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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After these misadventures, Burr floated about Europe, returned to the United States to resume his law practice, philandered his way through society, remarried (long after his beloved wife Theodosia and his daughter of the same name had died), and then himself died on the very day a divorce from his second wife took effect. One of the great adventure tales of American history thus ended, as it began, in a kind of puzzling confusion. It was an adventure tale that most historians would say might have been avoided had Aaron Burr been another man.

But of course, he wasn't. All of his deeds marked Burr as one of the most distinctive figures of the early 19th century. But what are we to make of them--and of him? Isenberg's muscular defense of the man takes us about as far as we can go in evaluating his positive qualities. He was unsurpassed in his political skills, at least until they deserted him. He was an early opponent of slavery--a stance that scarcely ingratiated him with the Southern base of his party, or most other Americans. He was a champion of the cities' "middling sort" and pushed for legal reform, free speech, fair elections, liberal citizenship requirements, and broadened banking and stock ownership.

He recommends himself to us today for his genuine, before-his-times feminism--as a man who saw women as men's equals, who educated his daughter to be the intellectual equal of the men around her, and who apparently reveled socially, intellectually, and sexually in women's company. And unlike all but a very few of his countrymen, he was a philosophical utilitarian, unexpected in the heir of distinguished divines as well as in a member of the nation's professional elite.

And yet there was something about Burr, even these distinctive traits, that made him a stranger in his own land. He rarely had a straight-on relationship to his day's events. A man of the educated gentry, he stood outside it, and effectually criticized it as an urban democrat, even if a high-born one. A leader of New York's Democratic Republican party, he could not get along with its other leaders (although in this he was scarcely distinctive). He might have speeded the resolution of the critical presidential election of 1800-01, but he remained adamant (as Isenberg makes clear in one of the most authoritative sections of her book) about his own principles and clarity of purpose at the cost of sowing deep distrust inside and outside Jefferson's administration.

When he fatally shot Hamilton, he put himself beyond the pale of politics. And then when he engaged in the filibustering that Isenberg so energetically explains as having been well within the tradition of 19th-century nationalism, he joined the company of often-seedy adventurers, and took himself forever out of the governing elite.

Burr seems always to have been caught between the ethos of gentleman and that of democrat. Or perhaps his disposition was to combine both in an uneasy alliance. Take, for instance, his outrage over plundering by American troops during the Revolution. His anger can be read as both gentlemanly (roughnecks are contemptible) and as egalitarian: Soldiers must show respect for all people, whatever their station, who sacrifice for the war effort. But if this were moderation of a sort, Burr's moderation had a bit of priggishness about it and a kind of naiveté about the realities of politics and war. He would have made a distinguished college professor or man of the cloth.

Isenberg concludes that Burr was "no better, no worse, than those with whom his name is most commonly linked." That his life and achievements are usually dismissed for being abnormal she considers "ridiculous." He was, she says, "at least equal to the 'standard' among the founding elite" of his country. He was the "odd man out" among his contemporaries for his feminism, his intellectual curiosity, his easy sexual mores, his democracy, his refusal to be as partisan as the others of his day, and his urbanism--indeed, his urbanity.

Much of this is so. And because of Isenberg's heavy work, we can now see better than ever before the positive qualities that made Burr one of the great men of his day. But the fact remains that he is the curiosity that establishes the boundaries of the conventional, the one who shows us what could not work in the early 19th century, and the man who always went a bit too far in everything he undertook. A "fallen founder" he was; and in the end, contrary to Isenberg's view, his falls were nobody's fault more than his own.

James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington, is cofounder of the National History Center.