Victor Nuovo: ‘Founding Brothers’ wore no halos
Editor’s note: This is the 19th in a series of essays on the American political tradition.
It is now no longer appropriate to use the expression “Founding Fathers” when referring to the founders of this nation. Its use was once meant to put them in a class above the people, to present them as venerable, whereas, we have come to realize that they, like us, were “human, all too human,” flawed, and full of foibles. Besides, the expression smacks of patriarchalism, which is vile.
“Founding Brothers,” the title of a noted historical study of them by Joseph Ellis, has become the accepted expression. It has a better pedigree, for the founders used the expression “band of brothers” to refer to themselves. Of course, they were all male, a deficiency of the times.
Among its younger members, notably Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and Burr, this band was beset by rivalry, jealousy, envy and even fratricide. It is now well known that on July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr inflicted a mortal wound on Alexander Hamilton in a duel on the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey.
One is reminded of another tale of two brothers that led to fratricide, of Cain and Abel, but, although Burr came to bear the mark of Cain, he was no villain, nor was Hamilton a saint. They were ordinary men, gifted, but also driven by vain passions and ambition and uncontrolled rivalry.
The event might be described as an American tragedy. I’m not sure that Lin-Manuel Miranda has portrayed it so in his musical “Hamilton,” in any case, while his play is justly praised for its drama and music, it is not reliable history, and should be considered for what it is — a work of the imagination, entertaining and edifying, but nonetheless a fiction.
Of the four “founding brothers” just named, Aaron Burr, Jr. had the most distinguished ancestry. His maternal grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, who is most remembered as a religious revivalist, a leader of the Great Awakening. He was also author of the famous or infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God,” but who was also, like his predecessor Cotton Mather, a philosopher of no mean ability and an empirical naturalist.
Burr died from complications resulting from a smallpox vaccination, to which he voluntarily submitted to encourage others to do the same. This occurred shortly after he assumed the presidency of The College of New Jersey (since renamed Princeton University). He opposed slavery and had earlier served as a missionary to Mohawk Indians residing in Western Massachusetts, desiring not merely to convert them to Christianity, but thereby to include them in American society.
Aaron Burr Jr. was also an early advocate of the education of women. He read and admired the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of “A Vindications of the Rights of Women,” and with that as a guide he oversaw the education of his daughter Theodosia, about whom I will have more to say in my next essay. He had abandoned the religion of his fathers.
Alexander Hamilton had a humbler heritage. Born out of wedlock in the Caribbean island of Nevis, and orphaned while still a child, he was a precocious youth, whose intelligence and brilliance attracted a circle of benefactors and sponsors. They arranged for him to attend King’s College in New York (now Columbia University).
Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were political opponents belonging to opposing parties. Jefferson preferred a decentralized system based on an agrarian economy. Hamilton favored a strong central government. He was also the founder of American capitalism and he promoted industrial growth and commerce. All three founders opposed slavery, although in this instance, Jefferson’s hypocrisy becomes most evident.
The historian Joseph Ellis cites Jefferson’s own census of his household, or as Jefferson termed it, “my family.” It consisted of 11 “free whites” and 93 slaves, “two of whom were his own children.”
The cause of the animosity between Hamilton and Burr is uncertain. Hamilton had the unfortunate habit of being a loud mouth, especially when speaking of people he didn’t like or who were in his way. He accused Burr of certain “despicable acts.” Just what he was referring to is a matter of speculation. Gore Vidal wrote a novel about Burr, titled “Burr.” He conjectured that Hamilton was alluding to an unsubstantiated rumor that he had committed incest. But it is a mere conjecture that has dramatic value.
Yet, unlike Miranda, who produced “Hamilton” after reading only one recent biography, Vidal read widely in the sources and his vast learning informs his art. The novel is worth reading, yet no one should forget that it also is fiction.
Politically, Burr and Jefferson were allies and ran on the same ticket, but they were also rivals. In the presidential election of 1800, they tied for the most votes in the Electoral College for the presidency. The practice then was that the top vote getter would be president, and the next, vice-president. But there was no top vote getter; although there was a prior understanding that the presidency should go to Jefferson. It was up to Congress to decide: they chose Jefferson, with Hamilton’s encouragement.
Hamilton let it be known that he considered Burr dangerous. But he might have said the same about Jefferson. For Jefferson’s party favored a less centralized association of states, and Jefferson was less worried about the possibility of armed conflict between the states.
Jefferson was no admirer of Hamilton, but he had a greater animosity towards Burr. Unlike Burr and Hamilton, who distinguished themselves in the Revolutionary war, Jefferson had no military experience. Yet he believed that conflict, even when it erupted into violence, was beneficial, even necessary for an enduring liberty, as he wrote in 1787: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
The Treaty of Paris (1783), between Great Britain and the United States, which ended the Revolutionary War, set the stage for western expansion. It recognized not only that the 13 original states were independent and sovereign, it also set boundaries to American expansion: to the north Canada, to the south, Florida (then under Spanish dominion), and to the West, the Mississippi River.
Burr, who did not continue as vice-president for Jefferson’s second term, having been abandoned by Jefferson and his party, hoped to make his fortune in this Western expansion and he raised an army to achieve it, for his conscience was not bound by the Treaty of Paris and he looked further west and south. He is said to have hoped to become emperor of Mexico. His adventures resulted in armed conflict. Article III, section 3 of the Constitution defines treason as armed conflict against any of the United States. Jefferson had him arrested and tried for treason. He was acquitted.
The moral of this historical narrative is that one should not idealize, or worse, idolize the founders of this nation. They bear no halos. But what they achieved, represented and prescribed in our Constitution deserves respect, seasoned with critical understanding, without which their achievement will not last.
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