Most of us are acquainted with a domino run. As a child we may have stood dominoes in a line in order to view the elaborate patterns we could construct, and seeing over what distance and over what obstacles they would then fall. As dominoes topple in close formation, one on top of the other, set off by the gentlest of touches, this chain reaction only ceases when either there are no more dominoes standing upright to continue the capitulation, or if one domino refuses to accept its part in the chain, or if a particular domino is too stubborn to fall. So too it is with lies. A lie will only stop spreading when there are no more keen ears left to hear it – or when there are no more mouths left to speak it; or if there is one man or one woman of peculiar virtue who deliberately strives to give it no more fuel – thus ending or cutting short the lie’s fertility. A seemingly innocuous touch can trigger off an event that has the potential to conclude far beyond the point of which it was first designed to target. The resultant impact, too often far outweighs the original impetus; and in the case of a lie, we most readily feel the affect, but cannot accurately discern its origin. Too often the sculptor of a lie, leaves no trace of their presence, hiding behind a curtain in order to be there for the homecoming of Othello.
- Dr. Kania: On Lies. Part II (cf. Proverbs 16: 6 – 9 & John 18: 38)
- Dr. Kania: On Lies. Part I (cf. Proverbs 30: 8 & cf. 1 Samuel 16: 7)
- A Question of Honour (cf. Isaiah 53)
Spoiler alert! For those who do not know, Aaron Burr the Vice-President of the United States killed Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury as a result of a duel that took place on the 11th of July, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey. It took a day for Hamilton to die of his wound. From all reports it was never Hamilton’s desire to kill Burr, he had publically indicated that he would deliberately fire away from Burr with his first shot, wishing this to be a statement of truce and honour. On Burr’s side, the reports are that he had been practicing his aim for weeks after the invitation to duel that he had extended to Hamilton had been accepted.
To say that Aaron Burr was a colourful character, would be a near perfect euphemism. Aligning himself with Jefferson’s Republicans, he almost became the third President of the United States, tying with Jefferson; but because Hamilton’s eventual distaste for Burr was greater than that he had for Jefferson, Hamilton helped swing the Federalist political machine in order to bring about a result for Jefferson, breaking the deadlock. Burr of course, eventually caught wind of this, and doubtless it became one of the motivating subsequent reasons for his lethal aim.
because Hamilton’s eventual distaste for Burr was greater than that he had for Jefferson, Hamilton helped swing the Federalist political machine in order to bring about a result for Jefferson, breaking the deadlock.
Unlike both Jefferson and Hamilton, Burr cared little about portraying himself in any way or form as a man of integrity; something quite unusual for a politician. Counting among his maternal ancestors the highly respected clergyman and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), and on his paternal side, Aaron Burr Sr., (1716 – 1757) the second President of what was to become Princeton University, Aaron Burr was an American blue-blood. Yet Burr would have had no recollection of these eminent gentlemen who both died when he was still an infant. Originally studying theology, Burr switched to the study of law, and then during the Revolutionary War, served with Washington’s Continental Army. After the War of Independence, Burr entered politics, and rose through the political ranks, based in large part on a combination of: natural ability, great cunning and family influence.
Burr and Hamilton knew one another, and had as lawyers even conducted cases together. Yet Burr’s chameleon-like way to align himself where and when it would be best for Burr, ran against the grain with Hamilton. Both being from New York, Burr approached Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, with a plan to develop a water-works project in order to rid New York city of its seasonally recurrent malaria epidemics. Hamilton was gratified and surprised to think that Burr would be so altruistic and signed the papers to put the funding of this plan into action. Burr however, as it quickly became clear, had no desire to found any such project, but wished to use Hamilton’s signature so as to ratify what was contained within his plan in very fine print – the establishment of a very real financial institution to support his fantasy scheme. This institution would in time become, the Chase Manhattan Bank. Hamilton had been duped by Burr, trusting in the latter’s sincerity, and had inadvertently as well as irrevocably placed into law, a rival to his own creations: the Bank of New York, and the First Bank of the United States. As history would later show, Aaron Burr’s facility for political indiscretion was only ever rivalled by his unabashed scandalous and very public, private life; the salacious nature which he shared quite openly in writing with his much loved daughter, Theodosia. Burr was in the truest sense of the word, a maverick, but a maverick with unquenchable ambition. Aside from his murder of Hamilton, from which he escaped conviction, Burr should have been found guilty of treason, after an 1807 scandal involving a plan to declare himself President and perhaps even King of a number of United States territories. Once again he escaped conviction, on a point of technicality, as well as partisan politics, for President Jefferson pushed for Burr’s conviction, but Chief Justice John Marshall, (despite being a cousin of Jefferson), belonging to the Federalist camp, judged otherwise. That Burr knew that this had indeed been a fortuitous judgement on the part of Marshall, is evidenced by his near immediate decision to take a four year ‘sabbatical’ to Europe. Burr may have been an unabashed rake and scoundrel, but he was not so depraved that he would willingly give away his freedom, when escape was still an option.
