The other true story be­hind Hamil­ton

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUE & IDEAS - Har­riet Alexan­der

Hamil­ton, the smash Broad­way mu­si­cal, opened in Lon­don l ast week and looks set to re­peat its phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess.

But be­sides Alexan­der Hamil­ton, one of the Found­ing Fathers whose life is the in­spi­ra­tion for the show, credit must also go to the man who pulled the trig­ger on him.

The year was 1804, and Aaron Burr, the third vice-pres­i­dent of the newly in­de­pen­dent coun­try, had a spec­tac­u­lar fall­ing- out with Hamil­ton, a bril­liant 19th-cen­tury politi­cian who seemed des­tined for the pres­i­dency. Burr chal­lenged his po­lit­i­cal neme­sis to a duel on the banks of the Hud­son River, at Wee­hawken in New Jer­sey. Hamil­ton was shot in the stom­ach, dy­ing in Man­hat­tan the fol­low­ing day.

In 2015, Lin- Manuel Mi­randa’s “cul­tural reimag­in­ing” of Hamil­ton’s biog­ra­phy, fus­ing Amer­i­can his­tory with con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, and with pe­riod cos­tume as well as hip- hop, soul and R’n’B show tunes, opened in New York to record crowds and rave re­views. It re­ceived a record- break­ing 16 Tony nom­i­na­tions, tak­ing home 11, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A film adap­ta­tion based on the mu­si­cal is now in the works.

But there’s another, per­haps even more re­mark­able twist in the story — two cen­turies on, the de­scen­dants of Burr and Hamil­ton have be­come firm friends. “We met en­tirely through serendip­ity,” says An­to­nio Burr, who is in his early 60s and lives in Man­hat­tan.

Alexan­dra Hamil­ton-Woods, 66, agrees. “We met by chance, prob­a­bly around eight years ago. We are both psy­chol­o­gists, and met at a party. I don’t re­mem­ber how we fig­ured it out ex­actly — I sup­pose I re­marked on his sur­name, and mine. It turned out we were also both mem­bers of the same ca­noe and kayak club in New York.”

The pair both speak with pride of their an­ces­tors — Dr. Hamil­tonWoods is the Found­ing Fa­ther’s four-times great-grand­daugh­ter on her mother’s side, while Burr, raised in Chile, is a ninth-gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dant of the former vice- pres­i­dent on the pa­ter­nal line.

Yet un­til the mu­si­cal took the United States by storm, their story had some­what faded in the mists of time. Hamil­ton was born on the Caribbean is­land of Ne­vis around 1755, the il­le­git­i­mate child of a Scot­tish fa­ther and a Bri­tish-French Huguenot mother.

Or­phaned as a child by his mother’s death and his fa­ther’s aban­don­ment, Hamil­ton was taken in by an older cousin and later by a pros­per­ous mer­chant fam­ily. His in­tel­li­gence and spark was ev­i­dent from a young age, and he was spon­sored by a group of wealthy lo­cal men to travel to New York City to pur­sue his ed­u­ca­tion.

Hav­ing trained as a lawyer, Hamil­ton would be­come one of seven men cred­ited with found­ing the United States, work­ing along­side John Adams, Ben­jamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jef­fer­son, James Madi­son and Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton.

“Be­fore the mu­si­cal, the av­er­age Amer­i­can would prob­a­bly know about Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Thomas Jef­fer­son, and per­haps the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­pers (es­says that urged the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion),” says Hamil­ton-Woods. “But of Hamil­ton they knew very lit­tle.”

That all changed with the pub­li­ca­tion of Ron Ch­er­now’s 2004 biog­ra­phy, which in­spired the ground­break­ing hip- hop retelling of the story, with peo­ple of colour cast as the Found­ing Fathers.

“It’s a great, great play,” says Hamil­ton-Woods. “It’s so cre­ative, and re­ally cap­tures the story. I think Bri­tish au­di­ences will love it. Lon­don is a very di­verse city — I’ve spent a lot of time there — and Brits will be cap­ti­vated by the story, which is un­known to most. The only down­side is that it’s so hard to get tick­ets.”

In­deed, two years af­ter it opened on Broad­way, tick­ets in New York are still sell­ing for over US$ 200 at the box of­fice, and bought 10 months in ad­vance.

So far, the mu­si­cal has grossed over US$275 mil­lion at the Richard Rogers Theatre on Broad­way, and Mi­randa — who left the ti­tle role in July — has re­cently an­nounced a new three-week run in Puerto Rico, to raise funds for his hur­ri­cane-bat­tered home­land, in Jan­uary 2019. A film is also in the works.

“And it re­ally is a Shake­spearean tragedy,” said Burr. “Hamil­ton was an im­mi­grant, and brought en­er­getic new blood to Amer­ica. If you look at what is hap­pen­ing in the States today, that is a pow­er­ful mes­sage.”

But Burr, who played the role of Aaron Burr in a 2004 re-en­act­ment of the duel to cel­e­brate the 200th an­niver­sary, re­mains re­sent­ful that his an­ces­tor has gone down in his­tory as a vil­lain.

Burr, af­ter the duel, saw out his vice- pres­i­dency but then his star faded, and he was charged with trea­son for al­legedly plot­ting to take the Louisiana Pur­chase ( the ac­qui­si­tion of a vast swath of ter­ri­tory from the Mis­sis­sippi to the Rocky Moun­tains from France in 1803) for him­self and set up a ri­val coun­try. He was ac­quit­ted, but ru­ined po­lit­i­cally and fi­nan­cially, and fled to ex­ile in Europe — re­turn­ing to New York in 1812 and liv­ing out his days in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity as a lawyer. He died in Septem­ber 1836, aged 80.

“I’ve been through all the his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, the let­ters and so on,” says Burr, a mem­ber of the Aaron Burr As­so­ci­a­tion and trustee of the Mor­ris-Jumel Man­sion, Man­hat­tan’s old­est house and home to Burr and his wife, El­iza.

“And the story that has sprung up that Burr was a scoundrel, a mur­der and all that... well, that’s Hamil­ton’s ver­sion. Hamil­ton was a bril­liant guy, there is no doubt about that. He was the or­ga­nizer of the state, the trea­surer of the na­tion, and I think with­out Hamil­ton Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton would have not got far. Hamil­ton had no doubt of the power of em­pire. We live in a Hamil­to­nian Amer­ica. And Burr was the guy who could bring it all to an end.

“Over the years, we did quite a lot of work to prove that Burr was a com­plex char­ac­ter — he was not the straightfo­rward vil­lain of leg­end.”



An­to­nio Burr, left, a de­scen­dant of Aaron Burr’s cousin, in­spects his pis­tol with Peter Tavino dur­ing a re- en­act­ment of the Alexan­der Hamil­ton-Aaron Burr duel that took place 213 years ago.

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