Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 43. THE MELTING SCENE
When a handwritten notice of Hamilton���s death went up at the Tontine Coffee House, the city was transfixed with horror. “The feelings of the whole community are agonized beyond description,” Oliver Wolcott, Jr., told his wife.1 New Yorkers of the era never forgot the extravagant spectacle of sadness, the pervasive grief. Even Burr’s friend Charles Biddle conceded that “there was as much or more lamentation as when General Washington died.”2 As with Washington, this mass communal sorrow provoked reflections on the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and the founding of the government. Unlike at Washington’s death, however, the sorrow was laced with shock and chagrin at the senselessness of Hamilton’s demise.
Because of Hamilton’s relative youth, his large bereaved family, his extended service to his country, and his woeful end, he achieved in death what had so often eluded him in life: an emotional outpouring of sympathy from all strata of New York society. This reaction was repeated in other former Federalist strongholds, with one Boston cleric telling of streets crowded “with those who carry badges of mourning because the first of their fellow citizens has sunk in blood.”3 In Philadelphia, muffled church bells sounded, and newspapers dressed their columns with funereal borders. For the rest of its term, the New York Supreme Court draped its bench in black fabric, while the Bank of New York building was also sheathed in black. For thirty days, New Yorkers wore black bands on their arms.
Everybody in New York knew that the city had lost its most distinguished citizen. As statesman Edward Everett later said, Hamilton had set the city on the path to becoming “the throne of the western commercial world.”4 The evening of Hamilton’s death, New York’s leading merchants exhorted one another to shutter their shops for a state funeral hastily arranged for Saturday, July 14. “The corpse is already putrid,” Gouverneur Morris wrote that Friday, “and the funeral procession must take place tomorrow morning.”5 Mourners assembled on Saturday morning in front of 25 Robinson Street (today Park Place), the home of John and Angelica Church. The New York Common Council, which paid for the funeral, issued a plea that all business in the city should halt out of respect for Hamilton. It was the grandest and most solemn funeral in the city’s history to date.
That Saturday morning, guns fired from the Battery, church bells rang with a doleful sound, and ships in the harbor flew their colors at half-mast. Around noon, to the somber thud of military drums, New York militia units set out at the head of the funeral procession, bearing their arms in reversed position, their muzzles pointed downward. Numerous clergymen and members of the Society of the Cincinnati trooped behind them. Then came the most affecting sight of all. Preceded by two small black boys in white turbans, eight pallbearers shouldered Hamilton’s corpse, set in a rich mahogany casket with his hat and sword perched on top. Hamilton’s gray horse trailed behind with the boots and spurs of its former rider reversed in the stirrups. Then came Hamilton’s four eldest sons and other relatives, followed by representatives of every segment of New York society: physicians, lawyers, politicians, foreign diplomats, military officers, bankers, merchants, Columbia College students and professors, ship captains, mechanics, and artisans. Collectively, they symbolized the richly diversified economic and political mosaic that Hamilton had envisaged for America. Conspicuously missing were the female victims of the calamity: Eliza, Angelica Church, and Hamilton’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Angelica. Four-year-old Eliza and two-year-old Philip also stayed behind with their mother.