Burr however, as it quickly became clear, had no desire to found any such project, but wished to use Hamilton’s signature so as to ratify what was contained within his plan in very fine print – the establishment of a very real financial institution to support his fantasy scheme
But let us take a few steps back. When Burr stood facing Hamilton on that July morning in 1804, it was not only Burr that pulled the trigger ending Hamilton’s life. The two protagonists of this tragic scene, had been brought together carried along by the tempest of gossip and whispers. Like school boys egged on to fight in the yard by the mob, so too, such events as the Burr-Hamilton duel only ever eventuate because the audience who bays for blood, also has a hand in building the stage for the performance to take place. Burr pushed one domino – but he and a host of others, (including Hamilton of course and his supporters) had conspired to set the pattern up. Dominoes tumble – but first they have to be set up in order to do so. There are winds of both good and evil, and they blow wherever they will, and each individual must face them, embrace them, or reject them, as they so choose. Such winds of evil blew Hamilton and Burr to their fateful meeting. The causes of the animosity between Burr and Hamilton have already been alluded to in part, but what immediately precipitated the duel was a claimed dinner party comment, allegedly made by Hamilton, and overhead by a friend of Aaron Burr, Dr. Charles D. Cooper. Cooper claimed that Hamilton had been exceedingly disparaging about the desire Burr had to run as Governor of New York. The fact that Burr eventually lost the election, just added fuel to the fire, for Hamilton, although retired from public life, still held considerable sway in New York. Thus on the hearsay of Cooper, and on the reverberating echo that followed, two men who held little love for one another in the first place, were brought to mortal combat.
The Ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, (4BC – 65AD), in one of his moral essays, once wrote about the effect of gossip in spreading enmity, discord and lies. Seneca wrote: “Of the things which offend us some are reported to us, others we ourselves hear or see. As to what is told us, we should not be quick to believe; many falsify in order that they may deceive; many others, because they themselves are deceived. One courts our favour by making an accusation and invents an injury in order to show that he regrets the occurrence; then there is the man who is spiteful and wishes to break up binding friendships, and the one who is sharp-tongued and, eager to see the sport, watches from a safe distance the friends whom he has brought to blows.” (Seneca, On Anger, II, Loeb Vol. 214, p. 229).
The fact that Burr eventually lost the election, just added fuel to the fire, for Hamilton, although retired from public life, still held considerable sway in New York.
Hamilton and Burr had been acquaintances, never friends. For them to have been friends, their gaze had to be set in the same direction and not at cross-purposes. Yet too often the price of ambition and self-interest is so much greater than the value we place on our common humanity. We think frequently of win-loss scenarios, rather than seeking justice. The lie, that that which separates us, is in some way greater than that which binds us, is the root cause of parricide. For in essence the globe holds on its face, a human family, related by a common Creator, separated and torn asunder by the father of all lies; who seeks disharmony and discord, at the cost of peace and truthfulness.
The only winner in this game of thrones between the triumvirate of Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr, was Jefferson. Hamilton paid with his reputation and life. Eliza Hamilton paid dearly as well, for the first that she had known about the duel was when she was called to come to the bedside of her mortally wounded husband. Alexander Hamilton had written to Eliza the morning of the duel a letter. In part it read: “This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.” (Chernow, 2004, p. 709) For the rest of her life, Eliza would dedicate her energy and strength to leaving behind a legacy of her husband that was true to her mind and heart.
For in essence the globe holds on its face, a human family, related by a common Creator, separated and torn asunder by the father of all lies; who seeks disharmony and discord, at the cost of peace and truthfulness.
Burr kept his life, but lost everything else, even having to change his name from Burr, to his mother’s name Edwards, in order to re-gain a foothold, however loose and slim back in American society. All this from a man who was quite nearly, but for a singular vote, the third President of the United States. Some may applaud Burr for what can be perceived as his stark honesty. It takes a certain type of man to admit to his only child, a young woman of apparently good manners, that he will be in the paid company of yet another different paid woman that evening, and what his intentions for that evening expenditure will be. But gall or amorality should never be confused with honesty. A man who publically rejoices in vice, is not an honest man. He is corrupt, and has the power to corrupt others. There is no sense of a desire to reform, or to be reconciled with virtue.
As for the Sage of Monticello, Jefferson in retirement, mourned not for Hamilton, nor cared for Burr. He lived a long life, and died, George Washington aside, as the most esteemed of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Without doubt, he was a masterful political player; something that Washington came to understand and despise Jefferson for later in life. What Washington once believed to have been naiveté in Jefferson, he fathomed later to be duplicity. The first President would die completely unreconciled from the third. In hindsight, it is easy to see how Jefferson had set an intricate domino-run, that swallowed up his rivals, including Hamilton and Burr. Safe in the knowledge that none could prove his sexual appetite for his slave, Sally Hemmings, he died in his bed, of cherished memory, surrounded by his white family, with slaves tilling his fields.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, July 2018
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