The Progressive Mr. Burr

The Progressive Mr. Burr


Aaron Burr is known as a villain and surely he was that.  He lured Alexander Hamilton into a duel over some unspecified insult, and killed him.  Then he fled New York to evade an indictment, and escaped over the mountains to the Ohio River Valley where he conspired with a rich Irishman to rule over the entire Louisiana Territory.  This ill-fated plot got Burr indicted for treason, but he won an acquittal, and wouldn’t give up.  He took his plan for a western empire across the Atlantic, hoping to entice England or France to join him, but he was rebuffed, and he nearly starved in Paris.

Burr owned slaves.  He was sneaky and double-dealing and power-hungry, and always one step ahead of his creditors.  But despite his many faults, Burr did show some good qualities: his wit, his vast intelligence, and his progressive ideas about women and universal suffrage.

Unlike most men of his time, Burr not only believed that women were not inferior to men, he thought them in many ways superior.  He believed women deserved an education equal to men and that women could and should enter the professions and politics.  For inspiration he hung a portrait of British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in his study.  Burr admired her as a pioneer who, in seeking equal rights for women, published two seminal feminist tracts: Thoughts on the Educating of Daughters (1787) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary, also an intellectual, married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and at twenty, created our favorite monster in her novel Frankenstein (1818).

If one ignores Burr’s incessant womanizing, he otherwise practiced what he preached by providing his only (legitimate) child, Theodosia, with a first-class education.  She learned French, Latin, Rhetoric, Mathematics and Music.  Burr also taught her to ride and shoot.  A fond anecdote depicts Theo helping Alexis, Burr’s French-speaking manservant/slave, write his sweetheart a love letter in English.

But despite his progressive ideals and deep love for Theo, Burr married her at age seventeen to a plantation owner from Charleston, partially to solve his financial woes, but also to gain Southern support for his planned presidential bid.  The wedding was in Albany, NY, and Theo’s honeymoon to Niagara Falls began the custom for generations of honeymooners to visit the Falls.

After Theodosia moved to Charleston she was smothered in the rituals befitting a southern belle, but she seems to have felt exiled and longed to be back in New York.  Theodosia had a rather tragic life: Her only child, Aaron Burr Alston, died when he was eleven, and she herself was lost at sea in 1812 while sailing to New York to see her father, just returned from his European exile.

In addition to female suffrage, Burr also believed that laws restricting the right to vote for men, if not repealed, must be circumvented.  To have a truly democratic society, the “common man” must have the right to vote and, largely out of self-interest, Burr worked to empower the poor and disenfranchised.

In 1799 Burr adopted a quirky drinking club in lower Manhattan.  The Society of Tammany, named after a Native-American chief, met in a tavern they dubbed “The Wigwam” where they observed faux-Native American rituals.  With his charming personality and his ability to organize, Burr forged this drinking club into America’s first political machine, and used it to empower tradesmen and laborers.

In the early 19th Century only men who owned realty could vote.  Burr saw that if he broadened the base of the electorate, he and his minions could win every election.  Burr devised a scheme to help financially strapped tradesmen and laborers buy real estate so they’d qualify to vote.  He slipped a bill through the New York State Legislature allowing him to form a bank, thereby ending Alexander Hamilton’s monopoly on banking.

Hamilton was Burr’s polar opposite, a staunch conservative and elitist.  A military man through and through, Hamilton believed that power and authority must be centralized, and chains of command be clearly defined and observed.  To this end he helped create a strong federal government to forge a union out of the thirteen original states.  He wrote the vast majority of the Federalist essays advocating ratification of the Constitution in order to create a centralized government that could endure forever.  He considered the Bill of Rights superfluous.

Hamilton believed the common man was unfit to govern, too ignorant and too swayed by emotion to be trusted with power.  Allowing ordinary people access to power, he believed, led only to anarchy, and he pointed to the bloodbath of the French Revolution as an example.  Hamilton labeled Burr “a dangerous man who should not be trusted with the reins of power” in large part because of his democratic ideas.

But unlike Burr, Hamilton abhorred slavery, perhaps because he had seen its evils as a child in the Caribbean.  Hamilton helped to found the first manumission society in New York, and while Hamilton never set down his thoughts on the equality of women, his wife Eliza was an active partner in this work, helping him while he drafted the Federalist papers, for example.  She came from a Dutch family in which women were raised to be able managers of households and farms and as the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, she was no stranger to politics.

In a larger sense, the intersecting paths of these two men highlights even today the two major currents in American political life.  Hamilton, a bastard, orphaned “nobody” from the Caribbean, wanted power and wealth concentrated in an elite few.  Burr, a pedigreed New England blueblood, descended from two of America’s most prominent religious leaders, embraced the common man and the unwashed poor.

When Burr and Hamilton met in their ill-fated duel at Weehawken, New Jersey early on the morning of July 11, 1804, two distinct American ideologies were facing off.  No one is really certain of what happened, but it is thought that in a grandiose gesture, Hamilton purposely missed shooting the hero of the underdog.  When Burr pulled the fatal trigger, he symbolically killed the champion of wealth and privilege.

Today, as economic disparity in America widens, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act is ignored by the Justice Department, the great monopolies bully and squeeze most mom-and-pop enterprises out of existence.  The haves and the have-nots, are still at war.

Thankfully litigation has replaced “trial by combat” in resolving disputes.  Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield stood up for their rights when they sued Haagen Daas/Pillsbury on anti-trust grounds and won “shelf space” to sell their Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.  But these David-and-Goliath stories are few and far between and the monopolies Hamilton seemed to favor grow wealthier and more powerful each year.

Surely some of the rage fueling the recent riots and lootings can be attributed to a feeling of powerlessness and poverty which the progressive Mr. Burr exploited, and our electoral process will determine which faction will have the upper hand for the next four years.