Dan Rattiner's Stories

Burr Shoots Hamilton Dead. Because of a Clothesline Pulley? What?

Last spring, my step-son Alex bought his mother and me two tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway. Things being what they are, the tickets are for a show in October. I didn’t want to know what they cost.

As a result of this, my wife began reading the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, upon which this hip-hop musical is based. I began to read it, too.

All this is as preview to this remarkable dream I had last night. I’ve never had a dream like this.

I fell asleep reading Alexander Hamilton. I am about a quarter of the way through and I have to say I have rather fallen in love with the fellow. Born on the island of Nevis to down-and-out white planters, his abused mother flees with him to St. Croix when he is six years old. He learns to read and write. Then he reads the classics. At 14 he is working for a sugar merchant down on the docks, hauling barrels around. The merchant has to go abroad for a while and, amazingly, decides to put Hamilton in charge. He’s quite good at running the firm. At 16, his mother dies and the islanders raise money and send him to New York City to get a proper education. He’s brilliant, well mannered, is accepted at King’s College, where he’s a straight A student, and falls in with the wealthy New York society students unhappy with British rule.

The Boston Tea Party takes place, the British send their army to teach the Massachusetts rebels a lesson in good government by killing them—keep in mind there is no country, just a bunch of colonies—and here in New York Hamilton writes celebrated essays against British rule that get national exposure, joins a militia and is made a Lieutenant in charge of New York’s Artillery Company, such as it is, to defend Manhattan against the arriving British fleet. Hamilton is 19 years old. The Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia and chooses George Washington, at 43, a veteran of the Indian Wars, to raise an army to fight the British. Washington, observing Hamilton’s sharp mind and bravery, puts him in charge of all the army’s artillery. He’s 21. He’s the boss of generals. Overwhelmed with battles everywhere, Washington now promotes Hamilton to be his chief of staff, and Hamilton occasionally makes decisions on his own during the battle of Brooklyn, the retreat to Harlem and Morristown and, well, that’s when I fell asleep.

Who cannot but love a guy like this? Five years earlier, he’s 16, negotiating deals on the docks of St. Croix. Now, at 21, he’s the second in command of Washington’s army. I know that at 47 he dies, dueling Aaron Burr. I do not yet know how that happens.

In my dream, I’m watching the things that happen to cause the duel. They seem to be very piddly things. Two families are having an argument. The police are called. The police confine one man to a small patch of grass on a public sidewalk surrounded by a three-foot fence—it’s a fence designed to keep dogs from peeing on the tree. He’s there with the tree. And that is to be the cause of the duel.

I, in the dream, talk to myself, asserting this makes no sense. This wakes me up. It is 2 a.m. I grope my way into the bathroom and splash water on my face. Then I stumble back to bed and fall back to sleep.

Whoever is running my dream agrees, so here’s another cause of the duel. The families are now arguing about a clothesline pulley that can or cannot be attached to the two adjacent homes of the participants. This explanation as the cause of the duel is asserted over and over as I, in the dream, follow along with this logic, reject it, ask for the real reason and then it is replayed again and again. It is 4 a.m. I am up again.

Again, I splash water on my face. Now I am determined to find out the real cause. Back in bed, I Google “Hamilton Burr Duel” on my iPhone. The duel takes place in New Jersey in 1804. Both men are in their late 40s. Hamilton has insulted Burr numerous times. Hamilton is Secretary of the Treasury. Burr is a sitting Vice President. Hamilton won’t apologize. Aides can’t work out a negotiated settlement. They are given pistols, take the 10 steps, turn, shoot and Hamilton falls and dies. But there is nothing here about what caused it.

So I Google “Aaron Burr bio.” And I get the facts.

Burr is born in Newark, New Jersey, and both parents die when he is young and he has a miserable childhood. He meets Hamilton. They are almost exactly the same age. And they become friends. Burr fights the British at Ticonderoga and Quebec. The war won, the country established, they move on. Burr is ambitious. He becomes Senator from New York by dethroning longtime Senator Philip Schuyler, who is the father-in-law of Hamilton, now Secretary of the Treasury in Washington.

In New York City, people die because there is no public water system. New York Senator Burr needs Washington to provide money for a private system and gets a bill passed to create a water company, which he, Burr will head up. Funding needs approval from Hamilton. Hamilton approves, the water company is approved, and as Burr does this, he sneaks in a passage in the water company charter to permit it to open a bank. Burr opens the bank (predecessor to JPMorgan Chase), gets rich, then never opens the water company. More New Yorkers die. Friendship over.

Burr then creates Tammany Hall to run New York. In 1796 and then again in 1800, Burr gets himself “partnered” with Thomas Jefferson to run for President. Burr is supposed to bring in the New York delegates and finish second, which would make him Vice President with Jefferson as President in the arrangement as it was then. Instead, in 1800, Burr does some behind-the-scenes maneuvering and winds up in a tie for first. Jefferson denounces Burr but there is nothing he can do. Who becomes President will be resolved by the House of Representatives. The House turns to, among others, Alexander Hamilton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the country and creator of the national treasury, and Hamilton denounces the son of a bitch. Burr loses, but is Vice President for four years, after which everyone, including Jefferson, kicks him aside.

Burr runs for Senator from New York against Schuyler, who won his old seat when Burr was Vice President, and Burr, again insulted by Hamilton, is this time trounced. Time for a duel.

Dueling is illegal. In New York, if it kills somebody, the charge is murder. In New Jersey, it is also illegal but the charge is less onerous. End of Hamilton. And so I go to sleep.

In the morning, curious, I wonder what became of Burr. After the duel, he is a fugitive. His political career is over. But he notices that the United States has just purchased Louisiana and other territories off to the west. He decides to invade Louisiana with a small personal army, become Emperor of Louisiana and then, possibly, Mexico. He knows how to run a country. His soldiers battle for control, lose, Burr is arrested and charged with treason. Somehow, after this, Burr makes bail, flees to Europe, goes into business, goes bankrupt, flees back to America to escape debtors prison, then gets the treason charge and the murder charge delayed and delayed and finally, dismissed. He fathers two illegitimate children with his favorite house servant, then dies bitter and alone at the age of 80.

Hmmm. Just one vote shy of becoming President of the United States. Wouldn’t that have been something.

Can’t wait to see Hamilton.

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