How the Descendants of Burr Are Trying to Get Respect

Roundup: Talking About History

Matthew Continetti, in the Weekly Standard (12-13-04):

"LOOK AT THIS," said Antonio Burr. "Look at what they're selling." Standing in the gift shop of the New-York Historical Society on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Burr held a magnet to the light. On it were portraits of his ancestor Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, whom Vice President Burr killed in a duel 200 years ago. Each man's portrait stared coldly at the other's.

It was a dull gray day in late October, and Burr had just spent an hour walking through "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," the blockbuster, $5 million bicentennial exhibition that opened in early September and will close on February 28. The show portrays Hamilton as a giant--a leading champion of the Constitution, the Founding Father of America's financial institutions, the visionary who saw that the United States would one day become an economic and military superpower. To Hamilton's many admirers, all this is beyond dispute. Not to Antonio Burr.

He is a small man, compact and bespectacled, with a graying goatee and pale blue eyes. He is 51 years old. Also, he is Chilean. He often ends sentences with "man." Sometimes he flails his arms wildly to make a point.

"This is what I don't understand," he continued, examining the magnet. "This whole exhibition, it criticizes Burr, it calls Burr a man without principle, it blames Burr for Hamilton's death. But when you get to the gift shop, what do you have? You

have them selling Burr and Hamilton together. Look at this."

He motioned to a stack of T-shirts with Hamilton and Burr's portraits on them, to a Hamilton-Burr mug, to a Hamilton-Burr keychain.

"But they still don't give Burr any respect," he said. "They still don't treat him as an equal."

Burr moved into the Historical Society's main foyer. Two bronze statues stood in the center of the hall, lifesize replicas of Burr and Hamilton (each 5'7"), shown just before the fatal duel. The Hamilton statue looked frail. It wore a pair of wire-rim glasses. Aaron Burr's statue was grimacing.

"My problem here, with this exhibit, is that this is hagiography," Antonio Burr said.

His voice echoed off the museum's stone walls.

"This is the life of a saint," he went on. "The whole story--Burr's story--isn't told."

He shook his head in frustration.

Here's why. For Antonio Burr, the lionization of Hamilton unfailingly means the demonization of his forebear. He's not alone in thinking so. Some of Aaron Burr's descendants have been working to advance their man's reputation for a very long time. And their numbers have grown. There are about 70 of them now, all smart and engaging people like Antonio Burr, and it was at their instigation that the town of Weehawken, New Jersey, agreed to host a reenactment of the Hamilton-Burr duel last July, on its 200th anniversary, with Antonio Burr in the role of his accursed ancestor. With the reenactment, the efforts of Burr's defenders seemed at last to pay off, for a few fleeting moments.

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