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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Burr was born into the colonial gentry which, in the Middle Atlantic states, as often as not took the form of professional status, not landed wealth. His father, Aaron Burr Sr., was a Yale-educated Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey, today's Princeton. His mother was the daughter of the great Jonathan Edwards, himself briefly president of that same college before his premature death. Young Aaron attended Nassau Hall, gave up study of the ministry in favor of the law, then joined Washington's army, where he served with distinction--although, a telltale sign of what was to come, increasingly at odds with Washington himself--at Valley Forge and elsewhere. He then began his immersion in New York politics that would see him navigate himself to commanding leadership, amid defeat as well as victory, through the Sargasso of that state's politics and become, as Isenberg calls him, "the only genuine democratic leader in the Empire State."

It's here that Isenberg's skills are most in evidence, as she guides her readers flawlessly through some of the most tangled factional politics in the nation's history.

But her historical skills can't save her subject. There was something in Burr's disposition that put him beyond permanent association, except for his immediate family. Burr claimed always to be standing independently on principle; but there was much about his maneuvering toward power, which sometimes even put him in league with his normal opponents in the Federalist party, that was unusual and eventually left him without support anywhere along the political spectrum.

The most celebrated, and costly, manifestation of his independence occurred in 1801 when, with the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, without question the head of his party's ticket, Burr refused to state unequivocally that he would not serve as president. This seemingly self-serving coyness opened the door to Federalist attempts to deny Jefferson the presidency, and resulted in the greatest constitutional crisis between 1787 and 1861. When, on the 36th ballot in the House of Representatives, Jefferson finally emerged as president, Burr no longer had friends in either party, especially among the Virginia slaveholding plantation grandees who controlled the Democratic Republicans and were always suspicious of anyone who represented the urban artisans of the north.

As if putting himself at odds with southern Republicans wasn't enough, he engaged in the fateful duel in 1804 with his fellow New Yorker, Federalist Alexander Hamilton. When Hamilton died of wounds sustained in that "interview" at Weehawken, Burr lost any chance of finding a new political home among the Federalists. From then on, he was a man without a natural political home or secure place in his own country.

Here is where the plot of Burr's story thickens--and where Isenberg is at her inventive best. It has always puzzled historians why, after Hamilton's death, Burr began to involve himself in schemes, usually with the least dependable characters in the land, that have ever since been seen as unprincipled, even treasonous. In fact, after leaving the vice presidency, in which he served with distinction, he was brought up on trial for treason before none other than Chief Justice John Marshall sitting on circuit in Richmond--and acquitted, at least before the law, if not history.

What was he up to? It has never been entirely clear. But it seems that he was trying to involve the United States in a war with Spain so that his nation could grab more land to itself--even after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Isenberg puts Burr's actions into the context of western "filibustering," a kind of extralegal (then acceptable) activity, not unlike seagoing privateering, in which private citizens, with a kind of "pass" from constituted authorities, took up arms against other powers.

In putting Burr's still-somewhat-inexplicable actions into this filibustering context, Isenberg makes her greatest fresh contribution to understanding. The trouble is, if Burr's efforts to peel off Spanish territory in Florida and Mexico for American benefit fit well within the tradition of filibustering (one that would continue throughout the century), they did nothing for his contemporary or historical reputation. We are still left with a man who always missed cues as to where he stood in others' estimation.