“I wish there was a War,” and Aaron Burr (Hamilton 3)

The earliest surviving letter by Hamilton is dated November 11, 1769. It was written by 12-year-old Alexander, who had lost his mother a year earlier, to his friend (half-brother?) Edward Stevens, who was a year older and was studying at King’s College in New York. You can hear Alexander’s ambition even then: there’s a million things he hasn’t done.

Dear Edward

This just serves to acknowledge receipt of yours per Cap Lowndes which was delivered me Yesterday. The truth of Cap Lightbourn & Lowndes information is now verifyd by the Presence of your Father and Sister for whose safe arrival I Pray, and that they may convey that Satisfaction to your Soul that must naturally flow from the sight of Absent Friends in health, and shall for news this way refer you to them. As to what you say respecting your having soon the happiness of seeing us all, I wish, for an accomplishment of your hopes provided they are Concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not, tho doubt whether I shall be Present or not for to confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station. Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.

I am   Dr Edward   Yours

Alex Hamilton

PS   I this moment receivd yours by William Smith and am pleasd to see you Give such Close Application to Study.

After the “Hurricane Letter” was published three years later, in 1772, Hamilton went to the Elizabethtown Academy (Elizabeth, N.J.), a prep school, for intensive tutoring. The powers that be at Princeton refused to allow him an accelerated course of study. So in late 1773, Hamilton headed to  King’s College, established in 1754. It was renamed Columbia after the Revolution.

Kings College in 1770; Kings College seal; Alma Mater at Columbia University, with a detail of the scepter in her hand. Photos: Dianne L. Durante

From lower left: King’s College in 1770 (in lower Manhattan); King’s College seal; Daniel Chester French’s Alma Mater at Columbia University, with a detail of the scepter in her hand. Photos of Alma Mater: Dianne L. Durante

Fictional versions of Burr

Halfway through my fourth listen of “Aaron Burr, Sir,” I remembered that decades ago, I read Gore Vidal’s Burr. On rereading it, I still found it very entertaining, but I often felt as if I was looking at this optical illusion:

Vase and faces optical illusion. Photo: Bryan Derksen, Wikipedia

Vase and faces optical illusion. Photo: Bryan Derksen, Wikipedia

For my writing on outdoor sculptures in New York City for the past 15+ years, I’ve read dozens of biographies, many of them quite biased. It’s part of my job as a historian to integrate what such bios say with my other knowledge, in order to figure out where the truth lies. In all those years of research, I’ve never felt my point of view flicker from positive to negative and back again as I did when reading Vidal’s Burr. Vidal is a great story-teller; so is Lin-Manuel Miranda; and who tells your story really does matter.

The real Burr

The best general source for the lives of notable Americans is the American National Biography Online (anb.org, a subscription service). Its articles are well-written, authoritative, and perhaps best of all, they include a reading / reference list that tells where the subject’s papers are (if any survive) and gives brief comments on all the major biographies.

Snippets from the ANB’s entry on Burr that surprised me:

  • Burr’s grandfather was Jonathan Edward, one of the most prominent practitioners of hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” 1741, Reverend Edwards spoke to unrepentant sinners.

That World of Misery, that Lake of burning Brimstone is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful Pit of the glowing Flames of the Wrath of God; there is Hell’s wide gaping Mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, not any Thing to take hold of: there is nothing between you and Hell but the Air; ’tis only the Power and meer Pleasure of God that holds you up.

  • Burr’s father (who died of a fever when Aaron was 2 years old) was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey and its second president, serving 1748-1757. He presided over its first commencement and over the college’s move from Elizabeth to Princeton (where it eventually changed its name), Given his father’s status, it’s not surprising that when Aaron, Jr. entered Princeton at age 13, he was granted special privileges.
  • Burr’s mother died 7 months after his father. The grandparents who took in the orphaned Aaron and his only sister, Sally, died soon after; the children were raised by an uncle. Sally, who was constantly ailing even as a young woman, died in 1787 at age 33. Burr’s wife Theodosia, whom he married in 1782, died in 1794 of stomach cancer. Daughter Theodosia, his only offspring to survive childhood, died at barely 30 in a shipwreck – or perhaps was murdered by pirates. Much as I love the ideas and the sense of life of the eighteenth century, I wouldn’t want to live (and quickly die) then. (“If there’s a reason I’m still alive when everybody who loves me has died / I’m willing to wait for it …”)
  • In 1833, at age 77, Burr married Eliza Bowen Jumel, a widow who owned the Morris-Jumel Mansion in northern Manhattan. The Mansion is a great place to visit if you like walking in the footsteps of history: in  the autumn of 1776, Washington briefly had his headquarters there. Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr filed for a divorce within a year of marriage. It was granted the day Burr died, September 14, 1836.
Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr Sr., Aaron in 1794, Aaron in 1802, daughter Theodosia

Hellfire-and-brimstone preacher; President of Princeton; Aaron Jr. ca. 1794 and 1802; daughter Theodosia


  • The National Archives Founders Online site lets you search tens of thousands of documents by the Founding Fathers, by author, recipient, period, or keyword. What an amazing resource! By searching there, I see that Hamilton wrote to Burr on mundane legal matters in 1784-1786 and again in 1802-3. The letters they exchanged in 1804 (two from Hamilton, three from Burr) are also available.
  • I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • This is the third in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief BiographyBottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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