You’ve probably heard of the hit musical “Hamilton,” unless you’ve been living back in the eighteenth century in which it’s set. To list its many achievements would take the length of the Ron Chernow biography that inspired it, but in summary: it is the origin story of Founding Father and first Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton; it combines hip-hop and rap with traditional Broadway balladry in dizzying fashion; its brilliant creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award, and is predicted to win the Pulitzer and sweep the Tonys in 2016 (the Hamiltonys, as has been spoken).
The show itself is a marvel. There has simply never been anything like it on Broadway. Indeed, the only thing “Hamilton” could really be dinged for is a bit of hero worship toward Hamilton, the man. The musical is not a hagiography—Hamilton is portrayed as temperamental, petty, self-sabotaging, defensive, and prideful above all.
But it smooths over or leaves unaddressed certain aspects of Hamilton’s tenure: his preference for an elected monarch, for instance, or his true reason for creating the New York Post (to have a venue to attack his enemies under pseudonyms in the press and ruin their political careers). It may seem odd to argue the following at a publication entitled The Federalist, but on my repeated viewings of the show and listens to the album, Aaron Burr is the one that emerges as the true hero of the musical.
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, Frenemies
Played with a sly intensity and feline physicality by Leslie Odom Jr, the long-maligned Burr comes to life as Hamilton’s frustrated frenemy and “the damn fool who shot him.” Burr is the narrator and foil to Hamilton, who was his contemporary and oft-time partner in the events that shaped the founding of our country.
As rivals, they were ripe for Miranda to host. Burr was pedigreed to a fault: his grandfather was the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preacher John Edwards, and his father founded what became Princeton College. Hamilton, in contrast, was born a bastard on the trading island of Nevis to a disgraced woman and a layabout father, what Miranda sings (as Hamilton, whom he plays) was “hell.” Burr entered Princeton at the age of 13 and earned his law degree by 16; Hamilton traveled to New York at 19 and entered King’s College (which became Columbia)—a virtuoso, but one behind the curve of the fast-paced elite set.
It would be unfair to suggest Miranda casts Burr as the villain in the show. Far from it, he has admitted giving Odom the best songs—“Wait For It” and the showstopper “The Room Where It Happens.” Certainly the audience favorite in a musical is almost always going to be the character with the catchiest tunes.
Additionally, by handing Burr the narrative, Miranda has granted Burr the right to tell the story and to present his perspective throughout—thus molding ours. In a show where the ability of the word to change history is given utmost power, this is a huge authorization. Burr delivers the very first words of the show and immediately engages us in his bewilderment and early exasperation: “How does the bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished by squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
We’ve All Felt Like Aaron Burr
He sees us through the events of the Revolutionary War, the creation of the National Bank, Hamilton’s salacious affair with Maria Reynolds (at which point Burr actually verbalizes handing over the narrative to Hamilton, whose musical it supposedly is, singing “I’ll let him tell it”), Hamilton’s furious and reckless criticism of sitting president and fellow party member John Adams, which put paid to his political career, and of course, the final confrontation between himself and Hamilton.
History is told by the winners, as they say, but although Burr won their duel, one could hardly call him the winner in the record. He’s portrayed by history teachers nationwide as a scoundrel and a traitor, but perhaps this musical will change all that. Burr cries at one point, “They won’t teach you this in your classes,” and all history teachers likely responded, “Challenge accepted.”
Throughout, Burr is easily the most relatable character. Who among us has not watched as a favored colleague rose through the ranks, drawing lucky ticket after lucky ticket, as you also toiled away, but to no reward? In “Right Hand Man,” Burr comes to then-general George Washington to propose a strategy for the war. At this point in history, Burr is a war hero: he fought his way through enemy forces in 1775 to rescue the body of his commander, Richard Montgomery, for which he received a citation for bravery.
Yet in this scene, Washington ignores Burr’s ideas and opinions in favor of young upstart Hamilton, asking him to “close the door on [his] way out.” Burr’s frustration at this deeply unfair dismissal is palpable. Burr is a genius, credentialed beyond belief. But at every point, Hamilton, either consciously or unconsciously, keeps Burr from “the room where it happens,” the place where the decisions are being made. Their eventual last encounter becomes more understandable by the second.
Burr is often the voice of reason and of morality during the show. His leitmotifs are “Wait for it” and “Talk less, smile more,” both typically deployed against the far more rash Hamilton, who is usually engaging in some kind of poorly thought out public outburst. When Washington, the father figure and unquestioned good guy of the show, later repeats “Talk less” to Hamilton, it’s Miranda’s way of telling us this phrase has merit.
He wouldn’t put a villain’s phrase in the mouth of any hero—note too that Hamilton rhymes “south” and “mouth” in the first cabinet battle rap (yes, that’s a thing!), and Burr rhymes the same pair of words in “Washington On Your Side.” By drawing these parallels through deliberately chosen words (again, the unlimited and liberating power of which is the most important idea throughout “Hamilton”), Miranda is putting Burr in the same strata as the heroes. I believe he rises above even them.
