By: S. Costa Franco
Who was Alexander Hamilton?
Before the surname "Hamilton" became plastered on posters across Broadway and the West End, the historical figure himself, Alexander Hamilton, was little known by the masses. It was the work of American composer, actor and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda that made the name infamous to the world. However, Alexander Hamilton is far more than the protagonist in a revolutionary musical.
Hamilton was born, either in 1755 or in 1757, on a small island in the Caribbean, by the name of Nevis, to Scottish trader James Hamilton, and Rachel Faucette Levian. The pair were not married, as Levian had abandoned her husband after he imprisoned her for adultery and robbed her of her family fortune. Thus, Hamilton was deemed a "bastard". At the age of ten, his father abandoned the family, and Hamilton and his mother became severely ill two years later. Hamilton was lucky to survive, but his mother, unfortunately, did not encounter the same fate. Now an orphan, Hamilton was sent to live with a cousin, who, sadly, took his own life soon afterwards.
Indeed, this was quite a troubling childhood, but there was far more yet to come. Hamilton began work early, toiling for the landlord of his now-deceased mother, and trading what goods he could find. In the meantime, he took an interest in books, reading and studying as often as possible. With this knowledge, Hamilton was able to create a testament to all he had endured upon suffering the devastation of a hurricane that destroyed his entire town when he was only seventeen. Survivors from nearby areas became strongly moved by his manifesto and pooled together their monetary resources to purchase a boat ticket to the United States, where a young Alexander would have a better chance of fending for survival and success. After enduring death, tragedy, abandonment, and strenuous labor, things were beginning to improve for our ambitious teenage scholar.
As Hamilton arrived in the United States of America, he made important friendships, notably with individuals such as Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette and most significantly, Aaron Burr. These were all in favour of enacting a revolution against the British Rule over the American colony, and Hamilton quickly became enveloped in ideals of independence. His perseverance in the fight for freedom caught the attention of one very important general: George Washington. Now, there is no denying Hamilton was a unique character – quick-tempered, yet persuasive; determined and headstrong; passionate and fierce, with a burning desire to succeed, awe-inspiring abilities with a quill, and a mind as sharp as a blade. These attributes set him apart from other revolutionaries, and he soon became Washington's right-hand man, drafting crucial strategies for the war effort, and fighting courageously in The Battle of Yorktown. Meanwhile, Hamilton had also recently met his wife, high-class and wealthy Elizabeth Schuyler, in a local ball. The two were soon married, and proceeded to have seven children, the eldest of which, by the name of Phillip Hamilton, was murdered in a duel similar to the one that would be faced by his father.
Upon America's victory in the War, Hamilton went on to study and practice Law at King's College in New York City (now Columbia University), became the first Secretary of Treasury of the United States, participated in a highly embarrassing sex scandal, but most strikingly, constituted a major role in shaping American politics and economy as we know it today.
A struggling immigrant with a troubled past, went on to mold the future of the world's superpower nation. And yet, somehow, Hamilton was one of the least known founding fathers. But after a best-selling biography dedicated to telling his story, and a renowned Broadway musical celebrating his successes, the world is beginning to "learn what he overcame" and discover how he "rewrote the game". After all, "the world will never be the same."
Who was Aaron Burr?
If Hamilton was sharp, arrogant, vociferous and obstinate, Burr was quite the opposite – quiet, reserved, observant, and not so eager to flaunt his intelligence.
Born in 1756, in Newark, New Jersey, Aaron Burr was destined to be active in politics, coming from a long line of English gentry who actively engaged in America's political chess game. Burr lost both of his parents at quite a young age, and alongside his sister, was taken under the care of a wealthy uncle. Burr began to study law at the ripe age of 13 and showed great skill and ability in the field, graduating only 3 years later, with summa cumme laude. He continued his studies whilst assisting in revolutionary efforts, and, like Hamilton, fought in the War of Independence, being awarded the title of 'Major' under General George Washington. After retiring from his commission in 1779, Burr returned to New York to practice law, opening his own private practice, and was appointed Attorney-General of New York City in 1789. In the meantime, Burr engaged in an affair with a woman by the name of Theodosia Prevost, who happened to be married to a British soldier. Upon the death of this soldier in the war, Burr and Prevost wed, giving birth to a young daughter who was given her mother's name. Theodosia Prevost passed away in 1794, and Burr experienced the tragic loss of his daughter in a shipwreck in 1812.
Regarding his political career, Burr achieved several small victories, and became the third vice-president of the United States, serving under President Thomas Jefferson. His political career frequently conflicted with Hamilton's, which led to their infamous duel. Following the incident, Burr was charged with conspiracy and misdemeanor in 1807 for leading a military charge against Spanish Territory, destroying his future political prospects. He spent the next four years travelling across Europe and following his trial. He did, however, reopen his practice in 1812, after returning to the United States and admitting defeat. This practice was moderately successful, but he relied on the financial support of friends, and a short-lasting marriage to wealthy widow Eliza Jumel. Burr proceeded to suffer from multiple strokes, causing him to become paralyzed, and eventually passed away under the care of his cousin in September of 1836, on Staten Island, New York.
