THE HEARTBREAK OF AARON BURR
By H.W. Brands
Anchor Books/Random House, $15, 176 pages
In the early history of the United States, the names of two “might-have-beens” stand out. Each fought bravely in the American Revolution, though each was hamstrung by vanity, easily hurt feelings and a deep-seated rage against those men they considered ungrateful for services rendered.
One was Benedict Arnold, America’s most famous traitor. The other was Aaron Burr (1756-1836), a man best known for killing former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel: a rash, needless act that effectively destroyed not one life but two. Both Arnold and Burr went down in history as men accused of treason, and in time each died as a man without a country.
Arnold could never return to America after famously turning his coat. But Burr - accused of fomenting a revolution on the frontier that would have separated the fledgling United States from all the lands west and south of the Allegheny Mountains - lived on in America after several years in exile, nursing his grievances and largely forgotten by his countrymen.
In this short, accessible study, written entirely in the present tense, historian H.W. Brands has contributed a much more tightly focused work than the massive studies he has published in the past. (His magisterial biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin, for example, are essential works on these historical figures: well documented, learned, and accessible to both the general reader and the scholar.)
In “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr,” Mr. Brands goes beyond what is commonly known about Burr to show his more admirable side, which lay in his developing the mind and character of the treasure of his life, his daughter Theodosia (1783-1813). Mr. Brands goes on to show how Burr, like a figure from classical tragedy, had what little joy he possessed snatched from him by his nemesis, having to some extent set the stage for his own ruin.
Quoting judiciously from the letters of the key players in the tragedy, Mr. Brands portrays Burr as a brave soldier, a brilliant lawyer, a rising star within Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party and a man hobbled by his sensitivity to the slights and attacks that are the warp and woof of American political life. He was a man who suffered much, first when his beloved wife died after just over 10 years of marriage, leaving him to raise young Theodosia alone.
At the time of his wife’s death, he had already taken steps to raise his daughter as the equal of any man. Although he was frequently away from home on business, Burr insisted that she gain an extensive education, learn to write remarkably well-considered letters, master the French language and read extensively. (When shopping for presents for his daughter, Burr seems always to have purchased books - which she devoured, reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by age eight.)
She was also tutored in the social graces, and as a teen Theodosia was hosting parties and other gatherings on behalf of her father at their home in New York. In time she married Joseph Alston, a prominent South Carolina politician, and moved to join her husband in the Palmetto State. There she bore a son, whom she named after her father.
Burr himself, recognized as a gifted lawyer and a politician on the move, served as vice president during Jefferson’s first administration. Life seemed good, but then the dark days came.
He grew increasingly uneasy as he sensed that Jefferson, rather than grooming him as his successor to the presidency, was using him primarily as a foil to the Federalists and their gadfly spokesman, Hamilton. For his part, Hamilton seems to have seen it as his mission in life to aggravate Burr with a stream of criticisms and barely veiled personal insults. Angered by Hamilton’s barbs, Burr challenged his antagonist to the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death on July 12, 1804.
With his political career effectively at an end, Burr next joined forces with a handful of crack-brain conspirators on the Western frontier. These weak reeds joined him in the planning stages of a mad scheme to raise a body of fighting men, instigate war with Spain and seize the Spanish-held territories of Florida, Texas and the Trans-Mississippi region. The whole fiasco was more talk than action, but there were enough actions taken by Burr to warrant his arrest and trial for treason in 1807.
To the disappointment of Jefferson, Burr was acquitted, though his career as an attorney was ruined, as few people now trusted him. He spent several years away from America and Theodosia, living in humiliation and poverty in England and France, finally returning to New York to discover that he had been forgotten. But the worst was yet to come.
His namesake and only grandchild died at age 10 of a fever, and the grieving Theodosia, now the first lady of South Carolina, set out aboard the schooner Patriot to visit her father. After leaving Charleston harbor on Dec. 31, 1812, the Patriot, her crew and Theodosia Burr Alston were never seen again.
As Mr. Brands writes, near the end of this short, intense work of history, “Burr falls silent. There is nothing to say. His few friends seek to console him; even his enemies nod to him on the street, affirming a human bond deeper than politics and acknowledging a loss more profound than most, thank God, must suffer.”
It is a supreme irony that the northbound voyage of the Patriot would have taken her through a region known as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” and past “Hamilton’s Light,” a much-needed lighthouse built at Cape Hatteras under the authorization of the man Aaron Burr had killed back in 1804, when his future seemed so promising.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).
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