The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberals love Alexander Hamilton. But Aaron Burr was a real progressive hero.

Why Broadway's biggest villain is worth a second look.

‘Hamilton’ Broadway stars perform in the East Room of the White House on March 14, 2016. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Alexander Hamilton clearly is having a moment. The hero of the hottest show on Broadway is being newly celebrated as a hero of the progressive left. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described the musical as a metaphor for the Obama era: “At the simplest presentational level, it shows previously marginalized people taking on the responsibility and burden of American history.” A Huffington Post essay defending Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill argued that the founding father was an advocate for a “unified nation, a strong federal government and an urban, industrial society — all things Democrats embrace today.” A Washington Post humor piece credited Hamilton with having “built this country with his bare hands, strong nose and winning smile.”

The irresistible appeal among progressives of Broadway’s version of Hamilton seems coupled with equal disdain for the play’s villain, Aaron Burr. Tweeting after one performance, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star and creator of “Hamilton,” offered a cheeky observation:

Burr is reviled in “Hamilton” and in popular consciousness as a cowardly, unprincipled man who was unwilling to believe in or fight for anything. But in fact, Burr was in most ways more forward-thinking, by our standards, than his nemesis Hamilton, and the romantic recasting of Hamilton’s life story comes at the expense of a true progressive champion.

Burr’s villainy is actually the result of a smear campaign invented by his political enemies centuries ago, and then disseminated in newspapers, pamphlets and personal letters during and after his lifetime. Pop-cultural portraits of Burr have blindly repeated these distortions, transforming Burr into the quintessential bad guy of early American history. 

In “Hamilton,” Burr is portrayed as a man without a moral compass, driven by envy and a yearning for power, whose only clear goal in life is to topple his heroic rival Hamilton, which leads to their tragic duel and Hamilton’s untimely death (along with that rather unfavorable comparison to Cheney). The first advice that Burr dispenses in the play is to never reveal what you really think. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton calls on Burr to “take a stand” for the “first time in your life.” Burr replies: “I’ll wait here and see which the way the wind will blow.” Arriving at the election of 1800, words are put in James Madison’s mouth that Madison would never have said — that Burr has no positions: he “obfuscates, he dances.”  Hamilton tells Burr at the same time: “No one knows what you believe.”  None of this could be further from the truth.

The historical Burr was no less passionate about the Revolution than Hamilton, and in several respects was far more revolutionary in his thinking. In 1775, he was appointed aide-de-camp to Richard Montgomery, a great general and revolutionary martyr. For courage under fire, Burr received a commendation from Congress. He was not just a disciple of the Enlightenment, but also an advocate for criminal justice reform, freedom of the press, women’s rights, and the rights of immigrants. He would have made an excellent judge if he had accepted the offer he received in 1792 to sit on New York’s Supreme Court. Burr was a skilled innovator in the interest of democracy, working to make elections, financial services, and even the U.S. Senate more fair and transparent. In New York, before the election of 1800, Burr was charged by Hamilton’s Federalist allies with “revolutionizing the state,” because in the state legislature he backed progressive policies for funding internal improvements such as roads and bridges, debtor relief, and establishing a more democratic method of electing state senators. He founded the Manhattan Company, the first bank that was not in the hands of wealthy Federalists alone, and the first to extend financial services to ordinary merchants and mechanics.

As a hero, the musical’s Hamilton represents the American dream in the form of an immigrant-made-good, born on the Caribbean Island of Nevis, then raising himself to high society through sheer determination and genius. Yet Hamilton — and the Federalist Party he headed — were hostile to the idea that the United States should ever be led by newcomers. It was the Federalists who pressed for a constitutional amendment barring naturalized foreigners from elected offices, and it was that supposed villain Burr, in the New York Assembly at the time, who gave an eloquent speech defending the liberal promise of the young republic. “America stood with open arms and presented an asylum to the oppressed of every nation,” he said. “Shall we deprive these persons of an important right derived from so sacred a source as our Constitution?”

Burr was also advanced compared to his peers in terms of women’s equality. While the musical puts feminist words in the mouth of Angelica Schuyler, presuming she wanted to tell Jefferson to rewrite the Declaration of Independence to include women, this bit is actually lifted from Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter of 1776; and there is not a scintilla of evidence of such feminist leanings in either Mrs. or Mr. Hamilton, or his sister-in-law. In reality, Burr was far ahead of Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams in advancing the ideas of English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, the leading Enlightenment advocate of women’s rights. Burr and his wife Theodosia educated their daughter as they might have a son: She could read and write by the age of 3, then mastered French, Italian, Latin, Greek, mathematics, history and geography. The idea that women were the intellectual equals of men was a radical one, and Hamilton attacked Burr for supporting it. In an 1801 letter to a prominent congressman that was meant to be shared with his allies, Hamilton called Burr (along with a slew of other insults) a proponent of “Godwinism.” (William Godwin was Wollstonecraft’s husband.)

Two and a half centuries of political bickering (on Twitter)

And what of that fateful duel that secured the permanent entwining of Hamilton and Burr’s reputations? “Hamilton” suggests that the duel was fought over the election of 1800, and that Burr knowingly shot Hamilton after seeing him fire a bullet in the air. But this is wrong on all counts. Eyewitnesses at the duel agreed that the men had fired within seconds of each other, but they disagreed on who shot first. The real cause of the duel was that Hamilton openly insulted Burr before a group of prominent men (and refused to apologize) when Burr ran for the New York governorship in 1804. The insults were then published in a local paper; the key phrase that led Burr to issue a challenge was that Hamilton had uttered a “despicable opinion” about Burr’s private character. Though Hamilton had said offensive things before, and Burr had repeatedly accepted his apologies, this time, Burr wrote to a friend, it became impossible for him to retain his self-respect and forbear Hamilton’s rude treatment any longer. (Also conveniently omitted from “Hamilton” and most Hamiltonian lore is the fact that Hamilton supplied the pistols, and only Hamilton knew of the secret hair trigger. This gave him an advantage and violated the era’s gentlemanly code of conduct: so much for fairness and transparency.)

“Hamilton” may be a delight to watch, but let’s not convince ourselves that it honors the discipline of history, or that it aptly represents genuine sources of progressive thought in America’s founding. If the leftish audiences that have fallen for the play’s energy and spirit want a genuine icon to look to, they should spend a little time getting to know its villain, whose reputation deserves to be recovered from the tabloid pages of history.

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