Object of the Month

Hamilton, Memory, and Irony: Aaron Burr and Wendell Phillips Encounter Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton Marble

Alexander Hamilton

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by Donald Yacovone, MHS Fellow; Associate, Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies, Harvard University

This marble bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi (1751-1801) is one of many copies (in both marble and plaster) from the sculptor's 1791-92 terra cotta model from life. Depicting Hamilton in the style of a Roman senator, with the ribbon of the Order of the Cincinnati over his shoulder, the bust has become the iconic image of the Founding Father and has been used as the model for posthumous portraits, sculptures, and even a postage stamp.

Hamilton Fever

When memory and history meet, sometimes irony is the result. The Broadway smash hit Hamilton, which is now engaged in a raucous Boston run, plays to the utter delight and elation of sellout throngs across the globe, with no sign of flagging interest from the public. Indeed, the more people see it, the more people will want to see it. A few years ago if one heard that a Broadway play was in development about the Founding Fathers and creation of the national debt, all put to rap music and performed by African American actors, no one would have predicted it would ever be performed, much less become a national sensation. But the great genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda is that Hamilton is a play about ambition, fame, and the creation of the United States, all put to arresting music, brilliant lyrics, astounding performances, and streaked with gripping tragedy. It pivots on the historical relationship of the mastermind of American political theory and finance Alexander Hamilton (1755?-1804) and his former friend-turned nemesis, the adventurer, former senator, and vice-president Aaron Burr (1756-1836).

Dramatis Personae: Hamilton and Burr

Alexander Hamilton has always been honored as a critical Founding Father—dashing, handsome, brilliant, and indispensable to the creation of the United States. As a child, his favorite authors were Pope and Plutarch. The illegitimate child of Rachael Fawcett Lavien born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, Hamilton became, perhaps, the nation's most illustrious emigrant, and right hand man to George Washington. He embodies American drive, ambition, and determination as no other could and, as is sung throughout the play, he will endure, succeed, and never "throw away his shot." The ultimate irony, of course, is that Hamilton counseled his teenage son Philip to do just that, which led to his death in a duel in 1801 and to Hamilton's identical demise on the bloodied ground of Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804.

Aaron Burr, on the other hand, about the same age and equally ambitious as his competitor never attained the same esteemed place in American history. As Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick wrote in their 1993 Age of Federalism, for nearly all historians, Burr remains "an enigma." The grandson of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, Burr nonetheless has been seen as the "dark side" of the force, seeming to represent pure greed, unalloyed ambition, "not" as Elkins and McKitrick asserted, a "representative man" but a "deviant type." Drawing on what historians have written about Burr, the novelist Gore Vidal pronounced Aaron Burr "a man of perfect charm and fascination. A monster, in short." In his highly amusing and perceptive novel, Vidal played the role of Burr's biographer and described him as "the devil—assuming that the devil is no more than five foot six (an inch shorter than I), slender, with tiny feet (hooves?), high forehead (in the fading light I imagine vestigial horns), bald in front with hair piled high on his head, powdered absently in the old style, and held in place with a shell comb."

The musical's true genius, however, is in reeling Burr back into the American mainstream and in giving him near equal authority, punctuating the American fixation with self-ascendency, greed, power, and ambition. He is not, as Gore Vidal crafted him, a devil in a periwig. Seeking to "correct" Hamilton's faults, the well-intentioned Burr advised his friend that the problem with him was he told people exactly what he thought. Saying less, he advised an attentive but resistant Hamilton, was the sure way to power. Miranda's Hamilton, based on the biography by Ron Chernow, melds history and creativity to play with American memory, to change how we think about our past and ourselves. Key, of course, is having the characters performed by immensely talented actors and actresses of color. It challenges our all-too-comfortable—and often ill-informed—understanding of the past, forcing us to rethink who we have been and, one hopes, what we should be.

Aaron Burr sees the sights in Boston

The musical is not the first time Hamilton and Burr had a dramatic encounter in Boston, as revealed in the 1890 biography of the great Boston abolitionist and labor activist Wendell Phillips by the popular author Carlos Martyn. Phillips, son of the city's first mayor, lived at the foot of Beacon Hill in a house designed by Charles Bulfinch, with the Common as his front yard. A graduate of Harvard College and the Law School, he was, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled, "placed by birth in the most favored worldly position." But before he turned his back on Boston's Brahmin class and became a strident abolitionist, Phillips tried his hand at lawyering. The year after completing his law degree in 1833, Phillips traveled to Philadelphia and New York. While in New York City he somehow met Aaron Burr, who took the time to show young Phillips the sights of New York.

Not long after Phillips returned home, Burr visited Boston and checked into the Tremont Hotel. Phillips, grateful for the courtesy the enigmatic Burr had showed him in New York, looked him up at the Tremont and took the 78-year-old former vice president to some of Boston's important sites. One of the first places the two visited was the Boston Athenæum, then located on Pearl Street. The Athenæum, then as now, was renowned for its art collections, and represented a place not to be missed by any elite nineteenth-century tourist. As they meandered down one hall, Phillips, for perhaps the only time in his life, became seized with panic and tried to divert Burr into another room. But it was too late. Like the young Phillips, Burr had already spied the plaster bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi, which had been modeled from life, and had been in the Athenæum's collections since 1817.

One can imagine what was speeding through Phillips's mind, perhaps feel his racing heart, and the perspiration that must have been trickling even from that Brahmin's constitutionally dry skin. Burr, however, walked right up to the bust, and stood facing it, staring into its all-too familiar face. After a moment, he turned to his young escort and calmly said "A remarkable man—a very remarkable man." He then, military-like, turned on his heels and completely calm and composed, walked off into history.

Alexander Hamilton at the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a range of research materials that help flesh out the character that is portrayed on stage in Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical. While the MHS does not have a separate Alexander Hamilton collection, there are interesting letters, documents, and publications written by or about him, as well as art and artifacts associated with his life, scattered through the Society's collections. A sampling of these materials is on display at the Historical Society, free and open to the public (Monday-Saturday, 10 am-4:00 pm) through 18 November 2018. Digital facsimiles of many of the documents on display, including the last letter Hamilton wrote before his duel with Burr, together with other Hamilton-related materials in the Society's collections are available online at the MHS website.

For Further Reading

Aiséirithe, A J and Donald Yacovone, eds. Wendell Phillips, Social Justice, and the Power of the Past Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016.

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton New York: Penguin, 2004.

Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism New York: Oxford, 1995.

Martyn, Carlos. Wendell Phillips: The Agitator New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1890.

Vidal, Gore. Burr: A Novel New York: Random House, 1973.