work of Burr, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy, James E. Lewis, Jr., Princeton University Press, 2017, would be great additional reading on the trial.
2Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonain Financier and Diplomat, Raymond Walters, Jr., University of Pittsburg Press, 1957. The Life of Aaron Burr, Nancy Isenberg, Penguin Books, 2007.