Antonio Burr: My Famous Ancestor Was No Villain

Roundup: Talking About History

Antonio Burr, in the Los Angeles Times (July 11 2004):

In 1826, my great-great-grandfather, Robert Dimsdall Burr of Philadelphia, left the United States and traveled to Chile, where he settled on a remote southern island to make his fortune.

But even though I was born and grew up in South America, I knew from a very young age that I was part of an extremely old North American family and that I was associated with a very grand, very dashing character who had been a founding father, a hero of the American Revolution, a senator from New York and Thomas Jefferson's first vice president — but whose career had come to an ignominious end because he fought a duel with, and killed, Alexander Hamilton.

As a child in Chile, I didn't think very much about this story or about my fabled ancestor, Aaron Burr. I wasn't in touch with my North American family. It was all very distant, and besides, I was preoccupied with events in Chile.

But it turns out that I am one of Burr's closest living relatives, as I learned when I moved back to this country and reconnected with my relatives. That's why I was chosen to reenact the duel between Burr and Hamilton in Weehawken, N.J., today on its 200th anniversary.

At first, there were some questions about whether members of the Burr family should participate in the reenactment. What advantage is to be gained, some asked, by re-creating the very event that helped blacken Burr's memory? But I disagree.

I believe we should take every opportunity to promote the idea of Burr as a complex, three-dimensional person.

Burr was a hero of the battle of Quebec. He fought in Paramus, N.J., behind the British lines. He was at Valley Forge and he served on Gen. Washington's staff. He served in high positions in government and was involved in the great issues of his day. Yes, he could be strong-willed and opinionated, but this independent man's contributions to the founding of this country were considerable.

What happened between Burr and Hamilton has always been hard to understand; there's a lot of ambiguity in the story. They'd known each other, of course. Among other things, they practiced law in New York at the same time, had worked together on some cases, opposed one another in others. But for reasons that historians have not yet explained satisfactorily, Hamilton developed a deep animosity toward Burr and missed no opportunity to cast aspersions on his character and — for as long as 15 years before the duel — to place obstacles in the way of Burr's political career....

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