Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

Got Burr? (or has Burr got you?)

Per my Hamilton wall calendar, I found out that today is Aaron Burr's birthday.

If I have one criticism to make about the musical Hamilton, it is that it makes Aaron Burr far too sympathetic.

As you might imagine, Alexander Hamilton had a lot of choice words about Aaron Burr, and it's so hard to pick just one quotation that encapsulates the amount of dislike and distrust that Hamilton had for Burr, but this one may be the best: "He is sanguine enough to hope everything, daring enough to attempt everything, wicked enough to scruple nothing." (Sound familiar?) On the other hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda has said that, "Burr was never the monster," that he was merely a cautious man who played his cards close to his vest, and the one reckless decision he ever made in his life--shooting Alexander Hamilton--turned out to the the one decision that followed him around for the rest of his life and ruined him.

Obviously, Alexander Hamilton had personal reasons to dislike Aaron Burr, so we must allow for some bias in his thinking and expression, whereas Lin-Manuel Miranda--to his credit--is actually making a conscious effort to be fair to Burr, to depict him as a complicated, three-dimensional human being with both flaws and virtues. A noble effort; nevertheless, Hamilton had Burr's measure better than Miranda[*](Calling Lin-Manuel Miranda by his last name confuses me, but if I use his first name when I'm calling everyone else by their last name might confuse other people, and that would be worse) does. Miranda calls Burr cautious, which is a fair enough description; other appropriate descriptive words include cunning, callous, calculating, conniving, and conscienceless.

This man, Aaron Burr, is a man who flirted with both of the nascent political parties, flitting and floating back and forth between the short-lived Federalists and the amusingly oxymoronic-sounding[*](at least to our modern ears) Democratic-Republicans, before deciding that it would be both politically and personally advantageous for him to join the latter.

This is a man who seduced a LOT of married women, and only showed any real regard for one: Theodosia Prevost, whom he married after her British Army officer husband died during the Revolutionary War. But that regard didn't stop him from carrying on with the help behind his wife's back; admittedly not uncommon during the time, but still unseemly.[*](Having brought that up I must, in fairness, point out that Hamilton also had a reputation as a casanova and was involved in our nation's first sex scandal. However, it must be said that, with the exception of the infamous Maria Reynolds affair, Hamilton's sexual exploits are harder to verify than Burr's, who very creepily described his various conquests in letters to his daughter. Moreover, without completely absolving Hamilton of responsibility in the Maria Reynolds affair, I must point out that he was more pursued than pursuer--more prey than predator--in that situation, as the evidence indicates that the entire affair was the result of a con game by James Reynolds--Maria's husband--to entrap Hamilton for blackmail purposes, wherein Hamilton was the mark and Maria merely a pawn. It doesn't excuse Hamilton's failure to resist the temptation, but on the other hand, I've seen too many people taken in by less elaborate love scams to judge anyone thus taken in too harshly.)

This is a man who defrauded not only Alexander Hamilton but the entire city of New York by pretending to start a municipal water company, with a purported aim toward disease prevention through improving the quality of drinking water, when his real scheme all along was gaining enough capital to start a bank to compete with Hamilton's.[*](Burr's bank still exists as the Chase Manhattan Bank (JP Morgan Chase and Co.), while Hamilton's bank now operates under the name BNY Mellon.)

This is a man who, while under indictment for murder in New Jersey for shooting Hamilton,[*](Apparently everything was less legal in New Jersey than they had supposed) went back to Washington to preside over the Senate in his capacity as vice president. The irony was not lost on his contemporaries, but for some reason, no one seemed to think it was worthwhile to impeach him for it.

This is a man who--in 1807, after his term as vice president was over--allegedly instigated a plot to carve out a portion of the Louisiana Purchase and/or Mexico (the details are a little vague) for himself to start his own country. If somebody hadn't tampered with the evidence, allowing Burr to get off on a technicality, he might well had been hanged for treason. Treasonous, yes, but this episode in Burr's life reveals to me more of a desperation and childish petulance, an attitude of "you wouldn't let me be president of this country; fine! I'll just go and start my own country, then no one can stop me from being the president! So there!"

Which brings us back around to the election of 1800. It's a critical scene in the musical, but one which takes some artistic license with historical accuracy, so it bears a closer examination. Recall that, back then, we didn't have running mates running for president and vice president on the same ticket. No, back then we had a bunch of guys running for president, and then whoever came in second became vice president. I'm not sure, anymore, that that way wasn't better than what we have now, but anyway, that's the way it was.

So, the Democratic-Republicans had a strategy: they would promote both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, finagle things so that Jefferson would come in first, Burr would come in second to become vice president, thereby shutting out Federalist incumbent John Adams. But they finagled a little too well, or perhaps not well enough: the final vote came out to be a tie between Jefferson and Burr. As Jeff Willser points out, "To the [Democratic-]Republicans this was a clerical error, a technicality. The plan was Jefferson 1st, Burr 2nd. Everyone expected Burr to step down. But he did not" (emphasis in original).

