Colonel Hamilton and Colonel Burr: The Revolutionary War Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Arthur S. Lefkowitz (Stackpole Books, 2020)
Students of history (and fans of Broadway) know Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as one of America’s fiercest political rivalries. What began as an intense competition in the hurly-burly of New York politics eventually blossomed into a deep and mutual enmity as the years, and the political fortunes and misfortunes of both men, progressed—an enmity that ultimately brought them to a field in Weehawken, New Jersey in the early hours of July 11, 1804.
Both men walked onto the dueling ground that morning as spent forces in American politics, disillusioned and resentful at the cruel downturn in their careers. Hamilton had long viewed Burr as “a man of extreme & irregular ambition” who had “no fixed theory,” and had spent the last reserves of his political capital imploring Federalists in Congress not to support him in the presidential election of 1800, which had been an unintentional electoral tie between he and Thomas Jefferson. Even though everyone knew that Jefferson was the man electors had intended to be president (Burr included), the New York Republican had flagrantly refused to concede the obvious once the election went to the House of Representatives. True to Hamilton’s description, he instead reclined in calculated silence, waiting to see if the political winds might just lift him past the vice presidency and into the highest office in all the land.
It wouldn’t, and the election ultimately went the way everyone meant it to in the beginning. Jefferson, victorious but not gracious, would never forgive Burr for his opportunistic aloofness and, as the patriarch of the Republican Party, insured that his name would be anathema within the party thereafter. Beyond the pale, Burr was removed from the ticket before the next election and, denied Jefferson’s institutional support, also handily lost his bid for the governorship of New York.
If not to himself, it was Jefferson towards whom Burr should have directed his blame for his political demise. Nevertheless it was Hamilton, his oldest, loudest foe, who became the unblinking focus of his deep resentment, and so it was Hamilton at whom he gazed from behind the barrel of his pistol in Weehawken.
As each gentleman’s seconds and a physician looked on, the paces were counted. Then the men turned towards each other.
Hamilton would fire first. Burr fired second.
It is this duel—fatal to one’s life, mortal to the other’s legacy—for which history most remembers Hamilton and Burr. Yet as is so often the case, that for which both are most remembered by history is not the most interesting story to be told about them.
That story is the story of their divergent experiences as colonels in the War for Independence.
It is a story that might have familiar patterns to readers, because Burr and Hamilton is America’s story of Cain and Abel: of two men with equally-weighted strengths and weaknesses, of brave and determined service to their country, and of martial accomplishment. Yet one would find himself firmly within the ranks of Washington’s military family, while the other would be left firmly without. In this the contrasting seeds of advancement and rejection—of relationships and resentments—were planted: seeds whose fruits would shape and alter the politics of the early republic.
This story is at long last told, and ably so, by Arthur S. Lefkowitz.
It all began in the fevered years of 1774 and 1775. Burr, the scion of an uppercrust family, had enrolled at Princeton at the age of thirteen. Hamilton, an orphan émigré from the Caribbean, had been rejected by Princeton and enrolled instead at King’s College in New York City.
From widely divergent backgrounds, both Burr and Hamilton were nevertheless cut from similar cloths, as Lefkowitz makes clear in his depiction of their personalities. Take for example his sketch of the young Burr, which could have equally applied to Hamilton: “Burr moved with grace and elegance. He was intelligent, charming, and interesting and dressed tastefully in well-tailored clothing.” In this the reader gleans some early hints of the personal similarities that would one day make their differences so charged: both men could, and probably often did, look at each other and see a near-facsimile of themselves.
When war broke out with Great Britain, both teenagers jumped at the opportunity to serve on behalf of the cause. How they joined the war, though, illuminates the fundamental differences that existed between the two, and Lefkowitz’s succinct accounts of this are perhaps the greatest contributions of his book.
When news of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Continental Congress’s assumption of the army around Boston reached Burr, he promptly quit his legal studies and rode off to join it with a friend, insolently convinced that he would immediately be commissioned as an officer. Soon disabused of this notion, he was instead forced to serve as a gentlemen volunteer in Benedict Arnold’s regiment rather than accept a rank beneath his dignity. It wouldn’t be the last time Burr would feel as if he had been denied his just desserts, despite undeniably courageous service, creating a bank of resentments that would bear fruit years down the road.
Hamilton, on the other hand, spent his boyhood of personal tragedy praying for a war to rescue him from the “grov’ling and condition of a Clerk.” After a few short years in his adopted homeland, that opportunity came, and the teenager seized it in what would become a characteristically Hamiltonian fashion. Not waiting for rank or promotion to come to him, he instead created an artillery company from scratch (much as he would the American system of finance and commerce years down the road), seeing to every last detail, from the composition of the uniforms, to the acquisition of artillery and ordnance, to the training and drilling regimen for the members.
As Lefokowitz discusses, Hamilton would go on to distinguish himself at key points, and in front of key people, through the first years of the war, eventually garnering the attention of the man himself: General Washington, who eventually invited him into his “military family.”
Despite serving as an aide on a probationary basis, Burr would never be welcomed inside that family. The discussion of Washington’s reasons for rejecting Burr, and the enduring resentment Burr would hold towards Washington as a result, is one of the juiciest themes of the book, inviting the reader to ruminate on the implications this animosity would bear on the politics of the early republic a decade and more down the road.
Nevertheless, exclusion from Washington’s inner circle did not prevent the commander-in-chief from eventually appointing Burr as a lieutenant colonel (but de facto commander) of a regiment in New Jersey. Burr would distinguish himself in this role, just as he had done in the doomed attempt to conquer Quebec in 1775, and eventually was ordered to join his regiment to Washington’s main body at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.
