by James Melchiorre
Two men, born a year apart under very different circumstances, led historically-prominent lives that continually crisscrossed. Then one summer morning on the bank of the Hudson River, shots rang out as Alexander Hamiton and Aaron Burr fought a duel that left one of them dead.
Two-hundred eight summers later, during the space of one week, their descendants paid separate visits to Trinity Wall Street, the church that played significant roles in the lives of both.
Members of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society came to Trinity July 12 for a wreath-laying at Hamilton’s grave. Those gathered at the gravesite included Doug Hamilton, a descendant seven generations removed.
William G. Chrystal, a historical interpreter, scholar, and re-enactor, dressed as Hamilton, then invited the crowd into Trinity Church “to learn about the vision of America I had so many years ago.”
Trinity hosts two annual events for Hamilton---on his birthdate of January 11 and on July 12, the date of his death. The visit to the church, exactly one week later on July 19, by the Aaron Burr Association, is not customary.
“The Burr Association is fifty percent blood connections and fifty percent history buffs,” said Stuart Johnson, an Association member who visited Trinity for the tour.
Like Hamilton, Burr’s life, at least the first half of it, was very eventful. When Association member Katherine Woltz was asked if Burr could be called the “Forest Gump” of the late 18th century, showing up seemingly everywhere, Woltz chuckled but did not disagree.
Born into relative privilege in 1756, grandson of the fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards, Burr fought with distinction at the Battle of Quebec in 1775, gained prominence in New York as a trial lawyer, won election to the State Assembly and the U.S. Senate, and tied Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 Presidential election. After thirty-six votes, the House of Representatives chose Jefferson, with Burr as Vice President.
As would be expected for a prominent New Yorker at the turn of the nineteeth century, Burr had connections to Trinity Wall Street. His estate, Richmond Hill, was located on land leased from Trinity near present-day Hudson Square, a neighborhood where Trinity still owns about a dozen buildings. When Burr ran into financial difficulties, the lease was assumed by John Jacob Astor, the prominent fur merchant who’s buried in Trinity’s churchyard. Also buried there is Theodocia Shelburg, daughter of Burr’s chef at Richmond Hill, and namesake of Burr’s wife and daughter.
“He is still a fascinating figure, “said descendant Antonio Burr. “Not only who he was but also because of his unrealized promise.”
Nobody who studies the historical record could propose equivalent legacies for Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton, who died at age 47, helped write the Federalist Papers, served as Treasury Secretary, founded the Bank of New York and the U.S. Coast Guard, and still adorns the ten-dollar bill.
Burr lived a long and checkered life. His political successes contrast with personal loss (his wife, daughter, and grandson died young), financial problems, a prosecution for treason in federal court, and an indictment for the fatal shooting of Hamilton in the duel, the event that will always appear in the first paragraph of any Burr biography.
“He got a bad shake in history,” said Diana Howie of the Aaron Burr Association.
Other Burr enthusiasts tout his support of equality movements. “He didn’t like the idea of slavery and made sure that anyone who owned even a small piece of property got to vote,” said Katherine Woltz.
“At a time when women were thought to be intellectually inferior to men, he did not believe it and taught his daughter six languages to read and write.”
Even before the two men met in the Weehawken, N.J. duel that killed Hamilton, they keep popping up together---first dining agreeably with each other, later trading political barbs in New York and in Washington---and initially and remarkably, as teenagers on the battlefield of a revolution, young witnesses to the birth of a nation.
Jim Melchiorre is Senior Video Producer for Trinity Wall Street.