The Magazine

Stranger in His Own Land

The mystery of Aaron Burr.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Fallen Founder

The Life of Aaron Burr

by Nancy Isenberg

Viking, 544 pp., $29.95

All historical subjects, like styles in art or fashions in clothes, have their day and then subside--sometimes from decadence, sometimes from excess, and sometimes from plain exhaustion. You know that fuel is running low once we have three (or is it four?) recent biographies of Gouverneur Morris--a not insignificant man (inasmuch as he gave us the profoundly significant preamble to the Constitution and the words of much of the rest of it) but not exactly in Washington's league. So if Nancy Isenberg's lively and engaged biography of the nation's third vice president is any indication, we're now approaching the end of two decades of enchantment with the nation's Founders and doing so because historians are running out of subjects and things to say. After all, we'd expect those least appealing to come last in the queue. And thus it is with this very first modern biography of Aaron Burr. That it arrives after so many studies of Burr's contemporaries, and that its subject is the most controversial figure of them all, suggests that what's sustained the momentum behind these books is at last giving out.

Isenberg knows what she's up against: a large, collective hagiography of the Founders, especially of the Big Six--Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. So how is she to deal with a subject as distinctive and vexatious as Burr? We sense that, despite her protestations to the contrary, she knows that Burr can't quite measure up to the others; but she's also tired, as well she might be, of Burr's serving as the foil to most of them. Like almost every biographer, she's sympathetic to her subject and wants to redeem him from the condescension and contempt to which he's been subjected since the early 19th century. But how to rehabilitate him? Her solution is a somewhat novel approach: a full-bore defense brief for the accused.

Up to a point, it's a sound strategy. You poke holes in every plaintiff's case; you find good in all your client's deeds, intentions, and words; you remind your readers of each injustice he's faced; and you relent not at all. The result can be effective and, as it is here, the most muscular case that's ever been mounted on Burr's behalf. But while historical understanding can, in some instances, emerge from adversarial proceedings, those proceedings themselves sow the seeds of skepticism. We know enough about courtroom set-to's to realize that, while decisions emerge from them, the full truth rarely does and that mistakes (like faulty convictions without DNA evidence) are often the result. We come away unsatisfied, dazzled by the attorneys' skills, but not confident that justice has been done.

And so it is here. Right from the start, to make her case, Isenberg depreciates everyone else. Burr's Federalist opponents are sniffily dismissed as "pedantic" and "as always quick to find fault with their opponents"--as if, say, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams were never given to such naysaying. A partisan of Alexander Hamilton is a "snoop," a "crony," or a "toady." Hamilton himself can do nothing right; Jefferson not much more; and the other political figures in Burr's New York are, unlike Burr, always calculating and on the wrong side of history. Burr himself? He's consistently the "voice of reason" or "a French gallant" in romance and sex. His mind is scintillating, his political skills beyond comparison, his judgment usually impeccable. If this strains credulity, so be it: Isenberg wants to arm future historians with the best explanations of Burr's often inexplicable acts she can.

In many respects, she doesn't have to stretch to do so. There's much to admire in Burr and strong grounds for trying to rescue him from the disdain of history. He had a fertile and facile intelligence and was, without doubt, one of the best attorneys of his day. It would be difficult to identify anyone more skilled than he at operating in the north's most politically complex urban setting, polyglot New York City. His campaign to put New York State into Jefferson's column in the presidential election of 1800 was unprecedented in its political brilliance, and he deserved selection as Jefferson's vice presidential running mate. After that, however, he slowly became unmoored.