In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s current hit musical HAMILTON, the character Aaron Burr acts as a sort of chorus. He is like the villains Iago and Richard III in often telling the audience of his motives. He provides a running commentary to Hamilton’s meteoric career.
From the 1770’s onward to Hamilton’s violent death in 1804, Hamilton and Burr moved within the same circles. They were friends for a long time, drinking and dining with each other. They came in military contact with each other as officers in the Revolutionary War. They both had successful law practices in Manhattan.
Eventually the erstwhile friends came into conflict with each other. Burr unseated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, as U.S. Senator from New York. After Hamilton blocked Burr from becoming President, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and murdered him.
At the musical’s conclusion, Burr comments that he is now the villain in the histories. He feels that while he has outlived Hamilton, it is Hamilton who has ultimately won. Hamilton remains one of the great men of U.S. history.
But let’s look at this again. Hamilton’s contributions to our country were nothing less than immense. He played a key part in helping George Washington win the Revolutionary War. He helped put together the federal constitution, and wrote the lion’s share of the FEDERALIST PAPERS in making this constitution the nation’s law. He assisted Washington in setting up the federal government.
His vision of government’s interplay with business is the vision that has prevailed. And indeed, we have the highest standard of living in the world, as well as the only revolution-based government that has been successful.
Yet Hamilton’s contributions don’t end there. He established the U.S. Coast Guard, the Bank of New York and the New York Post. He helped restore King’s College as Columbia College after it had been closed during the Revolution. He endowed Oneida Academy, now Hamilton College, in upstate New York.
Hamilton is, of course, not an isolated figure among the Founding Fathers either in brilliance or contributions. The others, including Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Jay, also made significant political, scientific, legal, military and economic changes to our society.
It is well known that Hamilton and Jefferson did not get along with each other. They fought frequently, and their rivalry in fact started the two-party system. Yet President George Washington entertained the disagreements of these two cabinet members. Of out their dialectic the enlightened leader made his policies for the new nation.
America is the land of diversity, and this ideally includes the diversity of ideas. Hamilton and Jefferson, like Adams and the others, were vigorous in arguing their diverse opinions. Whether these Founding Fathers were right or wrong on a given issue, people knew where they stood.
In the musical Burr frequently counsels Hamilton to be less forthcoming in his opinions. This is significant, in that Burr did not reveal his opinions. He was not like the other Founding Fathers, and, despite his service in the Revolution, I would argue that Burr was not a Founding Father.
Unlike his great contemporaries, Burr made no substantial contributions to the new government. His only real project was his own political advancement. And perhaps his only significant opinion was that Aaron Burr should be in power.
He was, unfortunately, much like the majority of today’s politicians. Most of them have made no significant contributions. They have no true grasp on how the government should be run, or what the nation needs. They have no opinions except those which may get votes.
Ultimately the self-interested politics of Burr have prevailed into our times. Politicians now engage in wars in order to promote corporations they are involved in. If the U.S. is to continue leading the world, this needs to change.
For this to happen, students must be taught that they should enter public service only to promote the public good. In other words, it is necessary that we find political leaders who view public services as Jefferson and Hamilton did over two centuries ago.