The other true story behind Hamilton
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.”
I’VE BEEN THROUGH ALL THE HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS, THE LETTERS AND SO ON.
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.