As the funeral procession wound east along Beekman Street, then down Pearl Street and around Whitehall Street to Broadway, the sidewalks were congested with tearful spectators, and onlookers stared down from every rooftop. There were no hysterical outbursts, only a shocked hush that deepened the gravity of the occasion. “Not a smile was visible, and hardly a whisper was to be heard, but tears were seen rolling down the cheeks of the affected multitude,” wrote one newspaper.6 So huge was the throng of mourners that the procession streamed on for two hours before the last marchers arrived at Trinity Church. “The funeral was the most solemn scene I ever witnessed,” wrote David Ogden. “Almost every person was in tears, even the rabble of boys and negroes who filled the streets seemed to partake of the general grief…. The windows were crowded with females who were, almost without exception, weeping at the fate of their departed friend.”7
A private drama enacted that day previewed the historical ambivalence that Hamilton was to inspire. Gouverneur Morris had delivered the funeral oration for Washington at St. Paul’s Chapel and was drafted to do the same honor for Hamilton. He was so shaken by Hamilton’s death that friends thought he might not bear the strain of the address, but his real problems were of an altogether different nature. Instead of rushing to eulogize his friend, Morris first succumbed to a host of doubts and anxieties. In part, he was alarmed by the vengeful outcry against Burr and decided to omit all mention of the duel, lest the vast assembly fly into an uncontrollable fury. “How easy it would have been to make them, for a moment, absolutely mad!” he said.8 But that problem was manageable compared to how to depict his brilliant but controversial and imperfect friend. For starters, there was the problem of his origins. “The first point of his biography is that he was a stranger of illegitimate birth,” Morris confessed to his diary. “Some mode must be contrived to pass over this handsomely.”9 And what about Maria Reynolds? “I must not either dwell on his domestic life. He has long since foolishly published the avowal of conjugal infidelity.”10 And then Hamilton had never been guilty of modesty: “He was indiscreet, vain, and opinionated. These things must be told or the character will be incomplete and yet they must be told in such a manner as not to destroy the interest.”11 Perhaps most problematic was the controversial bargain that Alexander Hamilton had struck with the Constitution, dedicating his life to what he deemed a flawed document. “He was on principle opposed to republican and attached to monarchical government,” Morris wrote.12 Morris distorted and exaggerated Hamilton’s views no less than his Republican enemies, but he identified a genuine, abiding conflict inside Hamilton as to whether republican government could achieve the proper balance between liberty and order.
Under the towering portico of Trinity Church, the funeral organizers had erected a carpeted stage with two chairs at the center: one for Gouverneur Morris, the other for John Barker Church. Hamilton’s casket rested on a bier in front of the stage. The sprawling crowd was so massive that when Morris spoke his voice seemed to fade away in the vast space, turning his speech into an unintended dumb show for many of those squeezed onto lower Broadway. In his oration, Morris was more just and generous toward Hamilton than in his grudging diary notes. He applauded Hamilton’s bravery in the Revolution; cited his legitimate doubts as to whether the Constitution could avert anarchy and despotism; and noted that Hamilton, far from being artful or duplicitous, was in most ways excessively frank: “Knowing the purity of his heart, he bore it, as it were, in his hand, exposing to every passenger its inmost recesses. This generous indiscretion subjected him to censure from misrepresentation. His speculative opinions were treated as deliberate designs and yet you all know how strenuous, how unremitting, were his efforts to establish and to preserve the Constitution.”13
Morris sensed that the crowd was disappointed with his talk. The indignant spectators wanted to hoot and jeer lustily at Burr, who was never even mentioned. Moreover, the impact of Morris’s words paled beside the arresting vignette of family grief presented to the spectators. Four of Hamilton’s sons—Alexander (eighteen), James (fourteen), John (eleven), and William (six)—sat weeping on the stage beside Morris. One paper recorded: “The scene was impressive and what added unspeakably to its solemnity was the mournful group of tender boys, the sons, the once hopes and joys of the deceased, who, with tears gushing from their eyes, sat upon the stage, at the feet of the orator, bewailing the loss of their parent! It was too much. The sternest powers, the bloodiest villain, could not resist the melting scene.”14
Once Morris had finished his speech, the casket was transferred to a grave site in the Trinity churchyard, not far from where Hamilton had studied and lived, practiced law and served his country. With Bishop Moore officiating, Hamilton’s remains were deposited in the heart of the district that was to become the center of American finance. At the close, troops gathered around his grave, formed a neat square, and fired three volleys at intervals into the air. Hamilton was laid to rest with full honors in a martial style that would have gratified the most florid fantasies of the adolescent clerk on St. Croix who had once prayed for a war to prove his valor. “This scene was enough to melt a monument of marble,” said Hamilton’s New-York Evening Post.15 Thus ended the most dramatic and improbable life among the founding fathers.
Because of his untimely death at forty-nine, Hamilton has retained a freshness in our historical memory. He never lived to grow gray or acquire the stiff dignity of an elder statesman. “Somehow it is impossible to imagine Hamilton as an old man,” Catherine Drinker Bowen once wrote. “Even his hardheadedness and relentless skepticism showed a quality not of caution but of youthful daring, careless defiance.”16 The brilliance of his life was matched only by its brevity. The average life expectancy was then about fifty-five, so the dying Hamilton did not seem as young to his contemporaries as he does today, but many obituaries portrayed him as cut down by a bullet in his prime. Perhaps our impression of Hamilton’s youthfulness has been magnified by the longevity of the first eight American presidents, who lived an average of nearly eighty years, with only Washington failing to reach his seventieth birthday. Hamilton’s relatively short life robbed him not only of any chance for further accomplishment but of the opportunity to mold his historical image. Jefferson and Adams took advantage of the next two decades to snipe at Hamilton and burnish their own exploits through their lengthy correspondence and other writings. With his prolific pen and literary gifts, Hamilton would certainly have left voluminous and convincing memoirs.
