Commonplace Book #82

Many of the lies and exaggerations that obscure the real [Aaron] Burr focus on his relationship to Alexander Hamilton.  Historians have been too trusting of Hamilton’s portrait of Burr, discounting his partisan motives in blackening Burr’s name.  Only half of the story has been told.  Hamilton, an extremely motivated political thinker, was also a master of backroom politics .  He was known for his poison-tipped pen, viciously attacking anyone he believed stood in the way of his political  dominance.  When it came to his sense of Burr as a competent rival, first in New York politics and later in presidential politics, Hamilton overreacted.  He systematically sought, over a period of many years, to ruin Burr’s chances through insults, slights, and writing campaigns.  The great irony is that Hamilton routinely accused Burr of lacking a moral compass, when no evidence exists that the self-possessed Burr ever insulted Hamilton.

The essential problem in Americans’ understanding of the Burr-Hamilton relationship is that it has only been described to them in personal, pathological, or sexual terms. The relationship  has been removed from politics, where it rightly belongs.  To put it succinctly, it was not any issue relating to moral character, but Hamilton’s aggressive style of politics that led to his duel with Burr.  At the dueling ground itself, Hamilton gave Burr every indication that he intended to fire in earnest; not waste his shot, as Hamilton apologists continue to insist to this day.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 10.

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