“The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure and pleasure my business.”
— Aaron Burr
“Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.”
— Alexander Hamilton
It was 216 years ago this month that Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, and Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, exchanged gunfire at Weehawken, New Jersey — Hamilton’s shot missing Burr, likely intentionally, and Burr’s striking Hamilton in the abdomen, resulting in his death a short time later. Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, though not tried in either state.
The actions leading up to the duel, and the many times the paths of the two men crossed during the Revolutionary War era, thus forming the bitter rivalry that led to the duel, were back in the spotlight this month, with the musical “Hamilton” coming to television via Disney’s new streaming service.
Not detailed in the musical is the odd and meandering path that Burr’s life took after the duel, and the unusual way that Hamilton’s family exacted some revenge on Burr decades after the duel that killed the Founding Father. It is a story that involves further intrigue, an accusation of treason in the early Ohio frontier, and a court filing for divorce.
Following the end of his term as vice president, Burr came west, through Pennsylvania, to the new state of Ohio, where he passed through Marietta and headed further down the Ohio River to the site of Blennerhassett Island, so named for the wealthy Irish lawyer who had settled there and built a mansion on the Ohio River island he had purchased. Local reports claimed that Burr was trying to recruit young men to form an army to sail down river to New Orleans, with the intent of starting a war with Spain and creating a new nation out of territory owned by the Spanish combined with the western portion of the Louisiana Purchase.
Word of the conspiracy reached President Jefferson in Washington, and a warrant was issued for Burr’s arrest. He and Blennerhassett were both taken into custody, brought to Richmond and tried for treason. Chief Justice Marshall found that an accusation of conspiracy needed to be proven by two witnesses and, in the absence of such witnesses, Burr could not be convicted.
The former vice president then lived in Europe (where he allegedly tried again to raise an army to make himself Empreror of Mexico) before returning to New York. Financial difficulties led him to propose marriage to America’s richest woman, a recently widowed former actress who had inherited her late husband’s vast fortune.
But his second wife, Eliza Jumel, who was two decades younger than Burr, realized after only a few months that Burr was making bad investments and frittering away her fortune. She determined to file for divorce, and in so doing found the one lawyer who could not only represent her well in court, but also truly twist the knife into the back of her estranged spouse. From all the lawyers in New York, she sought out and hired Alexander Hamilton, Jr., the son of the man that Burr had killed 30 years earlier.
In his complaint on behalf of Ms. Jumel, the younger Hamilton alleged that Burr had been adulterous “at divers times with divers females,” in addition to his financial misdeeds. Hamilton also produced a servant, Mariah Johnson, who testified that she had caught Burr in the act. In so doing, Hamilton avenged Burr’s role in the Reynolds affair — an adultery scandal promoted by Burr that had rocked the Hamilton family in the 1790s.
Burr was incredulous. Then 77 years old, he raised the most obvious defense that he could, namely that at his age the accusations of adultery were “according to the laws of nature impossible.” Indeed, not only was Burr of advanced age, but he was beginning to suffer serious health difficulties.
The divorce dragged on for more than three years, from July of 1833 to September of 1836, during which time Burr suffered several strokes. On Sept. 14, 1836, Judge Philo T. Ruggles finally finalized the divorce. But the decree was of little consolation to Burr — he died the very day that the order ending his second marriage was issued.
Perhaps the action had some cosmic role in settling the feud between the families once and for all. In 2015, the New York Post published an article noting that just a few miles from the spot of their 1804 duel, Alexandra Hamilton Woods, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Hamilton, and Antonio Burr, a descendent of Aaron’s cousin, both psychologists, frequently kayaked together near the very waters that their ancestors crossed to fight their famous duel.
Hamilton, the musical, may end with the demise of its title character, but the man who killed him met his end in the legal clutches of Alexander’s son and namesake — a fitting end to a life marked by legal intrigue.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. He has written a weekly column on law and history for the Gazette since 2005.