In death as in life, the assessment of Hamilton’s historical worth was sharply divided. His friends believed that a protean genius and rare spirit had exited the American scene. The Reverend John M. Mason thought him the “greatest statesman in the western world, perhaps the greatest man of the age…. He has left none like him—no second, no third, nobody to put us in mind of him.”17 His staggering catalog of achievements, compressed into a thirty-year span, has been matched by few Americans. But not everyone mourned his departure. In after years, John Adams grumbled of the duel, “No one wished to get rid of Hamilton in that way.”18 Adams complained to Jefferson that Hamilton’s death had been marked by “a general grief,” while Samuel Adams and John Hancock had died in “comparative obscurity.”19 In his autobiography, Adams took another potshot at Hamilton’s death: “Vice, folly, and villainy are not to be forgotten because the guilty wretch repented in his dying moments.”20
James Madison seemed less concerned with Hamilton’s death than the exploitation of it by his Federalist opponents. Writing to James Monroe, he noted that “the newspapers which you receive will give you the adventure between Burr and Hamilton. You will easily understand the different uses to which the event is turned.”21 Jefferson reacted to Hamilton’s death in the oblique style that Hamilton knew only too well. Three days after the funeral, almost as an afterthought in a letter to his daughter, Jefferson appended a postscript: “I presume Mr. Randolph’s newspapers will inform him of the death of Colo. Hamilton, which took place on the 12th.” Even now, Jefferson insisted on demoting General Hamilton back to a colonel. Aside from another fleeting reference to some “remarkable deaths lately,” Jefferson made no mention of the man who had been the bane of his political life for fourteen years.22
After returning from Weehawken, Aaron Burr’s boat docked at the foot of Canal Street, and he had proceeded on horseback to Richmond Hill with the blithe insouciance of a man who had just taken the morning air. Made of indestructible stuff, the vice president of the United States was not one to be tormented by guilt or unduly disturbed by some bloodshed. According to his early biographer James Parton, a young Connecticut relative dropped by Richmond Hill unannounced and found Burr in his library. Every inch the cordial host, Burr neglected to mention that he had shot Alexander Hamilton two hours earlier. While his antagonist was dying a half mile to the north, Burr breakfasted with his cousin and exchanged pleasantries about mutual friends. After the young relative left at about ten o’clock, he was walking down Broadway when a friend accosted him with astonishing news: “Colonel Burr has killed General Hamilton in a duel this morning.”
“Why, no, he hasn’t,” said Burr’s incredulous cousin. “I have just come from there and taken breakfast with him.”
“But I have this moment seen the news on the bulletin,” his friend insisted.23
Many such anecdotes circulated after the duel, portraying the bloodless composure and macabre humor with which Burr reacted to Hamilton’s death. Some reports spoke of revelry at Richmond Hill, while others said that Burr expressed regret only for not having shot Hamilton straight in the heart. Some of these tales were doubtless fabricated and rightly dismissed as Federalist propaganda. William Van Ness insisted that Burr, “far from exhibiting any degree of levity or expressing any satisfaction at the result of the meeting” with Hamilton, had shown only “regret and concern.”24 Indeed, right after the duel, Burr asked Dr. Hosack to stop by Richmond Hill and update him on Hamilton’s condition. But that about sums up the extent of Aaron Burr’s concern for Hamilton. For the rest of his life, he never uttered one word of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.
The rumors of this sangfroid surfaced in so many quarters and so perfectly coincide with the tone of Burr’s own letters as to inspire a certain credibility. On the day of Hamilton’s death, Dirck Ten Broeck wrote to his father, “Col. Burr is at his house, seemingly perfectly at ease and from report seemingly in perfect composure.”25 A Federalist paper, The Balance and Columbian Repository, conjured up a man “flushed with his victory” who cantered home after the duel and stopped to greet a married lady of his acquaintance, telling her “with gaiety that it was a fine morning.”26 The paper identified Burr’s breakfast companion that morning as not his cousin but his broker, Nathaniel Prime, summoned for an amiable business chat. The paper stated that it took “a circle of half a dozen gentlemen” to convince Prime afterward that Burr had fired a lethal shot at Alexander Hamilton that morning.