A blooming friendship
Despite the incident that provoked the death of founding father Alexander Hamilton, the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr was not constant after all. When Hamilton first arrived in the United States, he went in search of Burr, having heard much of his academic success regarding law. When he and Burr met, they connected over their ideas of revolution and liberty, and Burr gave Hamilton advice on how to succeed in the revolutionary movement, serving almost as a mentor. In the meantime, Hamilton admired Burr's intelligence and skill with the law, and the two worked closely to fight for the United States that they envisioned. Also, in spite of their juxtaposing personalities, they did have much in common, such as their interest in law, and the fact that both were orphans, and their military and political careers went on to be very similar in the years to come.
One could argue that all the troubles in their friendship arose as a result of the jealousy Burr carried for Hamilton, which furrowed and grew, until it metamorphosed into a twisted and intense rivalry, which sadly, led to death.
At first, they were equals. Two ambitious, intelligent, determined young men, with dreams of revolution and dark pasts behind them, fighting for a chance to succeed in this cruel, unjust, pre-independent world. And suddenly, an opportunity arose – the chance to act as right-hand man to the most celebrated general of them all: the one and only George Washington. Naturally, the two competed for the position. But, due to his spirited nature, the role was given to Hamilton, rather than Burr. Being that both had their whole careers ahead of them, this first blow was certainly not the most powerful, but it was enough to plant a small seed of bitter envy within Burr, against Hamilton, which eventually, would germinate into something ugly and callous.
After America achieved independence, the two began to practice law, and once again Hamilton appeared to be coming out on top. His abrasive and forceful attitude was effective in court, and Burr, believing his own methods were superior, questioned and envied Hamilton's success. When Hamilton was chosen to speak in the Constitutional Convention as a delegate (in which he proposed an entirely new form of government), Burr became truly frustrated. And it was of no help that later, Washington promoted Hamilton to Secretary of Treasury. It seemed that Washington had a clear preference for Hamilton, and Burr began to question whether his lack of political success was Hamilton's doing, after all.
It is important to note, however, that Hamilton and Burr's rivalry extended out of the political spectrum and into their personal lives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for individuals such as Hamilton and Burr who struggled financially, marriage also had the purpose of elevating one's class status and wealth. Hence why everyone desired to wed one of the three Schuyler Sisters – Peggy, Angelica or Eliza, each having a high placement in the societal hierarchy. Hamilton, with his notable charm, succeeded in marrying Eliza, whilst constructing a flirtatious friendship with her sister Angelica, and a platonic one with the youngest, Peggy. Burr, yet again, was deprived of something he desired, which was awarded to Hamilton instead.
It soon became evident to our antagonist that he had to change his methods. The calm, passive, remote strategies he had been adopting were not working as intended. If he wanted to beat Hamilton, he had to act like Hamilton, and fight for what he wanted. If it worked for this impoverished immigrant that appeared out of nowhere and robbed him of his success, it would have to work for him too. But Burr knew that if he wished to strike back against Hamilton, who had the support of Washington, he could not do it alone – he too, needed support. And the best place to obtain this would be to join forces with the two individuals that despised Hamilton just as much as Burr himself – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Hamilton had recently tricked Jefferson and Madison into adopting his much-loathed financial plan and had won a debate which convinced Washington to not engage the United States in the war between Britain and France, and so hatred against Hamilton had never been more prominent. This new-formed alliance would most certainly lead to chaos.
Comradery Turned Sour
Burr's first attempt to oppose Hamilton was triumphant and enraged his opponent. Seeing that his opportunity to go down in history in American politics was slipping away, Burr acted desperately – he changed parties, and defeated Elizabeth Schuyler’s (Hamilton's wife's) father, Phillip Schuyler, in the seat of New York Senator. He now had gained a position of power and had gotten revenge on Hamilton as well. As can be imagined, Alexander Hamilton was livid that Burr had acted so brutishly against his father-in-law, and at last, this rivalry was no longer one sided. Hamilton began to realize that his friendship with Burr was not as strong as he once thought, and in actual fact, an enemy was brewing.
Still, Burr was not finished with his vengeance. After all, he did believe Hamilton robbed him of the success he deserved, and he would not be satisfied until he had destroyed his rival completely. He worked closely with Jefferson and Madison to track Hamilton's financial transactions, finding that he had paid large sums of money to a certain James Reynolds over a short period of time. The three were certain that they had caught Hamilton red-handed in an act of embezzlement and treason and decided to confront him. Little did they know that the truth would be far more unexpected. Hamilton revealed that the money he paid Reynolds was fully legal, and the purpose of the transaction was to keep Reynolds quiet, as Hamilton was having an affair with his wife, Maria Reynolds. The three were shocked, and Burr threatened to perpetuate the growth of this rumor. Now, Hamilton's feisty attributes caused him to acquire quite a few political enemies and grow paranoid of his political ruin. Thus, he made the rash decision of publishing the letters between him and Maria Reynolds in a pamphlet entitled "The Reynolds Pamphlet". That way, he would reveal the story before Burr could, in a way that made him seem like the victim and would minimize the negative consequences of the rumor. This act, however, led to severe complications in his marriage, and after the death of his son, Hamilton and his family moved uptown, and partially abandoned the cruelty of the political realm. Burr had achieved a victory and taken down his rival. Or so it seemed.