A Tender, Loyal Heart
Burr is the most family-loyal of the men in the show. “Wait For It” begins with an ode to his paramour and future wife, and “Dear Theodosia” begins with Burr’s heartfelt adoration of his baby daughter, Theodosia junior (“When you smile / you knock me out, I fall apart / and I thought I was so smart”). In “Non-Stop,” Hamilton’s the one knocking on doors in the middle of the night to do business with Burr, who’s home with his family.
In “We Know,” a song where Jefferson, Madison, and Burr confront Hamilton over evidence of his three-years-long-affair with Maria Reynolds, Burr is the only one to remind Hamilton, “I hope you saved some money for your daughter and son,” a sharp rebuke to his straying from his oath to his family. Later, Burr’s only thought before the duel is that Hamilton “not make an orphan of [his] daughter.”
Burr really has two roles in the show: the omniscient narrator, and himself in the present moment. In the affecting finale, as he recounts the moments that led up to his and Hamilton’s fateful, fatal conflict, Odom’s voice takes on a note of barely disguised panic. As the keeper of the narrative, he knows what is coming yet is powerless to stop it.
Odom has said in interviews that he lets himself be shocked by the ending every night, lets himself believe it can be avoided until it can’t. He is a miraculous actor, one whom you can watch thinking, a rare and impressive skill. As he takes his position in the final duel, his eyes wide with fear, you can feel every inevitable step that led to this. Burr’s last “present-moment” word, as he’s shooting Hamilton, is “Wait!” in a terrifyingly sad recollection of his earlier catchphrase, which was the watchword of his ambitions—now to be dashed.
This leads to his all-too-knowing coda to the duel: “History obliterates—in every picture it paints, it paints me in all my mistakes…Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see—I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” (That last is something the real Burr actually said before his own death at 80.) Odom weeps as he sings this, both out of regret and out of catharsis for all the pent-up frustration he’s been holding in the entire show.
Hamilton Had that Duel Coming
Burr is unfairly maligned over a duel that, frankly, Hamilton had coming. He made continuous private and public insults about Burr, calling him “unprincipled,” “bankrupt,” and “despicable.” (In contrast, a friend said he “never knew Colonel Burr to speak ill of anyone.”)
In 1800s society, Burr needed to defend his honor or lose his reputation entirely. (I could go on all day about that duel—and have—but suffice to say there’s quite a lot of evidence that Hamilton fully intended to take part in the fight, not the least of which was that he brought non-regulation hair-trigger pistols to Weehawken, ostensibly to give himself an advantage in the proceedings. They may have actually backfired on Hamilton, causing him to shoot wide instead of down, as would have been the proper procedure to throw away one’s shot. According to the rules of Code Duello, Burr was entirely justified in shooting back. Ask me about it—I’m fun at parties!)
But Burr’s not just a hero in the musical itself. Historically, Burr was a luminary. Miranda makes much of Hamilton’s abolitionism, coming as he did from the West Indies, where the brutality of slavery was a constant, daily tableau. But Burr too was an abolitionist, without the same firsthand background. In fact, he was the sole force at the 1785 New York State Assembly to call for an immediate end to slavery, something they did not decree as a body until 1799. During his legal tenure, he proposed that slaves arriving on slave ships be freed upon arrival, making him the most radical abolitionist of his time.
He was also an avid feminist, probably the only one of the founders to be so. He admired Mary Wollstonecraft and hung her portrait on his mantel. He married a woman ten years his senior who was possibly even smarter than he, and worshipped their daughter. She was considered the finest educated woman of the time, and under Burr’s guidance took Greek, French, Latin, arithmetic, music, dancing, and horseback lessons. Burr was also the first American to propose a bill for women to vote—in 1785. This was unheard of.
That Traitor Thing Was Trumped Up
The musical stops at Hamilton’s death, which elides that whole being-framed-for-treason thing. After Hamilton died, Burr left the original colonies. Burr, ever-ambitious, intended to lead a mission down to Mexico to annex it for the U.S.A. His associate in New Orleans, Gen. James Wilkinson, forged a letter from Burr saying he intended to steal the land for himself to create a new country.
President Jefferson, who had never trusted Burr after the election of 1800, recommended prosecution to the highest extent for treason and lobbied for a conviction. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall all but threw the case out for lack of evidence, which infuriated Jefferson; the case proved to be an important milestone in the separation of powers.
Burr emigrated to Europe in 1807, where he spent several years in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1812 and again took to the practice of law, but spent the rest of his life in political ignominy and poverty. When the United States eventually did annex Mexico, he grumbled that he should have received the hero treatment for the idea years earlier.
John Adams called him a “knight without fear.” Hamilton called him an “embryo-Caesar.” The truth, as always, likely lies somewhere in the middle. In the opening number, Burr sings of Hamilton that “his enemies destroyed his rep / America forgot him,” but when both their lives are fully accounted for, that assertion pertains more to Burr than it ever did to Hamilton in our history books. The question of legacy is one many characters ponder throughout the show. Burr deserves a better one.
This article has been corrected to show the true age Burr died: 80, not 81.