Burr, slavery, and why I’m hating all the history books

Rant time.

As I’ve alluded to, I’ve been working for a while on a script about Aaron Burr.  When this project began, it was definitely about the things that went down in all those metaphorical rooms where it happened. But it quickly became clear that if I stayed there, it would just be yet another Great White Man History and zzzzzzzz.  So I widened the scope to try getting out of those rooms and into the other places of the time where perhaps other kinds of folks were trying to live their lives. Absolutely the right choice. But it leads to some other kinds of problems. 

Because almost all our history is Great White Man History and Here Are The Important Things history, there’s very little actual record of all the stuff that was happening to all the Not-Great White Men at the same time. 

Because the job of a historian is to paint the broad brush, and give us the sweep of history.  But the job of the dramatist is to create living, breathing characters, who do things, for reasons, that have ramifications.  

So many times, a person will be mentioned in passing and then never again, and I shout WAIT! WAIT! I NEED TO KNOW MORE. 

There are so many basic, simple facts that are just missing, or fragmented, and of course its all the stuff that I need.

To wit, here are some facts:

–As a State Assemblyman in New York, Aaron Burr introduced a bill to outlaw slavery in New York, It failed.

–Aaron Burr owned slaves.

–New York gradually emancipated slaves over a period from 1799 to 1827.

–Aaron Burr died in 1836.

When you put all of these facts together, you get is the following:  Aaron Burr opposed slavery on some level, but not enough to renounce the practice himself. But at some point in his life, he made the decision to emancipate the slaves that he held. 

When did he do that? Why did he do that? How many slaves did he have at the time? What made him decide at that point to do it. What happened to the slaves he emancipated? Where did they go? Did any of them stay in his service? Why? And most importantly WHO WERE THEY?

If you read all the Burr bios, you get these little glimpses of people like Alexis and Peggy and Peter Yates, slaves and servants who are always around and in the background, but nobody cares enough about them to tell us who they actually were.

But I need to have all of that in my script. Because who they are – and how Burr treats them – is essential information for this story. The fact that Burr held slaves, and the way he treated them – these are essential windows into his character. 

(@linmanuel skirted this whole thing my making the choice to show Hamilton as an ardent abolitionist – which, HELLO? NOT! Both Hamilton and Burr were members of the Manumission Society who also owned slaves and helped other buy them. I imagine if the 3rd Cabinet Battle song had stayed in, that would have added some nuance. But because of the frame of Hamilton The Musical, it’s less problematic. Or, to be more precise, if I were to try the same tactic, it would be much MORE problematic.)   

And every piece of wiring that I’ve picked up from living in our culture is inviting me to frame it in a “well, he did hold slaves, but it was New York, so it wasn’t as bad as the south, so it could have been worse” way. Which, frankly, is a bullshit cop-out, and I am resisting.  

So I’m basically going to have to make it all up. Which, fine, okay, that’s my job.  But boy, oh boy, do I not want to get this part wrong.  These people have been erased from history already, and I feel a responsibility to not further that erasure.  

The only thing I’ve found that directly addresses this issue is one passage in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895 that says:

“Burr emancipated his slaves just before the enactment of the bill instituting gradual emancipation in New York State for African Americans born after 4 July 1799.”

I’ve followed the cited sources, but have been unable to discover where they got this information. The only one I don’t have is the Mary-Jo Kline one, so I’ve got a trip to the LAPL reference desk in my near future.

(The text of that gradual emancipation bill can be found here. It was passed on March 29, 1799.)

So, if that one line entry is to be believed, sometime in 1799, Burr freed his slaves.

One might guess that it was a monumentally important day to Alexis and Peggy and Peter Yates.

And yet none of Burr bios I have read mention it. Even allude to it. There’s no sign of this event every happening. 

It frustrating me in my attempts to write this thing – but ultimately that’s trivial. What’s more important is this:

We are narrative building creatures. And given a set of facts, we will impose narrative, character, values, morals and meaning on those facts. But every historical “fact” that we think we know is surrounded by a cloud of other facts, data, people, relationships and reality that are totally hidden from us. 

Hidden by design. Hidden by choice.

And we are all the poorer for it.


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.


My 2016 favorites (part 1), including Hamilton, Life Is Strange, Sterling K. Brown, experience design going mainstream, and getting married



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.





Nerdstrong’s Hamilton workout kicked my butt. Very fun though. This was only a part of it.

I blame @jaybushman for convincing me to do this.


I love this. 

OK, so let’s break down how this whole thing went….

First, Coach Andrew led a warmup which involved stretches and movement while “My Shot” played…and every time the word “shot” was sung, we had to do a squat. They say “shot” a lot in that song.

Then, the workout proper started.  There were five stations, each one with a pair of exercises – a Hamilton exercise and a Burr. The Burr exercises were usually easier (Because, as Coach David reminded us “Burr is the best.”). We worked in pairs, doing each exercise for a minute and then switching roles with our partners. We worked each station for 4 minutes, alternating at the minute mark.

Station 1: “Talk Less, Row More” – Hamilton rows – he’s rowing from the Caribbean to New York – while Burr does a wall squat. 

Station 2: “Not Throwing Away My Squat” – Hamilton does air squats while Burr planks

Station 3: “Wait For Abs” – Hamilton faces and endless uphill climb, so he does mountain climbers. Burr does a hollow hold.

Station 4: “The Gym Where It Happens” – Hamilton does alternating dumbbell curls, one arm at a time, as he tries to balance Jefferson and Madison. (I legit called out “Jefferson” every left arm curl and “Madison” every right arm curl. It helped.) Burr does a hollow hang.

Station 5: “Everything’s Lunge-l In New Jersey” – The Duel. Facing each other across the parking lot, Hamilton and Burr walk towards each other doing walking lunges, while holding up a slam ball. Burr holds the slam ball with horizontal arms – since he’s pointing his gun at Hamilton. And naturally, Hamilton holds the slam ball to the sky. 

After all, this, there was a finisher – “The Battle of Yorktown” – A 10-minute AMRAP with a weighted club. Run 140 meters, then lift the club above your head 10 times – raising Betsy Ross’s flag higher. Then 10 alternating lunges, thrusting the club like a bayonet. Repeat as many times as you can in 10 minutes. 

By the end, I was so dead, I caught a glimpse of the other side. Raise a glass to Nerdstrong…! 


Nerdstrong’s Sunday theme class is based around Hamilton – and the 10am class is free to try. But sign up quickly as it will fill up fast

(via Jen Bennett on Twitter)

Hamilton Snacks?

Hey #Hamilpeeps – if one were to plan a special evening of listening to Hamilton and providing a bevy of tasty snacking options…what would be some really good – and show-appropriate options? 

I mean, we’ve already got the Sam Adams ready for beveraging. But, like, popcorn? Is that period-appropriate? 

What would you serve?