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.
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.
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.