Carole Owens: Who were Burr and Hamilton?


STOCKBRIDGE — It was 1804. They prepared to duel. The former secretary of the Treasury and the vice president of the United States took aim. They say Alexander Hamilton shot first. They say he fired into the air to satisfy honor without harming Aaron Burr. For proof they showed a splintered tree branch above Burr's head. It is equally possible that branch proved Burr shot first, wounded Hamilton, and falling backward, Hamilton's shot went high.

Burr was charged with murder. The witnesses agreed on one point: the shots were so close together they sounded simultaneous. Sounded? Could it be the witnesses turned their backs? In 1804 it was thought the gentlemanly thing to do.

The charges against Burr were dropped. Nonetheless, both men were dead: Burr politically and Hamilton literally. That Burr was vilified did not mean Hamilton was deified. Both had political enemies. We may love our Founding Fathers, but they did not love each other. Jefferson and his party wasted no time disparaging both.

Burr was the callous murderer of Hamilton, the self-appointed emperor of Louisiana, and a traitor. Hamilton was at heart a king's man, a believer in hierarchy and aristocracy. If not gold-button aristocrats (noblemen), then the New Aristocrats (the enlightened). Worse, Hamilton was an urbanist and banker of whom all Jeffersonian Arcadians must be wary.

Were the political smears true? Who were they and what happened that day? Facts are facts, but interpretations of the facts vary. Who was the villain and who the victim, who the ultimate winner and who ultimately vanquished? How do we find out? They say the child is father of the man. If we look at their childhoods, are the men revealed?

Burr was born in 1756 in New Jersey. Hamilton was born in the Caribbean in either 1755 or 1757 (records conflict). Burr's father, Aaron Burr Sr., was president of the College at New Jersey (Princeton today), and his mother was Esther, the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, the influential Congregational minister. Solid New England stock; literate, devout and discriminating, respected and colorless.

(Two men who played key roles in Burr's life lived in Stockbridge in the same house. Timothy Edwards, Burr's uncle and guardian, sold his house to Barnabus Bidwell, a congressman and Jefferson supporter who condemned Burr.)

Hamilton's father was a Scottish nobleman but noble as his blood may be, according to Hamilton, his father was "the fourth son of a numerous family bred to trade." Hamilton's mother was French Huguenot. At the moment of accepting James Hamilton's invitation to cohabitate, Rachel Faucette Lavien's most particular characteristic was that she was married to another man. Their two children, James Jr. and Alexander, were illegitimate. Some claimed she was of mixed blood, rather it was that she was vibrant, obdurate, flamboyant — indeed colorful.

Hamilton and Burr seem to have little in common. One born in a hot climate; the other in the cold. One born in shame, the other in sanctity. One vulnerable; the other inviolable. And yet they had something significant in common.

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When Hamilton's mother died, his father had already deserted the family. Hamilton was alone. In an almost impossible ravaging of the family, before Burr was three years old, his father, mother, grandfather and grandmother were all dead from disease. Hamilton and Burr were both orphans. One more thing: both were born 20 years before the Revolutionary War and those times molded and marked the men.

From common beginnings, as they grew, they grew apart. Coming to America for his education, Hamilton reshaped himself and his biography. Some say each invented himself in counterpoint to their families: Hamilton became sober and unable to compromise; Burr became decidedly colorful.

Hamilton wished to go to Princeton but was turned down. He went instead to King's College (Columbia). Naturally Burr, son and grandson of the first two presidents of the college, was accepted. In "Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr" Nancy Isenberg poses an interesting question: what if Hamilton had been accepted? College then was all-male, residential, small, and close-knit. Friends were made for life. What if Hamilton had been accepted, a bond formed that made Hamilton and Burr political allies not enemies? In what way would American history be different?

But Hamilton went to Columbia and when they met in New York they were political opponents. Cringe at the political name calling of the 21st century, but in the18th century nothing was sacred: the ignominy of children, the mistreatment of wives, and the debauchery of men. Truth never stood in the way of a good insult. Hamilton's accumulated insults or just one that crossed the line, caused Burr to demand satisfaction — a duel — and the rest is history.

Were they both equally victims of the vitriol of 18th century American politics. Were both unfairly rendered? Was Aaron Burr murderer or self-defender, traitor or patriot, debaucher or feminist? Was Hamilton a secret royalist or a patriot; civilized or bloodthirsty?

What did they say for themselves? Hamilton wrote that he forswore dueling; but he appeared at the duel. Hamilton left writings explaining his every action, sadly, in every way, however contradictory.

At the end of his life, Burr wrote, "I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me." Was that a confession? If so, Burr recanted, "I leave my actions to speak for themselves and my character to confound the fictions of slander."

Who were they? Common men with uncommon abilities; men who laid the groundwork for our country today.

Carole Owens is a writer and historian.


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