With apologies to Alexander Hamilton and his hatchet men in the pamphlet wars, part of this seems quite appropriate today:
At length this Cataline stands confessed in all his villainy—His inveterate hatred of the Constitution of the United States has long been displayed in one steady undeviating course of hostility to every measure which the solid interests of the Union demand—His political perfidiousness and intrigues are also pretty generally known, and even his own party have avowed their jealousy and fear of a character, which, to great talents adds the deepest dissimulation and an entire devotion to self-interest, and self-aggrandizement—But there is a NEW TRAIT in this man’s character, to be unfolded to the view of an indignant public!—His abandoned profligacy, and the numerous unhappy wretches, who have fallen victims to this accomplished and but too successful debauchee, have indeed been long known to those whom familiar habits of vice, or the amiable offices of humanity have led to the wretched haunts of female prostitution—But it is time to draw aside the curtain in which he has thus far been permitted to conceal himself by the forbearance of his enemies, by the anxious interference of his friends, and much more by his own crafty contrivances and unbounded prodigality.
Actor Leslie Odom Jr. accepts the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical in ‘Hamilton’ onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City.
So I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Aaron Burr lately, for, well, reasons.
There’s a great bio by Nancy Isenberg called “Fallen Founder” which tries to cut through a lot of the BS and spin and recover the real Burr. I also highly recommend “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” by H.W. Brands, which uses a ton of excerpt from the letters between Burr and his daughter Theodosia, which really give you sense of them are real people.
Isenberg also wrote this article for the Washington Post, calling out some of the inaccuracies in the play’s portray of Burr. Which is understandable. But I can’t help but think that one of the play’s great accomplishments is that even as it places Burr in the villain’s role, Leslie Odom, Jr.’s titanic portrayal of Burr makes us want to love him, inspires us to look at him anew, and I’m betting will go further towards kicking off a Burr reappraisal than any other work in the last 250 years.
It’s not dissimilar to the effect the play Amadeus has on the reputation of the composer Salieri; the play’s version of Salieri may bear little historical relation to the actual man, yet it creates an idea of Salieri with enormous staying power.
That’s the power of fiction.