Monday, June 27, 2016

Hamilton the History Episode 2 Transcript


Hey everybody! I’m Charlie, and in this series I’m going through the life of Alexander Hamilton, loosely following along with the musical. Today’s song is Aaron Burr, Sir.

In this song, Hamilton meets Aaron Burr for the first time in New York City in 1776. Hamilton grills Burr for detail about how he graduated from Princeton so quickly. While Burr offers Hamilton some advice and a drink, they come across the rowdy trio of John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and the marquis de Lafayette. The trio profess their commitment to the revolution, but when they invite Burr to join in he chides them for being so outspoken.

Like all of the songs in the musical, this one condenses several events over a long period of time to fit a tighter narrative. Hamilton, Burr, Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette obviously did not happen to meet each other in a bar in 1776, and in fact I’m not sure some of these people have ever met each other at all.

Still, there’s a lot of truth in the dynamics of these characters in relation to Hamilton, which is all conveyed pretty quickly in the shorthand of immediate camaraderie over the course of the next few songs.

We’ll unpack the real lives of some of these characters over the next few episodes. Today I’ll mostly be introducing Aaron Burr, of course.

First, though, let’s catch up with Alexander.

He may have headed to North America from St. Croix as early as October 1772. Hamilton immediately started looking for a suitable place to get his education. He crammed at Elizabethtown Academy to catch up in preparation for applying to the College of New Jersey.

The College of New Jersey was renamed Princeton University in 1896, so I’ll just refer to it as Princeton from now on.

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr may in fact have met for the first time during that summer of 1773, while Hamilton was cramming at Elizabethtown. Although there’s no confirmed record of their first meeting, Hamilton and Burr ran in similar circles around this time.

Anyway, Hamilton’s first application was to Princeton, where he sought an accelerated course of study. There was a precedent for this accelerated course, as Aaron Burr himself had graduated from Princeton at the incredible age of sixteen after only three years of study instead of the standard four. However, another Princeton graduate, a young James Madison, had recently managed to graduate in only two years. This pace of study was a heavy strain on Madison’s already poor health, though, and it likely made the trustees at Princeton hesitant to take on any more accelerated students.

It’s interesting to compare these three men’s educations here. Madison graduated from Princeton in only two years, though he was already 18 when he entered. Burr entered at the age of 13 and graduated in three years, though it’s worth noting that Burr’s father, Aaron Sr, was one of the founding members of the college, and its second president. It’s possible that Burr got some preferential treatment in deference to his late father, but it doesn’t seem likely given his later accomplishments.

Hamilton, meanwhile, was denied this accelerated study altogether. He was a year older than Burr, so if he was in fact acquainted with the young prodigy, Hamilton must have already been feeling the pressure to get his education started and done with. There’s nothing like young success stories to make you self-conscious about your own achievements.

Hamilton ended up getting in to King’s College in New York instead, which is where he’d stay until, eventually, the revolution came to him.

Aaron Burr’s life has some parallels to Hamilton’s, along with some pretty drastic differences. For instance, Burr was even more of an orphan than Hamilton was.

His father was Aaron Burr Sr, the president of Princeton. In fact, he was president of the college while the college moved from Newark to Princeton, New Jersey. Aaron Sr. was one of the three founders of the college, which was established in theological opposition to Yale in 1746.

Another founder of the college was Aaron Sr’s eventual father-in-law, the famous fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards.

Aaron Sr died of a fever in 1757, just a year after Aaron Jr was born. In 1758, Jonathan Edwards tried to inoculate himself against smallpox and died during the procedure. Esther Edwards Burr, Aaron’s mother, died of smallpox a month after her father. Thus, Aaron and his sister were orphaned before Aaron could even have memories of his parents. He and his sister were raised by an uncle.

Despite this tragic childhood, though, Aaron Burr was born to an affluent and influential family. His childhood would not be spent desperate and destitute.

Burr studied theology at Princeton, apparently following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. After his prodigious term at Princeton, though, Burr moved to Connecticut to study law. He stayed there until 1775, when word got around of the battles at Lexington and Concord.

Burr immediately put his studies on hold and joined the Continental Army. There’s no evidence that Burr was reticent about his support for the revolution--no more than he was about anything else. On the contrary, Burr immediately threw himself into dangerous missions and served with distinction. But we’ll get more into that in a later episode.

For now, I leave you with this excerpt from a speech written and delivered by the young Aaron Burr in college. Compare and contrast it with Alexander Hamilton and the essay he wrote that allowed him to escape St. Croix:
I have often observed, that it is very common for those who are ambitious of excelling in composition, to study swelling words, pompous epithets, and laboured periods. This is often practised, especially by young writers. It is, however, generally condemned as a fault, and sometimes too by those who practise it themselves. An elegant simplicity of language is what every one should strive to obtain. Besides the arguments which are usually offered on this head, there is one very important one, which is commonly not much attended to.
It is the business of every writer to acquire command of language, in order that he may be able to write with ease and readiness, and, upon any occasion, to form extempore discourses. Unless he can do this, he will never shine as a speaker, nor will he ever make a figure in private conversation. But to do this, it is necessary to study simplicity of style. There never was a ready speaker, whose language was not, generally, plain and simple; for it is absolutely impossible to carry the laboured ornaments of language, the round period, or the studied epithet, into extempore discourses; and, were it possible, it would be ridiculous. We have learned, indeed, partly from reading poetry, and partly from reading vicious compositions, to endure, and too often to admire, such stiff and laboured discourses in writing; but if it were even possible for a man to speak in the same pompous diction in which Browne has written his vulgar errors, he would certainly be very disagreeable. This reason, among others, may be assigned for it; that however such false ornaments may please for a time, yet, when a long and steady attention is required, we are tired and disgusted with every thing which increases our labour, and diverts the attention from the subject before us. A laboured style is a labour even to the hearer. A simple style, like simple food, preserves the appetite. But a profusion of ornament, like a profusion of sweets, palls the appetite and becomes disgusting.
Thanks for watching. See you next time.

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