FALLEN FOUNDER: THE LIFE OF AARON BURR
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking, $29.95, 544 pages
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL P. RICCARDS
Since the festivities of the American Bicentennial in 1976, there has been a steady stream of quality biographies of the Founding Fathers — not just the major Founders, but even the second tier group that was so important at the state level. In that national chronicle, though, Aaron Burr is frequently cited as the villain.
Part of the reason for his low reputation is the absence of many of his papers, and the reliance of historians on partisan newspaper accounts of the time. Nancy Isenberg of the University of Tulsa has written a remarkable biography that makes one re-think Burr's life and also the peculiarities of 18th-century politics in America. Some of the sketches are positively charming in their style and sweep.
Aaron Burr came from splendid stock: His father was president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and on his mother's side related the great Protestant divine, Jonathan Edwards. He was a very young student at the college, diligent and very much a gentleman in the making. Again and again, Burr's acquaintances (even his foes) told each other what a fine person he was — totally loyal and trustworthy. Ms. Isenberg claims that in his dealings with women, especially his beloved wife and daughter, he was a feminist, a person who supported a strong education for females and treated them as equals.
Ms. Isenberg also has decided that Burr was a very sensuous man, a charming fellow who drew both women and young male admirers to his orbit. She tries to explain his character within that erotic context, but it does not quite come off. More convincingly, she explains in fine detail the political world he lived and prospered in all his adult life.
Politics in the early republic were brutally hardball, especially in New York state. Unfortunately for Burr, he had to negotiate through the mazes of the powerful clans that governed its politics. Most importantly, he crossed swords repeatedly with the ambitious Alexander Hamilton, a gifted partisan who loved to use the newspapers to assassinate the characters of his opponents.
Burr was originally an anti-Federalist, but later he put together a popular coalition in his state that would meld together with the Jeffersonians in the South. Eventually he provided Thomas Jefferson with the votes to be elected. But in the 1800 presidential contest, he and Jefferson had the exact same number of voters in the election, which was thrown into the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives.
For the rest of his career he would be accused of trying to deny the election from Jefferson, a charge that was not true. But during the first year of Jefferson's new term, the president became more suspicious, and Burr lost important patronage choices due to that animosity.
Hamilton had carried on a personal campaign of vituperation for years against Burr, but the latter had looked the other way. Frustrated by his political problems in the early 1800s, though, Burr had enough and demanded a retraction from Hamilton, who responded that politics is politics. Too bad. The result was the famed duel; despite the popular view that Hamilton did not aim at Burr, he appears to have done so, but he was killed by a more accurate shot by Burr.
That action led to Burr's career collapsing in New York and across the North. He was a common assassin. Burr went back to finish up his term in Washington, still dining with Jefferson and other Republican leaders. But his political future seemed done. Then he re-emerged as a filibusterer who would lead a private army into Mexico and split it off for the United States.
Instead, Jefferson and others received reports that Burr really wanted to split off the American West and even launch a march on Washington, D.C. So, poor Burr was tried for treason and eventually found innocent by the machinations of Chief Justice John Marshall. Jefferson, who so twisted the prosecution process to get Burr indicted and then tried, was furious at Marshall.
Once again Burr survived, but he left the nation and just phased out. What happened to the young man with such promise, such breeding, such political appeal? Somehow in the hard-knuckled world of New York politics, and with his constant running for one office after another, Aaron Burr became a very different man.
The promise was lost and his career became an almost frenetic race for distinction and power. His imperfections were magnified, and his misjudgments haunted him too quickly and too long. His foes waited for his fall, and so it came, proving once again that in America there is a very dark side to ambition.
Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the American presidency, "The Ferocious Engine of Democracy."