Alexander Hamilton is killing it, pardon the expression. George Washington’s adored treasury secretary inspired Hamilton, a Broadway musical. Brash and handsome, Hamilton filled pages of a best-selling biography by Ronald Chernow. Still the $10 bill man, Hamilton could not have planned his posterity better. And yes, the shrewd schemer did plan it.
But give me dashing Aaron Burr, known for his shining eyes and crystal-clear speech, any day. The 48-year-old vice president who cut Hamilton down in 1804 was light-years ahead of his time when it came to women.
In fact, he was years ahead of our time. The 2016 Republican presidential candidates all oppose choice — just the first barometer of their dark state of nature. Compared to Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or any of their neighbors on Mean Street, Burr is a woman’s best friend. You see, he took seriously women’s civic and political equality.
Perhaps Burr’s exile has lasted long enough. Isn’t it time to refresh our political palettes?
By contrast to the current Republican crowd, Burr studied Enlightenment philosophy, such as The Vindication of Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. He found the first feminist tract a work of “genius.” He had one daughter, Theodosia, whom he educated with the same rigor that he practiced in his student days at Princeton. Burr’s gemlike flame was snuffed out, too, on the summer day that Hamilton died. But they never tell you that part.
To be sure, Hamilton is a marvelous character. Billy goat Donald Trump looks like chump change next to two magnificent New Yorkers who never got to be president, more’s the pity. Hamilton and Burr could have had the presidential Republican field for breakfast and enjoyed the rest of their day. In hindsight, they were the forward-leaning Founders whom we needed to live longer.
The inventor of modern banking, Hamilton was the leading Federalist leader and thinker, with a sharp pen and tongue in political intrigues. He was far from blameless in the duel.
But the weight of history’s verdict has fallen on Burr. It’s worth noting he tied the older Thomas Jefferson for president in 1800. He, not Hamilton, was still destined for greater things.
Hamilton was born illegitimate in the West Indies. Blue-blooded Burr was from a long line of Puritans. Both were orphaned young. What contrast could be more compelling? Their final “interview” on the field of honor was not a simple victim and villain story line.
Chernow leads the school of Hamilton loyalists and tars Burr. Yet here are a few little-known facts: Burr’s gift for oratory made men in the Senate weep. His farewell address is considered one of the greatest floor speeches ever. Plainly put, Burr and Hamilton were the brightest young stars of the Revolutionary generation.
As the sun rose on the Weehawken heights by the Hudson River, two New York lawyers disembarked from boats with their “seconds” to settle a score of slander (Burr challenged Hamilton.) Each man stood 5’6″, and carried himself with confidence and grace. Each served as a Revolutionary War officer. Burr won the encounter with one shot. Yet he lost the larger shooting match.
The Early Republic was too small to hold these rival characters, larger than life.
So can’t we lay down our arms and clear the smoke? Burr’s worthy of a big movie or musical, too; smoldering Sean Penn is perfectly cast in the lead. Note for the script: Burr defused a duel brewing between Hamilton and James Monroe: “I found it not too difficult to convince them both that we cannot afford to lose either of them.”
Burr outlived his opponent by 30 years. He lived with the words of his second: “You have just made Hamilton a great man.”
To settle personal scores, Burr and Hamilton blew away their inheritance. The Revolution itself missed a beat. As Northern city dwellers, breathing in finance, trade and commerce, their nation-building was the way of the world. They were the rightful challengers to Jefferson’s agrarian slaveholding vision. But after the duel, Virginia planters’ lock on power was assured for years.
The tragedy was that two stars were gone from dawn of the American political pantheon.
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Image: Vice President Aaron Burr in an 1802 portrait, via Wikimedia Commons.