I've read both Ron Chernow's book on Hamilton and Susan Isenberg's book on Burr and have concluded that both Burr and Hamilton were just as complex characters as Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton, well know for his duel challenges, and Burr well know for his aversion to dueling. Yet, there they were in Weehawken, NJ doing what irrational men do when their history of conflict reaches a boiling point.
We can debate many aspects of Hamilton and Burr, but I would like to focus on Aaron Burr's relationship with his only child, Theodosia, and the tragedy of her very short life.
One thing I found fascinating about Burr and his relationship with his young daughter was their practice of writing daily letters to each other. Regardless of whether they were apart or together. I have been using this practice with my son. I have to say it has been a tremendous bonding experience that I hope to continue as long as possible.
Say what you will about Aaron Burr, but his devotion to making sure his daughter had every educational opportunity available to her was surprising for the time. Not only that, Burr opened his home to foreign struggling artists and guests of all varieties, including Mohawk chief Joseph Brant1, giving Theodosia an upbringing many woman would have cherished for it's progressive atmosphere. Not to mention the family background of philosophical and religious thought. Aaron Burr was the son of a minister and president of Princeton. His maternal grandfather was the famed Rev Jonathan Edwards.
With this ready made lineage it's not a wonder why Alexander Hamilton may have felt defensive of his rocky family lineage and foreign birth, possibly feeling he had to work ten times harder than those of privilege. Not an excuse, but a possible window into his "chip on the shoulder" attitude that had him challenging several individuals to duels, including the father-in-law of Albert Gallatin, Commodore James Nicholson. Hamilton was a Federalist in the New York City area surrounded by up and coming Jeffersonian Republicans such as Gallatin, Nicholson, and Burr, with Clinton and Livingston seeing less influence in NY politics. It's easy to imagine Hamilton seeing a connected vision to unseat Federalist, and against him.
The irony of Theodosia's upbringing cannot be more devastating than when, at age 17, she chose to marry a rich older man, whom by most counts she didn't really love or hardly knew, all to save her father from massive debt. Theodosia married Joseph Alston from South Carolina who was a wealth plantation owner. Add to that the sale of her family estate to John Jacob Astor who parceled off the land, sold it for a huge profit establishing his rags to riches climb from fur trapper to entrepreneur, all under the eyes of Aaron Burr and his loss of status throughout his life2.
His beloved Theodosia died at sea, age 29. While the duel with Alexander Hamilton started his downward spiral, it's hard to image surviving the loss of a beloved wife (1794), [remember the duel was in 1804] the trial for treason 1807, his daughter's death 1813, and his living until 1836, thus losing his entire past.
I'm reminded when studying history that people are just as complex as I, sometimes much more so, but it is up to us to dig deep enough for a true glimpse into human beings, their flaws and their strengths.