Note: This is the Day Nine of Ten Days of Hamilton. Here’s why I’m doing this.
In a perfect world, Aaron Burr wouldn’t be “the villain in [our] history.”
Unlike Alexander Hamilton, he was born in the colonies that would soon become America. His family had some measure of wealth; his grandfather was the widely renown theologian Jonathan Edwards, and his father was the second president of what would eventually become Princeton University. Hamilton, though descended from minor Scottish nobility, was an illegitimate child who needed sponsorship from others to make his way to the Colonies. However, both men were orphaned as children, so they had that in common, but one would have expected Burr to at least match his station in life, if not rise above it.
Like Hamilton, Burr established a lot of early credibility by serving in the Continental Army and fought during the Revolutionary War. He rose to serve as aide-de-camp to Richard Montgomery – who failed and died during an attempted invasion of Canada – and even briefly served on George Washington’s staff. He served as a field commander, much to Hamilton’s chagrin, but left the Continental Army due to ill-health in 1779. Had he remained on Washington’s staff – and worked directly with Alexander Hamilton – maybe they would have developed more of a friendship instead of a rivalry, but I suppose we will never know for sure.
He returned to his legal studies, eventually passing the New York bar and opening a small legal office in Manhattan. His political rise began when he was appointed New York Attorney General by Governor George Clinton, and later earned the ire of Hamilton when he ran for senate against Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, and won. He ran for president in 1796 (and finished fourth) and 1800 (and finished second), serving as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president as runner-up after the latter election. His tenure as vice president, however, wasn’t particularly successful, and he never really got along with Jefferson, who dropped him from “the ticket” for the election of 1804.
Since he was a political “free agent” so to speak, he decided to run for governor of New York, a race that he lost pretty handily. Believing that Alexander Hamilton had somehow sullied his reputation enough for him to lose what he viewed as a winnable race, Burr asked Hamilton to recant any negative statements against him and apologize. This didn’t happen, and over a series of letters, the Hamilton-Burr feud escalated to the point where Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel using pistols. They met early in the morning on July 11, 1804, and the rest is history.
The Burr-Hamilton rivalry almost seems one-sided. Burr comes and goes into Hamilton’s life between the time that Hamilton arrived in New York and their duel, and Hamilton seems content to just keep striving for what he wants from life, while Burr is “willing to wait for it” to happen. This begins to change once he sees the power that Hamilton wields as Treasury Secretary, and Burr was inspired to take control of his own destiny. Running for senator against Hamilton’s father-in-law was a step in that direction, as was running for president and governor. But Burr’s indecision in a lot of things, and some other personal indiscretions, prevented him from ever achieving the same heights as Hamilton.
If not for Hamilton’s own hubris, Burr would most likely have been a footnote in history, a vice president that really didn’t do all that much, a legislator without any real accomplishments. For some reason, he decided that Hamilton was a threat, and Hamilton’s pride prevented him from backing down from the challenge. Hamilton was partially responsible for the vilification of Burr by writing that he was planning on throwing away his shot before heading to the duel, and that is probably what sealed Burr’s fate as one of America’s biggest villains.
Post duel, Burr fled to South Carolina to see his daughter, but eventually returned to Philadelphia to complete his term as Vice President.* Burr would be later charged with treason for his plot to form a new nation out of some of the territory acquired from the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson decided to charge him with treason without any real proof that he was plotting against the United States, and Burr was acquitted, though his already fledgling political career came effectively to an end. He exiled himself to Europe for a few years and returned to the United States under an assumed name hoping to avoid creditors, and died at the age of 80 in 1836 after a stroke.
*I think perhaps the weirdest part of the whole Hamilton-Burr duel is that Burr was the current sitting Vice President when he decided that murder was a good way to resolve his issues. Imagine something similar happening today, or even 100 years ago!
It’s hard to imagine a world where the Burr-Hamilton duel never happens, and what would have happened to the players involved. Would Hamilton have found redemption and ran for president? Would Burr have avoided the treason charge and had some level of success again as a politician? Would Burr simply have faded into obscurity like many of the others present at the founding of our nation? We don’t know. All we know is the history as it occurred, when two prideful men met on the dueling grounds in New Jersey over 210 years ago. One man became a villain, and the other became a legend.
But the world was wide enough for both of them. Too bad neither man realized it.
Until next time…