Books: “American Emperor”

November 29, 2011


I grew up with Alexander Hamilton. It’s not that I was his contemporary; it’s that I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up on its streets. I heard over and over again that Hamilton had founded the city. Like a lot of things children are taught, that wasn’t true. What was true was that Hamilton accurately envisioned an industrial city growing up  around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Paterson became the silk-weaving center of the world and was also the source of steam locomotives and Colt revolvers.

Aside from the fact that he was born on Nevis – a rare distinction – the only other thing I associated Hamilton with was the duel in which Aaron Burr, who was then the vice president of the United States, shot Hamilton to death. That happened in Weehawkin in 1804.

I never thought much about Burr at all until I read David O. Stewart’s book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Come to find out that Burr was a rip-snorting renegade who wanted to invade Spanish territories in North America, merge them with states he hoped would secede from the Union, and set himself up as ruler of the new nation.


Burr, who was born in Newark, came from a distinguished family. He  himself had an impressive military and political career which reached its zenith, in a sense, when he was elected the third vice president in the old electoral system. After a contentious series of ballots, Thomas Jefferson and Burr were tied for the presidency. Although Burr was willing to serve as vice president – which was the consolation prize under that system – Jefferson, once he was in office, gave Burr the cold shoulder, marginalizing him to the point that the once influential man was a supernumerary.

Meanwhile, Stewart explains, although Burr and Hamilton had been on good social terms, Hamilton conducted a political campaign against Burr in the public press, ridiculing him in the acidic fashion that was common in those days. Burr – whatever other faults he may have had – wouldn’t wouldn’t play that game, and he did not answer Hamilton until he read a published account of remarks Hamilton had made at a dinner. Burr and Hamilton exchanged a series of letters over the incident, with Hamilton ultimately refusing Burr’s demand that he apologize for that and other slights. Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. Dueling was illegal in New York and New Jersey; the two men and their parties crossed the Hudson from Manhattan to a spot on the bluff in Weehawkin that was inaccessible from above. Hamilton was mortally wounded.


Burr was indicted for murder in both states, which meant that he had to live on the road – an odd situation for the vice president of the United States. By this time, he was already concocting a vague plan to put together a realm for himself carved out of Spanish holdings – including parts of Mexico and Texas – and what were then western states that Burr imagined might be interested in leaving the union. He actually negotiated directly with Great Britain over this idea.

Meanwhile, Burr enlisted as one of his principal co-conspirators Gen. James Wilkinson who, on the one hand, was the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military and, on the other hand, was a paid spy for Spain. Burr enlisted numerous other people, including Andrew Jackson, although he seems to have given different information to different people, including in some cases the fantastic claim that the Jefferson administration was aware of and sympathetic to his plan.

Burr went so far as to assemble the crude makings of a private army, and set off by river transport to carry out a plot that still wasn’t clear to anyone except, perhaps, Aaron Burr. The numbers of supporters he had hoped for did not materialize, and some of those who did were arrested. Burr himself was taken into custody and sent to Richmond to be tried for treason.


He was not convicted of treason, however. Stewart, who is an attorney, explains the fascinating intricacies of the trial and the verdict. The short version is that treason consists of conducting an armed attack on the United States, and Burr hadn’t done that.

Burr facing further charges in Ohio and was still under both murder indictments. Although he was broke, he traveled to Europe  and stayed for four years. Even then, he tried to get first the British government and then Napoleon to support him in a campaign against Spain in the Americas.

When the indictments had been dropped, Burr returned to New York and in 1831 resumed the practice of law.

This account portrays the United States and its surroundings as tumultuous and unstable. Stewart points out, in fact, that even Jefferson accepted the idea that some of the states still might opt out of the republic and go off on their own.

Stewart also provides details of a contrasting and touching aspect of Burr’s life – his affectionate but ill-fated relationship with his daughter.  The portrait Stewart paints of Burr is that of a charismatic, adventurous, and impetuous rascal, a man of courtly manners and an incorrigible womanizer — in short, far more interesting a character than I had ever imagined.


Silk City

February 11, 2009

Charles Turndoff used to have a fur shop on Ellison Street in Paterson. It’s likely my mother bought such fur as she owned from Charlie, as the grownups called him. I drove by Ellison Street today. I knew Charlie and his shop were long gone, but still, I looked that way. That look was like the flick of a tongue at a sore one knows will hurt but still must touch.

It isn’t that I miss Charlie. I knew him only through the filter of my parents, and I don’t remember ever being in his shop. The ache comes from the larger transformation that his absence signfies in the city. A few blocks from Ellison Street, by the great falls of the Passaic River, Alexander Hamilton stared across the chasm and saw the future, but his vision – fortunate man – didn’t extend past the middle of the 2oth century. Hamilton Street and the Hamilton Club – at least, its spectre – are still among the landmarks downtown. The visionary’s dream is not.

This is a grim place now – Market Street, where my mother walked with us from one store to another, always lingering at Meyer Brothers, with its gleaming floors and polished counters and its saleswomen all in black. We’d expect my mother to remind us again that she, too, had worn black here, at 14, after exaggerating her age – her contribution to her family’s wellbeing. We’d be proud when the floorwalker, who would call her by her maiden name, and whom she still would call “Mr.”, recognized her after all those years. On the street again, we often encountered “Herman,” a mysterious, unexplained figure from my mother’s past – a well-dressed blind man walking with a white cane. My mother’s greeting would always be enthusiastic, and Herman always recognized her voice. We most likely would cross paths, too, with another jaunty figure with a cane, a figure of a different sort that wanted no explanation. And “Mr. Peanut” – in full costume – gave us the cue we needed to hound our mother to take us to the Planter’s store before boarding the bus for home. 

When we were old enough to go on our own, we rode or walked to Paterson and bought records from a man named Rip who looked like Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and called me “Mr. Paolino” when I was 15. And we’d go to a movie, sometimes two, at the Majestic, the Garden, the Rivoli, the U.S., or the Fabian. We were still children, really – insensitive to what was going on around us and coming behind us.

On my way to Paterson today I passed through Woodland Park – strange name on the map of Passaic County, there because voters managed last November, after vainly trying  in the past, to shed the name “West Paterson” and with it an association with the city that stirs under its grimy, ruined facades, a city that can’t forget its own name as it tries to see past tomorrow to a future that Hamilton didn’t plan. I sat in my car at a broken parking meter and watched the people who dream in Paterson now – black, Latino, Arabic – and I was glad to be back.

I made a new friend in the city today, a man who teaches some of those folks I watched on the street. “I was born in Paterson,” I told him. It sounded, it felt, so much better than saying “Woodland Park.”