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.