If Burr reacted initially in cavalier fashion to the duel’s outcome, it may have been because he did not yet know that Hamilton had informed both Pendleton and Rufus King of his plan to throw away his shot. To make this critical point stick, Hamilton repeated it several times on his deathbed and worked it into his farewell letters. As an artful lawyer, he had left behind a consistent trail of evidence for his posthumous vindication. Within a week, both Pendleton and Van Ness had published separate accounts of the duel and the correspondence leading up to it, sparking a hue and cry against Burr. Critics accused Burr of a premeditated plot to kill Hamilton, and overwrought citizens threatened to burn down his house. James Parton observed, “It was from that hour that Burr became a name of horror. The letters, for a person ignorant of the former history, were entirely damning to the memory of the challenger. They present Burr in the light of a revengeful demon, burning for an innocent victim’s blood.”27 Many Hamilton partisans believed that Burr had done more than just try to vindicate his honor and that he had gunned down Hamilton in cold blood. One New York newspaper said that Hamilton had fallen “by the hand of a BASE ASSASSIN!”28
Thus, Hamilton triumphed posthumously over Burr, converting the latter’s victory at Weehawken into his political coup de grâce. Burr’s reputation perished along with Hamilton, exactly as Hamilton had anticipated. Both the Jeffersonian and Federalist press canonized Hamilton and vied in detestation of Burr. “We find the direful blow to have been the entire consequence and fixed purpose of [Burr’s] own subtle, premeditated, fiend-like rancor,” thundered a Maryland editorial.29 An editor in Charleston, South Carolina, speculated that Burr’s heart must have been stuffed with “cinders raked from the fires of hell.”30 Burr scoffed at such reactions. He believed that he had suffered Hamilton’s slander for an unusually long period, had obeyed the standard dueling conventions, and was being persecuted by Hamilton’s hypocritical friends. “General Hamilton died yesterday,” Burr told his son-in-law on July 13. “The malignant federalists or tories and the embittered Clintonians unite in endeavouring to excite public sympathy in his favour and indignation against his antagonist. Thousands of absurd falsehoods are circulated with industry.”31 It especially irked Burr that New York Republicans who had berated Hamilton for years were suddenly kneeling and genuflecting before his martyred image.
The thick-skinned Burr probably could have faced down the sullen New York crowds. Then he learned that the city coroner had convened a jury to probe Hamilton’s death. He knew that if he was indicted for murder, he might not be allowed to post bail, and so he began to mull over plans to leave town for several weeks. Ordinarily, gentlemen were not prosecuted for duels, and, since the duel had occurred in New Jersey, Burr did not think New York even had jurisdictional authority. “You can judge what chance I should have in our courts on a trial for my life, though there is nothing clearer to a dispassionate lawyer than that the courts of this state have nothing to do with the death of Genl. H[amilton],” he told Charles Biddle.32 In plotting his next moves, Burr also had to contend with the fact that he was bankrupt. Just one day after Hamilton died, Burr wrote forlornly to William Van Ness, “Can you aid me?”33
Burr refused to allow duels, debts, or death threats to slow the racy tempo of his love life. On the night of July 20, he made time for a parting tryst with his new love interest, “La G,” and boasted to Theodosia that she had shown “a degree of sensibility and attachment toward him” which pleased him very much.34 That he had killed Hamilton nine days earlier did not seem to affect his sexual appetite and may even have enhanced it. The following evening, under cover of dark and attended by his fifteen-year-old slave, Peter, Burr boarded a barge in the Hudson and fled from any retribution in New York and New Jersey. By July 24, the fugitive vice president had arrived in Philadelphia, where he stayed on Chestnut Street with Charles Biddle, whose son Nicholas Biddle was one day to become president of the Second Bank of the United States. Even if he was a pariah, Burr was determined to enjoy his quota of fun. He contacted a favorite mistress, Celeste, and then told Theodosia wryly, “If any male friend of yours should be dying of ennui, recommend him to engage in a duel and a courtship at the same time.”35 Such ghoulish humor was Burr’s stock-in-trade. Despite assassination threats, he stayed with Biddle for two and a half weeks and took only minimal precautions. Undeterred by hostile stares, he moved freely about the city. One paper reported, “Colonel Burr, the man who has covered our country with mourning, was seen walking with a friend in the streets of this city in open day.”36 All the while, Burr received reports from New York that the coroner’s jury was pursuing his friends and had clapped his close associate Matthew Davis into jail for not answering questions.
