Most Americans have spent today sliding back into work after a long weekend that began with the celebration of Independence Day. Those celebrations may have included fireworks and fireflies, parades small and large, a political speech or two, and gathering with friends and family for good fun and drink.
The celebrations of 1804 weren’t much different, with the addition of the noisy firing of guns and cannon. Only twenty-eight years had passed since the Declaration of Independence had been signed in Philadelphia, and yet the new country had become a far different place. Many of the most famous of the founding generation - Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Stephen Hopkins, Patrick Henry and, of course, George and Martha Washington - had died. There was an entire new generation who had no memory of that first reading of the Declaration, including many who’d been too young to recall the long war that had followed. Joining them were immigrants from other countries and refugees from other wars who had come to America in the years since 1776.
Many of these newcomers had arrived in America by way of the City of New York. In 1776, New York had had approximately 25,000 inhabitants; by 1804, it had become the largest city in the country, with a population of over 60,000. Although the city had suffered greatly during the war from the British occupation and subsequent fires, it had rebounded at a feverish pace, with new construction racing farther and farther up Manhattan Island and into the surrounding boroughs. Older New Yorkers grumbled (as they continue to do today) at how quickly things were changing, and not for the better, either.
Among the celebrations for Independence Day in New York in 1804 was one at the Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street. Built as a house in 1719 and converted into a tavern in 1762, Fraunces was likely a little old-fashioned by 1804. For the members of the New York chapter of the Society of Cincinnati (learn more about the Society and the President’s diamond eagle insignia here), however, the tavern’s history more than made up for it. Here Gen. Washington had made his farewell to his officers of the Continental Army, and while many of these officers, too, had died by 1804, there were still a good number left to dine, reminisce, and raise a glass to the war and departed comrades here in the long room at Fraunces. Nostalgia must have been thick in the air.
Among those was Gen. Alexander Hamilton. A founding member of the Society, Hamilton had become its second president after Washington’s death. (Read more about his role and his own Cincinnati insignia here.) For Hamilton, the war had been a time of rare camaraderie and brotherhood, and the basis of many of his most lasting friendships. With his political career now virtually over and his influence waning, the Cincinnati remained his haven for the old Revolutionary ideals and fraternity. Other members later recalled (doubtless with unavoidable hindsight) that Hamilton had been in high spirits and particularly animated that night, with some remembering him climbing up to stand on a table to sing. The song he chose, “How Stands the Glass Around”, was a military ballad reputed to have been written by Gen. James Wolfe the night before he died at the Battle of Quebec. Today the lyrics seem unbearably prescient: “Why, soldiers, why/Should we be melancholy, boys?/Why, soldiers, why/Whose business it is to die!”
Sitting at the same table that night was another veteran officer, one that Hamilton had known since the early days of the war. For Col. Aaron Burr, the Revolution had not been a glorious event that he recalled with fondness; disillusionment and persistent battle-related ill health had led him to resign his commission before the war was done. Burr was not one of the original members of the Cincinnati, but had only joined in the previous year, hoping that the connections might aid his own faltering political career.
Again, hindsight likely colored the memories of those who were there. Burr’s demeanor was described as brooding, withdrawn, and silent, and supposedly he was unable to look squarely at Hamilton. Some modern historians have taken this a step further, and describe him that night as grim, ominous, and forbidding. It’s possible that Burr - who was generally in his element in a convivial tavern - found the raucous sentimentality of the event not to his taste, or perhaps it called up old memories of the war that he’d rather have left forgotten.
Burr left no record of his thoughts from the dinner, nor did Hamilton. But over the next days, both men wrote farewell letters to their loved ones, and attempted to put their financial affairs in some semblance of order; despite their professional and social prominence, both men were deeply in debt. Outwardly they continued their lives as usual, conducting business and seeing friends and family who were unaware of what would come next.
And in my new historical novel, The Secret Life of Aaron Burr, Col. Burr uses these last days to travel to Philadelphia to set one great wrong in his life right - or at least as right as he can.
Early on the morning of July 11, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton would meet on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, NJ, and both their lives would be forever changed.
Top: Portrait of Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn, c1802; Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by James Sharples, c1796
My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.