Yet while Hamilton was being deputized to deal with scheming generals—within Valley Forge and without—and sensitive prisoner exchange negotiations that winter, Burr was once again ostentatiously left on the outside looking in, forced instead to scour the countryside to prevent farmers from selling their goods to the British army in Philadelphia.
Lefkowitz’s story then moves to the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, where Hamilton was tasked with being Washington’s eyes and ears on the battlefront, a spectator to the near calamity that befell the army after the poltroon-ish Charles Lee took command from the Marquis d’Lafayette. Burr and his regiment were given the thankless task of staving off this calamity, ordered to defend a strategically-important hill on the reorganized army’s flank. His men successfully thwarted an advance from British grenadiers, then withdrew under heavy fire in a tactical retreat designed to clear the way for American artillery.
Burr’s contributions were integral to snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat, but once again his reward was ignominious. Deployed immediately after to the “Neutral Ground” outside British-held New York, a land untouched by anyone but roving bands of “cowboys,” Burr was tasked with patrolling and bringing order to an expansive, lawless no-man’s land. Thankless and seemingly-impossible, once again Burr excelled in his assignment, but did so at the expense of his personal health, forcing him to resign his commission in March 1779.
At the same time, Hamilton was champing at the bit; lobbying his commander-in-chief for a field command so strenuously that their relationship would strain in the process. Hamilton was stuck in a neutral ground of his own: jealous of other members of Washington’s staff who had received field commands; and jealous of those aides who had remained and had much warmer personal relationships with “His Excellency.”
Washington himself was jealous of retaining Hamilton’s “ready pen,” valuing it much more highly than he did Hamilton’s sword in battle. Both men’s frustration eventually erupted in a brief exchange of less-than-temperate words. Hamilton, just like Burr, penned a letter of resignation, much more interested at that point, again like Burr, in pursuing professional and social advancement in civilian life than continuing to be a paper-pusher for the commander-in-chief.
Unlike with Burr, Washington would reject Hamilton’s resignation, instead giving him the field command he coveted. Hamilton seized the opportunity with his customary gusto, displaying a valor that trespassed upon vaingloriousness in his contributions to the allied victory at Yorktown.
Soon thereafter Hamilton tendered his resignation for a second time, this time successfully. He soon joined Burr in post-occupation New York City—a city desperate for young lawyers who could ably litigate all of the legal disputes left in the British Army’s wake. Both quickly established themselves as amongst the best and brightest counselors in the state, sometimes serving together on cases representing a wealthier client. Like their divergent methods of joining the war, their disparate approaches to the law perfectly illuminated the differences between the two. As Lefkowitz writes, “Hamilton was erudite and dry with carefully researched and lengthy court dissertations while Burr was charismatic and easygoing with short but convincing arguments. But whatever their approach, both Hamilton and Burr were skilled and in high demand.
This spilled into their participation in the nascent republic’s politics. After the constitution was ratified, a constitution that Hamilton (but not Burr) had taken an active role in drafting and ratifying, both men jumped at the opportunity to serve in the new, elevated national government. In this the old fault-lines from the war emerged again, dividing those within Washington’s military family from those without: Hamilton was appointed first secretary of the treasury; Burr’s bid to be appointed ambassador to France was rejected.
Left on the outside looking in again (as ever), Burr instead gravitated towards the burgeoning Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, joining his base of upstate New York farmers and laborers in the city to their southern agrarian coalition.
It is at this point in the story when the roles of Burr and Hamilton reverse. After resigning from the treasury department, and even more so after Washington left office, Hamilton’s and the Federalist Party’s fortunes began to irreversibly decline. Too disdainful to broaden their appeal in an increasingly democratizing country, Hamilton and his shriveling party instead looked on in impotent horror as Burr and the Republicans steadily grew their hold on state and national government. From then on it became Hamilton’s desperate mission to thwart Burr and his ambitions from outside official office.
For anyone interested in how far that path really goes back, Lefkowitz’s book is a must-read. The only weakness in the story he has to tell is that sometimes, especially in the middle chapters of the book, he loses hold of it—getting lost in digressions and backgrounds that can leave the reader frustrated and desperate for him to get back on topic. Lefkowitz is an impressive historian, and in some ways falls victims to all the knowledge he has—and research he has done—in crafting his narrative of Burr and Hamilton.
Ultimately this is a small quibble though, especially as Lefkowitz excels at staying on topic in the latter half of the book; sharpening his narrative just as the course of his story follows Burr and Hamilton towards their final meeting.
The exclamation point on this is his final chapter, which both authoritatively interrogates the myth that Hamilton had been Washington’s right-hand man and, even more authoritatively, explains the real treason of Aaron Burr: his “failure to apply his genius to the benefit of the nation.” This discussion is one of the most compelling analyses of Burr’s legacy I have encountered, capturing eloquently and succinctly the contradictions at the heart of one of America’s most enigmatic and complicated personalities.
It is a fitting end to a fitting work on two of the most famous (or infamous) men in the early republic—and it’s a work that would be an especially fitting addition to the bookshelf of all students of America’s founding.
“From Alexander Hamilton to James A. Bayard, 16 January 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-25-02-0169.
For an engaging account of the debacle that was the Election of 1800, see Edward J. Larson, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign (New York: Free Press, 2007).
“Hamilton to Edward Stevens, 11 November 1769,” Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0002.
See “From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison, 20 January 1777,” Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0124.