On August 2, 1804, the coroner’s jury delivered the verdict Burr had dreaded: that “Aaron Burr, Esquire, Vice-President of the United States, was guilty of the murder of Alexander Hamilton, and that William P. Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton were accessories.”37 Arrest warrants were issued, but the situation was not nearly as dire for Burr as it seemed, as New York governor Morgan Lewis protested Burr’s prosecution as “disgraceful, illiberal, and ungentlemanly.”38 Nonetheless, Burr feared that the governor might be coerced into ordering his extradition from Pennsylvania, and he made plans to flee farther south. He was convinced that, in the end, the charges would not stick, but he had to wait for the public hubbub to subside. Indeed, on August 14, a New York grand jury dropped the original murder indictment and replaced it with a lesser charge. Burr, Van Ness, and Pendleton were now accused of violating the law by sending a challenge to a duel.
For his temporary hideaway, Burr chose a large slave plantation on St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast, an estate owned by his foppish friend Pierce Butler, the son of a baronet and a former senator. Before sailing south, Burr dabbled in the sort of secessionist mischief that Hamilton had feared, though of an even more treacherous nature. He held a secret meeting with British ambassador Anthony Merry and assured him that he would cooperate in any British attempt “to effect a separation of the western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains in its whole extent.”39 Inasmuch as Burr was now a political outcast, rejected by both parties, and a reprobate into the bargain, Merry considered the situation promising.
Burr passed several luxurious weeks on St. Simons with Peter and a young friend, twenty-one-year-old Samuel Swartwout. Outside of South Carolina, southerners tended to sympathize with someone who had slain Alexander Hamilton, and Burr was showered with presents by the islanders. In early September, he toured the Spanish-controlled Floridas, posing as a London merchant and surveying the territory for a possible secessionist plot. Then he started his journey northward under the pseudonym “R. King.” In many towns, his transparent disguise was quickly penetrated, and he was received royally, especially in the Jeffersonian stronghold of Virginia. He may have imagined that he was on the road to political rehabilitation, only to learn in late October that a grand jury in Bergen County, New Jersey, had indicted him for murder. The indictment was later tossed out because Hamilton had died in New York. Burr was taking no chances, however, and continued to steer clear of both New Jersey and New York. With irreverent humor, he wondered to Theodosia which state “shall have the honour of hanging the vice president.”40The indebted Burr had another motive for boycotting New York: his creditors had seized his assets, auctioned his furniture, and sold Richmond Hill to John Jacob Astor, who was to subdivide it into four hundred small parcels and make a fortune. Now seven or eight thousand dollars in debt, Burr would face legal proceedings from local creditors if he crossed the state line. For the moment, the safest place in America for the vice president was the nation’s capital, where he could preside safely over the Senate.
At the opening of Congress on November 4, 1804, it was more than a trifle startling for some legislators to see Aaron Burr settling into his chair on the Senate dais. Federalist William Plumer rubbed his eyes in disbelief: “The man whom the grand jury in the county of Bergen, New Jersey have recently indicted for the murder of the incomparable Hamilton appeared yesterday and today at the head of the Senate!…It certainly is the first time—and God grant it may be the last—that ever a man, so justly charged with such an infamous crime, presided in the American Senate.”41 An acute observer, Plumer noted that Burr had dropped his nonchalant veneer: “He appears to have lost those easy, graceful manners that beguiled the hours away [in] the last session. He is now uneasy, discontented, and hurried.”42
Frozen out of Jefferson’s administration for four years, Burr found a new warmth and hospitality in the wake of the duel. The president invited him to dine at the White House several times, and both Secretary of State Madison and Treasury Secretary Gallatin received him with newfound camaraderie. This may have expressed tacit contempt for Hamilton, but it also reflected another factor: as president of the Senate, Burr was to preside over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, an arch-Federalist and associate justice of the Supreme Court who had derided the “mobocracy” of the Jefferson administration.43 Chase had been charged, among other things, with unbecoming conduct in the trial of James T. Callender under the Sedition Act. The trial was part of Jefferson’s continuing assault on the Federalist-dominated judiciary. And the president’s confidence was only bolstered when he and George Clinton trounced Charles C. Pinckney and Rufus King in a landslide victory in the 1804 election.
