There will come a time when the name of Aaron Burr will be cleared from the prejudice which now surrounds it, when he will stand in the public estimation side by side with Alexander Hamilton, whom he shot in a duel in 1804, but whom in many respects he curiously resembled. When the white light of history shall have searched them both they will appear as two remarkable men, each having his own undoubted faults and at the same time his equally undoubted virtues.
Burr and Hamilton were born within a year of each other—Burr being a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and Alexander Hamilton being the illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant in the West Indies. Each of them was short in stature, keen of intellect, of great physical endurance, courage, and impressive personality. Each as a young man served on the staff of Washington during the Revolutionary War, and each of them quarreled with him, though in a different way.
On one occasion Burr was quite unjustly suspected by Washington of looking over the latter’s shoulder while he was writing. “Washington leaped to his feet with the exclamation:
“How dare you, Colonel Burr?”
Burr’s eyes flashed fire at the question, and he retorted, haughtily:
“Colonel Burr dare do anything.”
This, however, was the end of their altercation The cause of Hamilton’s difference with his chief is not known, but it was a much more serious quarrel; so that the young officer left his staff position in a fury and took no part in the war until the end, when he was present at the battle of Yorktown.
Burr, on the other hand, helped Montgomery to storm the heights of Quebec, and nearly reached the upper citadel when his commander was shot dead and the Americans retreated. In all this confusion Burr showed himself a man of mettle. The slain Montgomery was six feet high, but Burr carried his body away with wonderful strength amid a shower of musket-balls and grape-shot.
Hamilton had no belief in the American Constitution, which he called “a shattered, feeble thing.” He could never obtain an elective office, and he would have preferred to see the United States transformed into a kingdom. Washington’s magnanimity and clear-sightedness made Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. Burr, on the other hand, continued his military service until the war was ended, routing the enemy at Hackensack, enduring the horrors of Valley Forge, commanding a brigade at the battle of Monmouth, and heading the defense of the city of New Haven. He was also attorney-general of New York, was elected to the United States Senate, was tied with Jefferson for the Presidency, and then became Vice-President.