Come the 1800s, Washington had resigned as President, and John Adam's presidency had also come and gone - it was evident he would not get re-elected. Clearly, it was time for an election. The two new candidates? Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. Burr was eager to become president, employing new promotional methods, such as open campaigning. His fire of ambition had never burned brighter. Finally, it was time for the delegates to cast their votes, which meant Hamilton was summoned from his new, quiet life upstate, to help decide the next president of the United States. The competition was neck-in-neck. But, there was a catch. Hamilton's vote was not just any vote – it would be the tie-breaking vote. Jefferson or Burr? One rival, or the other? Indeed, it was a lose-lose. But Burr wasn't afraid. He and Hamilton, despite their current feelings of enmity towards one another, had been friends. In fact, Burr was Hamilton's first friend after he arrived in America, whereas Hamilton and Jefferson had fought and disliked each other from the very beginning. It was clear what Hamilton's decision would be - except it wasn't. Hamilton justified his vote by stating that he had never once agreed with Jefferson, but Jefferson knew how to fight for what he wanted; he knew how to stand up for himself, and had strong beliefs for what the country needed, whereas Burr was far too focused on his own personal success. And so, Hamilton cast his vote - Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States of America. Now, there was no doubt about it. Hamilton had actively intervened in Burr's triumph and taken away what he had worked towards for years. It seemed that the world was not wide enough to harbour both Hamilton's and Burr's successes – after a series of menacing letters, Burr made up his mind: Hamilton had to go.
The World Was Wide Enough
Dawn. July, 1804. Rowing across the icy black waters of the Hudson River to arrive on the New Jersey shore, is Alexander Hamilton, Nathaniel Pendleton and a doctor. Aaron Burr and William P. Vaness already await. Hamilton exits the boat as they arrive, wincing as he remembers that this is near the very spot where his son was shot dead. He questions his decision to accept Aaron Burr's request for a duel. He considers the impact he has made in American history, and all he still has left to do. If he perishes now, what legacy will he leave behind? What even is a legacy? What about his wife, and children? But it was an act of cowardice to decline to partake in a duel. Besides, a man of honor would never take the life of another man. Hamilton decides he can't shoot Burr. Yes, he is standing before an enemy that has taken the place of a friend, but he shall not survive at the cost of giving up his honour. It simply can't be done.
On the other hand, Burr questions his own decision. He actively tries to make his hatred for Hamilton fizzle and bubble up within him, to justify his choice. But, was there not once a friendship here that is worth salvaging? Is he truly capable of taking a life? What matters most, people or politics? His mindset soon changes, however, when he thinks that if he does not shoot, Hamilton will. Someone must die, and Hamilton would likely take his life away in an instant. He cannot allow his daughter to be orphaned as he was. He simply cannot. Both men raise their pistols, walk ten paces, and shots are fired.
Hamilton raises his pistol at the sky, shooting a nearby branch, which topples to the ground. Burr strikes Hamilton between the ribs. It's over. Hamilton is taken away across the Hudson, and Burr stands, unable to move. He has achieved what he aimed for. His rival has been eliminated, passing away a few days later from infection and blood loss, with Angelica and Eliza by his side. But is this really what he wanted? Would he be capable of carrying the guilt of murdering an old friend? Was the world truly not wide enough to allow both of them to thrive?
Who tells your story?
And so is the tale of how envy can sprout into hatred, and result in a rivalry so powerful, it usurps friendship, and causes death, suffering and tragedy. This historical example causes us to reflect on the legacy we are leaving behind, and how our relationships, and the way we interact with each other, can affect our daily lives. How do we want to be remembered? It is important to be mindful of how we treat others and consider how this impacts the way in which we are perceived.
After Hamilton's death, his wife Eliza and sister-in-law Angelica worked on telling his story. They published all his written work (which was shockingly abundant), and interviewed soldiers who survived the war, to raise awareness about those who gave their lives fighting, as well as celebrate Hamilton's dedication to the war. Eliza proceeded to raise funds to construct the Washington monument, in honour of George Washington, a great mentor and father-figure to Hamilton. She also speaks out against slavery, an issue Hamilton was extremely passionate about, and worked closely with his friend John Laurens to combat. Finally, and quite poignantly, Elizabeth Schuyler established the first private orphanage in New York City in memory of her late husband, Alexander Hamilton, who also was an orphan. It was Hamilton's loved ones who ensured that he was not forgotten.
The manner in which we treat those around us, the things we fight for and actions of kindness that we perpetuate, are what will impact not only how we are remembered, but how our story is told. Let us all continue to live and blossom in the best of ways in the hearts and minds of the ones around us.