In his final vendetta against Hamilton, Senator William Branch Giles of Virginia, who had harassed Hamilton with hostile resolutions as a congressman a decade earlier, organized a group of eleven Republican colleagues who appealed to New Jersey governor Joseph Bloomfield to terminate Burr’s prosecution. Notwithstanding his later denials, Burr instigated this lobbying effort. The senators argued that “most civilized nations” refused to treat dueling deaths as “common murders” and pointed to the absence of penalties in previous New Jersey duels.44 Senator Plumer was disgusted by what he saw as the Republicans’ two-faced embrace of Burr: “I never had any doubts of their joy for the death of Hamilton. My only doubts were whether they would manifest that joy by caressing his murderer.”45 Governor Bloomfield spurned the appeal, and three years passed before New Jersey dismissed the indictment.
William Plumer wasn’t the only person who gagged at Burr’s incongruous presence in the Senate when the Chase impeachment trial started on February 4, 1805. One newspaper registered its shock thus: “What a page will that be in the history of the present democratic administration…that a man under an indictment for MURDER presided at the trial of one of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, accused of a petty misdemeanor!”46 Chase was acquitted of all charges, while Burr was universally praised for his evenhanded conduct of the trial. For the moment, things were looking brighter for Burr. Before he stepped down as vice president, one Republican senator defended his duel by citing David and Goliath and claiming that Burr was controversial “only because our David had slain the Goliath of Federalism.”47 On March 2, Burr delivered a celebrated farewell speech to the Senate in which he praised the institution as a “sanctuary and a citadel of law, of order, of liberty.”48 His words possessed such poignant eloquence—the speech was his farewell to public life—that they wrung tears from many colleagues.
After leaving the vice presidency, Burr suffered instant political exile. He had outlived his brief usefulness for the Republicans and his courtship of the Federalists had ended with him gunning down the party’s erstwhile leader. He was now bankrupt and stateless, a wanted man, even if he flippantly dismissed the New Jersey indictment. “You treat with too much gravity the New Jersey affair,” he lectured Theodosia. “It should be considered a farce and you will yet see it terminated so as to leave only ridicule and contempt to its abettors.”49 Beneath his inveterate banter, Burr was worried: “In New York, I am to be disfranchised and in New Jersey hanged. Having substantial objections to both, I shall not, for the present, hazard either but shall seek another country.”50 As a result of Hamilton’s death, many reformers were denouncing dueling, though the archaic institution survived well into the nineteenth century, counting Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John Randolph, Stephen Decatur, Sam Houston, Thomas Hart Benton, August Belmont, and Jefferson Davis among its practitioners.
With the restless spirit that had long perturbed Hamilton, Burr roamed through the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, where frontier settlers tended to tolerate duels and despise Federalists. He explored various cabals with England to seize portions of American soil, including Louisiana and other territories west of the Appalachians, in order to forge a new empire. This would-be conquistador also meditated an auxiliary plot to march into Mexico and liberate it from Spanish rule. His admirers hailed Burr as a visionary patriot, bent upon adding Spanish colonies to America, while detractors, including Jefferson, detected an evil plan to detach territory from the union. In 1807, Burr was arrested for treason and for trying to incite a war against Spain. He was acquitted by Chief Justice John Marshall, who applied a strict definition of treason. The acquittal only sharpened Jefferson’s contempt for “the original error of establishing a judiciary independent of the nation.”51
For four years, the disgraced Burr traveled in Europe, resorting occasionally to the pseudonym H. E. Edwards to keep creditors at bay. Sometimes he lived in opulence with fancy friends and at other times languished in drab single rooms. This aging roué sampled opium and seduced willing noblewomen and chambermaids with a fine impartiality. All the while, he cultivated self-pity. “I find that among the great number of Americans here and there all are hostile to A.B.—All—What a lot of rascals they must be to make war on one whom they do not know, on one who never did harm or wished harm to a human being,” he recorded in his diary.52 He befriended the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and spoke to him with remarkable candor. “He really meant to make himself emperor of Mexico,” Bentham recalled. “He told me I should be the legislator and he would send a ship of war for me. He gave me an account of his duel with Hamilton. He was sure of being able to kill him, so I thought it little better than murder.”53 Always capable of irreverent surprises, Burr gave Bentham a copy of The Federalist. The shade of Alexander Hamilton rose up to haunt Burr at unexpected moments. In Paris, he called upon Talleyrand, who instructed his secretary to deliver this message to the uninvited caller: “I shall be glad to see Colonel Burr, but please tell him that a portrait of Alexander Hamilton always hangs in my study where all may see it.”54 Burr got the message and left.