What happened next was the first and, arguably, the worst electoral crisis in our nation's history. Per the Constitution, a tied electoral college vote is referred to the House of Representatives for a tie-breaking vote. The House was still deadlocked after 35 votes. Willser claims that it "[makes] the 'hanging chads' recount of 2000 look like democracy's Platonic Form." And Burr just sat back and watched it happen. He could have stopped it at any time by simply standing up and saying, "Okay, I concede; I'll take the vice presidency and thank you very much." But he didn't. And why? Because, as Hamilton said, Burr "[has] no principle, public or private...and will listen to no monitor but his ambition."

This is where Hamilton, pen in hand, swoops in to the rescue. Refusing to let the country he helped create be destroyed by a technicality, he wrote letters to Federalists in the House to convince them to break the tie by switching their votes from Burr to Jefferson.[*](Jefferson, whom Hamilton hated and who hated Hamilton. Jefferson, who essentially owed his presidency to Hamilton and never said thank you. Jefferson, who barely even acknowledged Hamilton's death but invited Aaron Burr over for a cozy chat over tea shortly thereafter, even though they had never been friendly before. Think about how bad Burr must have been if Hamilton literally picked his worst enemy, Jefferson, over him.)

HIGHLIGHTS! from Hamilton's letters regarding Burr's presidential candidacy:
"As to Burr, there is nothing in his favor. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption,[*](This was literally true as well as figuratively; Burr was notoriously profligate in his spending.) except by the plunder of his country."

"His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement...If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth."

Notice how every single negative thing that Hamilton says about Aaron Burr is equally applicable to Donald Trump? I said before that I don't think it's a coincidence that the musical became popular, and brought Hamilton and his writings into the public consciousness, just in time to meet the cold and cheerless dawn of the von Clownstick presidency, and I view this as confirmation.

It's not that most of the things that Aaron Burr did were so evil in and of themselves; it was the means and motivation behind them that show the depths of his chicanery. It's not wrong to switch political parties; I've done it myself, more than once. But it is wrong to join a political party on the basis of how you can benefit from it, instead of on the basis of shared beliefs and goals. It was no more wrong for Aaron Burr to start a bank than it was for Alexander Hamilton to do so, but it is wrong to con people out of capital by claiming you want to start a water company in the interest of public health. It's not wrong to want to be President of the United States, but it is wrong to lie and cheat and to put your own interests ahead of the country's best interests. Arguably, a lot of presidents have done that, but that doesn't make it right.

If I've ever given the impression that Alexander Hamilton was an angel, then I apologize because that isn't the case at all. In fact, if I had been alive at the same time as Hamilton, I probably would have opposed a lot of the things he proposed and eventually accomplished, although one can hardly argue with their successes after the fact. However, it is fair to say that Hamilton was--quite literally--honest to a fault.[*](Let me unpack that a little bit: yes, he had an extramarital affair, and yes, he initially tried to keep it secret. But when insinuations about it began appearing in newspapers, he responded by writing and publishing a book-length pamphlet describing the whole thing. There was a "too-much-information" aspect to it, but no one can say that he didn't tell the whole truth.) Was he flawed? Yes. Did he have weaknesses? Yes. Did he make some really, REALLY bad decisions that had personal and professional ramifications that hounded him to the end of his short life? YES. But while I can't say that he never did anything dishonest--this is, after all, a man who refuted claims that he was an embezzler by pointing out that he was merely an adulterer--I really can't think of a single instance in which he ever told an outright lie.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Aaron Burr feels remorseful about killing Hamilton. In reality, there is only one recorded instance of Burr expressing anything like regret, and sure enough, that's the line that Miranda used in the musical: "Had I read Sterne[*](i.e. Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy) more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me." Not appearing in the musical are Burr's facetious and ostensibly humorous references to "my friend Hamilton, whom I shot."

What's so interesting is that, on a textual level, Miranda is telling us--with both words and music--"Look, Aaron Burr is a complicated guy; he's not a two-dimensional villain, and he's not as bad as you think he is"; and yet, on a subtextual level, the voice of the historical Burr comes to us down through the centuries and says, "You know what? Even if I am complicated, I really am as bad as you think I am." Then, if you read anything nonfictional about Aaron Burr, you find out that not only is he as bad as you think he is, he's actually a lot worse. Certainly not someone who deserves the biggest power ballad in the musical.[*](Although Leslie Odom Jr's performance thereof is simply magnificent.)

The only question is, would he have been a better or worse president that Donald Trump? Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, we'll never know, and our country is the better for it. If only Hamilton was alive today to save us from ourselves once again. But he's not, so we'll just have to save ourselves, using Hamilton's writings--and history--as a guide.
Tags: music, politics, theatre
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