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Alexander Hamilton has become an unlikely folk hero in the past year, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway show, which reimagines Hamilton as a scrappy, complicated hero who works his way from humble roots to the heights of power.
Hamilton’s nemesis in Miranda’s version is Aaron Burr, who ends Hamilton’s life in an infamous duel. It’s actually Burr who has long deserved a second look from history—and who looks much more like a real hero today. Burr worked against rules that gave greater weight to the votes of the rich and laws that required people to own property in order to vote.
He opened the first bank in New York that extended credit to the middle class, instead of just the rich. But when the New York state legislature was considering a bill for gradual abolition in 1785, Burr proposed an amendment that called for immediate emancipation of all people living in slavery. Burr was the only member of the Founding Fathers who believed wholeheartedly in the rights of women.
And he fought for an electoral system that would give more power to each individual voting district, and less to powerful families, like Hamilton’s, who were used to running the state. Burr defended the rights of Thomas Greenleaf, a newspaper editor whose shop was ransacked by an angry mob, and John Burk, a printer and playwright who was locked up and threatened with deportation for criticizing Washington in print. He called Mary Wollstonecraft’s “a work of genius,” and educated his daughter better than most men at the time: by age 10, she could translate Latin and Greek.
“I hope yet by her,” Burr wrote, “to convince the world what neither sex appears to believe – that women have souls! Unlike Hamilton, who married at least partially for political gain, then publicly humiliated his wife with a cheating scandal, Burr married for love.
He and his wife, Theodosia, set out to form a union of equals, almost unheard of at the time.
Their love letters contain everything from discussions of Rousseau to dirty jokes.
And there is no evidence that he ever cheated on her. Burr fought against an ugly tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the young republic, led by Hamilton’s Federalist party, which suggested that anyone without English heritage was a second-class citizen, and even challenged the rights of non-Anglos to hold office.
In response, Burr insisted that anyone who contributed to society deserved all the rights of any other citizen, no matter their background. Most of Burr’s political rivals, including Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, gained influence through alliances with elite families who wielded enormous power.
Burr came from a line of famous preachers, but his most enduring political alliances were with men who had no ties to the ruling elite.
In contrast to Hamilton, who consistently insulted rivals he believed to be lower class, Burr never publicly shamed anyone based on their status.