By the time Burr sailed home in 1812 as “Mr. A. Arnot,” all charges had been dropped against him. To get back on his feet in New York, he borrowed a law library from Robert Troup and tried to revive his practice. A solitary figure who had relinquished interest in politics, he soon lost the last emotional props of his life. That summer, his adored grandson, Aaron Burr Alston, died at age ten. He still had his beloved Theodosia, however, whose portrait he had toted around Europe, cradling it in his lap during stagecoach trips. Though her husband was now governor of South Carolina, gossip claimed that he was abusing her. At the end of 1812, the morose Theodosia sailed for New York to join her father, but she never made it. She died at sea, age twenty-nine, the victim of either a storm or pirates. It was the heaviest blow that Burr ever weathered, so crushing that he described himself as “severed from the human race.”55 Four years later, his son-in-law, Joseph Alston, died at thirty-seven. This rash of calamities recapitulated the stunning sequence of deaths that Burr had suffered as a child. Already a ghost of times past, Burr became a famous recluse, occasionally pointed out on the New York streets. He seldom socialized beyond a small circle of people.
As for the duel with Hamilton, Burr almost never showed any remorse. Soon after returning to America, he visited his aunt, Rhoda Edwards, who worried about his immortal soul and warned him, “You have committed a great many sins against God and you killed that great and good man, Colonel Hamilton. I beseech you to repent and fly to the blood and righteousness of the Redeemer for pardon.” Burr found this rather quaint: “Oh, aunt, don’t feel too badly,” he replied. “We shall both meet in heaven.”56
One day, Burr was walking down Nassau Street in New York when Chancellor James Kent happened to see him. Kent lost all control, swooped down on Burr, and started flailing at him with his cane. “You are a scoundrel, sir!” Kent shouted. “A scoundrel!” His legendary aplomb intact, Burr tipped his hat and said, “The opinions of the learned Chancellor are always entitled to the highest consideration.”57 Then he bowed and walked away.
Burr never lost his sense of humor about having killed Hamilton and made facetious references to “my friend Hamilton, whom I shot.”58 Once, in the Boston Athenaeum, Burr paused to admire a bust of Hamilton. “There was the poetry,” he said, tracing creases in Hamilton’s face with his finger.59 Another time, Burr paused at a tavern to refresh his horses and wandered over to a traveling waxworks exhibition. He suddenly came upon a tableau that represented him and Hamilton in the duel. Underneath ran this verse: “O Burr, O Burr, what has thou done? / Thou hast shooted dead great Hamilton. / You hid behind a bunch of thistle, / And shooted him dead with a great hoss pistol.”60 In relating the story, Burr roared with laughter. Only once did Burr betray any misgivings about killing Hamilton. While reading the scene in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in which the tenderhearted Uncle Toby picks up a fly and delicately places it outside a window instead of killing it, Burr is said to have remarked, “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”61
Burr lingered on for twenty-four years after he returned to America. In 1833, age seventy-seven, he mustered enough strength or cynicism for one final romance and married a fabulously wealthy widow, fifty-eight-year-old Eliza Jumel, who occupied a mansion in Washington Heights. (Improbable legend claims that Hamilton once had a fling with her.) Née Betsey Bowen, she had started life as a courtesan and had borne an illegitimate son before marrying the rich wine merchant Stephen Jumel. Burr, as usual, behaved like a scamp and frittered away Madame Jumel’s money while being unfaithful. A year later, she filed for divorce and accused her incorrigible husband of adultery. Why had she expected Burr to reform at this late hour? On September 14, 1836, he died in a Staten Island hotel after two strokes and was buried in Princeton near his father and grandfather. The death mask of Aaron Burr is haunting and unforgettable, with the nose twisted to the left, the mouth crooked, and the expression grotesque, as if all the suppressed pain of his life were engraved in his face by the end. John Quincy Adams left this epitaph of the man: “Burr’s life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in profound oblivion.”62