Editor’s Note: For today’s installment in Good. Food. Stories.’ ongoing series of Hamilton-inspired cocktails, I’m turning the reins over to art historian extraordinaire Danielle Oteri to shed some light on Aaron Burr. Her nuanced take on Burr’s lost legacy gives a greater perspective as to why he’s more than “the villain in your history,” and why the question of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” really does make a difference.
Find more Hamilton-inspired pins, prints, and greeting cards like this at The Casey BarberSHOP.
American history has got it all wrong about Aaron Burr. Hamilton superfans, I’m going to ask you to put down Ron Chernow’s book for an hour. It’s more hagiography than history. I’ll explain while we mix two glasses of Aaron Burr Milk Punch.
Today a signature of Louisiana cocktail culture, milk punch was a popular colonial American drink that you could have enjoyed at a tavern in Philadelphia or lower Manhattan. This version uses two splashes of half and half, a little closer to the milk that came from those organic colonial cows. It also makes the drink opaque, which is the stage I’d like to set for discussing our Fallen Founder—and his only child, Theodosia.
We know so much about Hamilton because he wrote like he was running out of time, but Burr was no less prodigious. While A. Ham’s s papers were (heavily) edited and preserved by his wife, sister-in-law, and son, A. Burr’s papers were drowned off the coast of Cape Hatteras. While Eliza Hamilton lived another 50 years after her husband’s death to tell his story, Burr’s greatest confidante, his dear daughter Theodosia, was drowned alongside his written legacy.
Named for her brilliant mother who was Burr’s feminist mentor, the Burrs raised Theo to embody the greatest ideals of the Enlightenment. Her carefully cultivated mind was to prove the radical notion espoused by Burr that “women had souls.” Theo married Joseph Allston, the governor of South Carolina, and moved to the swampy south where her health and spirit waned. Theo always pined for her home in the Hudson Valley, which is why we’ll now pour apple brandy from the region’s Black Dirt Distillery into our cocktail shaker. Upstate New York was cider country and today is known as the Napa Valley of cider.
Father and daughter exchanged thousands of letters, which, in the practice of the time, served as journals written for the eyes of one person only. Before Burr left for Europe in 1812, he gave Theo a large trunk full of his papers, including his first-hand account of the American Revolution.
In 1813, Theo boarded a ship to New York, where she planned to meet her father who had just returned from France. She brought with her Burr’s trunk of papers and his letter journals. War was raging on the sea and Theo’s husband had great reservations about the journey, writing to the British to ensure her safe passage. Though it was confirmed that her frigate passed through Cape Hatteras, the ship was never seen again after that point. Burr paced the New York battery for two weeks before finally conceding that his dear Theodosia, the true great love of his life, had been drowned along with his written history1.
Add some simple syrup and a touch of vanilla extract, and shake our Aaron Burr Milk Punch with a scoop of ice while I talk just bit more about the supposed sin of Aaron Burr being opaque. Specifically, why Aaron Burr was the only one during the Maria Reynolds affair who had the decency to talk less and smile more.
After James Reynolds extorted Hamilton over the affair with his wife Maria, it was Burr who stepped in and acted as her divorce attorney. He knew about the affair for five years and never said a word. It was James Monroe who leaked the details of the affair to the press. Hamilton challenged Monroe to a duel and Burr acted as intermediary for five months by refusing to deliver Hamilton’s insult-ridden letters to Monroe until the two men cooled off and the public scandal faded away. But Hamilton couldn’t let it go and revived the whole thing when he wrote the Reynolds Pamphlet and created America’s first sex scandal.
Hamilton wrote in a literary convention of the time that cast himself as the innocent victim of a sexy, manipulative temptress. Maria’s reputation was destroyed. Burr remained silent and arranged for Maria’s daughter to live with the family of a Boston congressmen so the girl would not have to suffer the scarlet letter which Hamilton had spray-painted on to her mother to bolster his public image. (This is why I have to skip past “Hurricane” when listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on the treadmill.)
Burr has been omitted from the American pantheon because he doesn’t fit neatly into the founding myth of capitalism as young, scrappy, and hungry Hamilton does so well. Hamilton used the privilege of the pedigree he acquired through marriage while Burr spurned his own and cultivated strong feminist and abolitionist ideals. But, Aaron Burr, Sir, this historian and many others2 have our eyes on you once again.
1. The corset artwork shown in the above post is a detail of Camilla Huey’s piece “Loss”, part of the series The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry and Binding, depicts the drowning of Theodosia Burr Allston alongside her father’s letters and memoirs, a documentary loss that has greatly obscured the legacy of Aaron Burr↩
2. Other perspectives on Burr:
“Fallen Founder” by Nancy Isenberg
“Scandalmonger” by William Safire
“Jefferson’s Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary” by Joseph Wheelan↩