michael orlitzky

On the reputation of Aaron Burr

I feel like Aaron Burr got a bad rap. I am, of course, referring to the 1993 “Got Milk?” commercial in which a museum employee tries to answer the following question for a radio station contest: Who shot Alexander Hamilton?

Aaron Burr did defeat Alexander Hamilton in a duel; that much is true. Most people remember, for some reason or another, that Alexander Hamilton was a good guy. They therefore logically conclude that Aaron Burr must have been a bad guy. After all, who shoots a good guy?

The belief is not without merit. From Wikipedia's article on Hamilton:

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 (or 1757) - July 12, 1804) was an Army officer, lawyer, Founding Father, American politician, leading statesman, financier and political theorist. One of America's first constitutional lawyers, he was a leader in calling the Philadelphia Convention in 1787; he was one of the two chief authors of the Federalist Papers, the most cited contemporary interpretation of intent for the United States Constitution.

During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton served as an artillery captain, was an aide-de-camp to General George Washington, and led three battalions at the Battle of Yorktown. Under President Washington, Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury. As Secretary of the Treasury and confidant of Washington, Hamilton had wide-reaching influence over the direction of policy during the formative years of the government.

What one should notice, however is that Aaron Burr didn't duel Alexander Hamilton until after most of the good things that Alexander Hamilton did were history. After the war heroics were over, Hamilton's career took a turn. Among other things, his later accomplishments included:

the funding of the national debt; federal assumption of the state debts; creation of a national bank; and a system of taxes through a tariff on imports and a tax on whiskey that would help pay for it. He admired the success of the British system – particularly its strong financial and trade networks – and opposed what he saw as the excesses of the French Revolution.

Most people agree that some of these positions are somewhat disagreeable, or at least out of favor (read: fashion) these days. However, Hamilton didn't simply hold unpopular views; he attempted to cheat to make them popular.

He was one of the creators of the Federalist party, the first American political party, which he built up using Treasury department patronage, networks of elite leaders, and aggressive newspaper editors he subsidized both through Treasury patronage and by loans from his own pocket.

Note that he used government, i.e. taxpayer, funds to promote his personal political agenda. Throughout this period, and leading up to the election of 1800, Hamilton also used his legal power (he was a lawyer) and fame to try to discredit the Democratic Republicans. What really set Burr off, though, was the election of 1800.

In the 1800 election, Hamilton acted against both sides. He proposed that New York, which Burr had won for Jefferson, should have its election rerun with carefully chosen districts – a definitely non-legal maneuver.

The result of the election of 1800 was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr: both arguably good guys. This was before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, and as such, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Hamilton used his influence therein to secure victory for Jefferson, even though there was likely more popular support for Burr. After the election, Hamilton was quoted as saying “At least Jefferson was honest.”

Burr was then made vice president by Jefferson. At the end of his first term as vice president, it was evident that he would not be running for a second term. He focused his political efforts on the governorship of New York, but was defeated due in no small part to Hamilton's antics.

After Burr's defeat, Hamilton continued to attack Burr, ostensibly for political reasons. The event that spurred the duel was a newspaper article “recounting a dinner party in upstate New York during which Hamilton said he could reveal 'an even more despicable opinion' of Colonel Burr.”

Burr, in response, demanded an apology. Hamilton claimed that he couldn't recall the event. Three more letters were exchanged between the two, and a duel was scheduled. Thanks to that milk commercial, you know the result.

My goal is not to paint Hamilton as a bad guy. Certainly he did plenty of good. But Burr wasn't a bad guy either. The two just strongly disagreed on a number of important issues.

Before ending on a decidedly un-awesome note, I'll mention one more thing. On the night before the duel, Hamilton wrote:

I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.

That would imply that Hamilton intended to miss Burr on the first shot. Historians disagree about whether or not Hamilton shot first, but it is obvious (he's dead, and the tree behind Burr has a bullet wound) that Hamilton's first shot missed.

We can't know whether Hamilton intended to show off and miss once, or just wanted to make Burr look bad in retrospect; but one thing's for sure: while Hamilton may have lost at winning, he clearly won at losing.

Oh, and he called their duel an interview.