Alexander hamilton

Burr’s pragmatic style endured

Aaron Burr helped make the Society of St. Tammany into a political machine.

By Stephen G. Butler

On the eve of the least festive Independence Day in memory, Disney did citizens who subscribe to its new streaming service the favor of making available the filmed version of a 2016 performance of the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Despite four years of breathtaking discord and four months of head-shaking disruption, critics across the political divide agreed on the still provocative value of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s imaginative and innovative portrayal of the birth of the United States. Writing in the conservative magazine National Review, Kyle Smith described the work’s “love for the Founding and the men who made it” as a “stirring rebuke to a season of mindless, debauched, and wicked iconoclasm.” Writing on the progressive website Vox, Aja Romano interpreted the play as “a silent-but-screaming commentary on the way people of color, especially Black and Indigenous Americans, have been denied agency over, or even a presence within, their own stories in so much of the history we’re taught in flawed textbooks.”

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[caption id="attachment_108880" align="alignnone" width="300"]

“Hamilton” cast members, from left, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Christopher Jackson performing musical selections at the White House in March 2016. OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY ARMANDA LUCIDON[/caption]

Readers of the Echo who view “Hamilton” might be pleasantly surprised to encounter early in the story a character named Hercules Mulligan (Hercules is played in Act I by the appropriately hulking actor Okieriete Onaodowan, who, in one of the show’s many casting ironies, also plays the famously diminutive James Madison in Act II). Mulligan was a real historical figure born in Coleraine, Co. Derry, and raised in New York City, where he became an early member of the Sons of Liberty and later, along with his slave Cato (who is not a character in the musical) a spy for George Washington. Surely, the story of Mulligan and Cato deserves its own dramatic treatment.

Alexander Hamilton, in the musical’s interpretation, personified bold but idealistic striving.

As it is, Mulligan is just a minor character in “Hamilton.” A much more looming presence in the play is Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s fellow New Yorker, subsequent rival and eventual murderer. Indeed, the story of Hamilton’s remarkable life is narrated by a dubious Burr, played on stage by the wonderfully talented Leslie Odom Jr. In contrast to Hamilton’s bold but idealistic striving, Burr is portrayed as a man defined by opportunistic caution and lack of principle save for ambitious self-interest: for instance, he won’t help Hamilton write the “Federalist Papers” in fear that the Constitution won’t be ratified, and he flips from Hamilton’s Federalist party to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans so he can snag a Senate seat. It is this distinct lack of political principle, the play suggests, that leads Hamilton to endorse his arch rival, Jefferson, over Burr in the election of 1800. Hamilton’s endorsement helped Jefferson become the third president and Burr was relegated to the vice presidency during Jefferson’s first term.

“Hamilton” briefly portrays Burr performing door-to-door canvassing during that election, and highlights the fact that this was an innovative vote-getting strategy for 1800, but it does not mention that during this same period Burr helped turn a local patriotic society into an enduring New York political machine that should be well-known to Irish Americans interested in their history: the Society of St. Tammany or Columbian Order, better known simply as Tammany Hall.

The musical’s characterization of Burr suggests his influence on the Tammany machine may have been formative. As late as 1963, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a future Democratic senator for the Empire State, could write in his book “Beyond the Melting Pot,” the “functioning urban politician does not commit himself; he negotiates with the commitments of others. This came naturally to the Irish, who were the least encumbered with abstract notions” about politics and economics. As a result of this resistance to ideological commitment, Moynihan explained that “the main thrust of Irish political activity has always been moderate or conservative in New York.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The decades-long tradition of the moderate/conservative style in Irish-American politics might be news to readers who have encountered in recent years article after article noting, and often lamenting, the apparent rightward drift of many Irish-American political figures and private citizens. Representative titles include Eileen Markey’s New Republic piece titled “What Happened to Irish America?” and subtitled “Irish Americans used to be progressive champions for the oppressed and the downtrodden. Now many of them are Trump voters.” Another example is Fintan O’Toole’s scathing commentary in the Irish Times penned during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in which the pundit claimed that an American Irish Catholic political style “ground[ed] in humility and compassion” and epitomized by Bobby Kennedy, had been replaced by a “toxic, whiny fusion of victimhood and superiority” and epitomized by Kavanaugh.

O’Toole has also published in the New York Review of Books a long, fascinating essay on Joe Biden’s life and career. O’Toole suggests Biden’s career can be understood as a more than half-century attempt to copy, in both his rhetoric and his retail campaigning, the Kennedy kind of Irish Catholic politics. O’Toole describes this politics as “the promise to act as the bridge across the great divide of U.S. society, being mainstream enough to connect to the white majority but with a sufficient memory of past torment to connect also to the black minority.” Biden’s amazing resurgence in the Democratic primaries suggests that this kind of politics has paid off handsomely.

Robert Kennedy.

But considering Biden’s recent disavowal of so many of the pillars on which he built his reputation in the Senate (the Hyde Amendment, the 1994 Crime Bill, the Defense of Marriage Act, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a 2005 bankruptcy law), and considering too, his sudden evolutions on policies he opposed while positioning himself as the least radical and thereby most electable primary candidate (student loan forgiveness, tuition-free four year colleges, a $15 minimum wage, etc.) perhaps his political DNA has not just Bobby Kennedy in it, but also the DNA of all those ideologically non-committal Irish-American machine bosses descended from Burr and described so succinctly by Moynihan.

Of course Biden’s opponent, President Donald Trump has his own Burr-like features, namely a decades-long history of party-switching (Democrat, Republican, Reform, Democrat again, Republican again, Independent, Republican again), and policy flip-flopping (abortion, universal health care, the carried interest tax break). Clearly, coherent political philosophy is not the quality that drives the Trump phenomenon. Rather, Boss Trump, like the infamous Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, who Moynihan prematurely described as “the last vulgar white Protestant to win a prominent place in the city’s life,” has risen to unimaginable heights of power and wealth through some intangible mix of enormous ambition and shrewd manipulation of the available economic and political machinery of the day.

Viewing “Hamilton” in the dispiriting summer days of 2020 then, it’s hard to avoid the thought that both men running for the White House this fall might have more in common with the self-seeking political instincts of Aaron Burr than they do with the visionary political genius of Alexander Hamilton. Then again, if the young republic survived the likes of Burr, if the maturing nation survived and often thrived with urban political machines ruling most cities, then one hopes, audaciously perhaps, that our geriatric democracy will nonetheless survive long after Trump and Biden are the subject of the dramatic interpretations dreamed by artists not yet born.

Dr. Stephen Butler is senior lecturer, Expository Writing Program, New York University, and the author of “Irish Writers in the Irish American Press, 1882-1964.”