Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg
It takes a historian or biographer of rare caliber to take an obscure and hated historical figure and to uncover the truth about his life under the surface in a way that both illuminates the man and his times. Nancy Isenberg is such a researcher. As the first, and to date only, historian to devote her attention to the life of Aaron Burr, Isenberg seems well-equipped for her difficult task. The rehabilitation of Aaron Burr is not a task to be taken lightly, and Isenberg shows an admirable command of the historical material (some of it in foreign languages), and a willingness to confront the pious hypocrisies of American historiography of the Founding Generation. Isenberg’s work is a revisionist history of the highest order.
The book is organized in a conventional chronological fashion, but is a highly unconventional work largely because Aaron Burr was an unconventional man. From his childhood as an orphan who lost his father, mother, and grandfather (the great preacher Jonathan Edwards) to dysentery. A youth of adventure included four years of service to the American army in its invasion of Canada and Northern Theater. A rapid political rise made him the great unifier of the Democratic Republican party in New York, the rival of both Alexander Hamilton (of the Federalists) and DeWitt Clinton (of the Republicans). A troubled term as Vice President (after the infamous ‘tie’ of 1800), his success in a duel of honor with Hamilton, his involvement in Western land speculation and filibustering, a complicated trial, a few years of exile in Europe where Jefferson’s spite traveled across the Atlantic, and then a return as an old lawyer and political mentor to a new generation of Democrat leaders (like Martin Van Buren) before he died during a controversial divorce.
Where Isenberg spectacularly succeeds, though, is not merely showing his life and his considerable adroitness in political behavior, as well as a candid examination of his flaws, but in showing why he is viewed in such a negative light, as well as why he was unable to escape the condemnation of so many of his peers. Isenberg notes his feminism, his support of an activist government (a byproduct of his support of Benham’s Utilitarianism, of which he and Albert Gallatin were the American promoters), his remarkably candid personality (including candor about his sexual life that was twisted by political enemies and Victorian commentators into generations of slander), his support of choice rather than ethnicity as the defining quality of citizenship, his democratic politics and support of the ambitious commoner, and his goal of defeating the hold of the Virginians on the political leadership of the early Republic.
The causes of Burr’s bad reputation are many–he made errors, for which he paid heavily, he made enemies, who had no compunction with writing libelous accusations of him (a byproduct of the decline of civility in the political culture of the time ) or for seeking to falsely accuse him of treason . His role as a powerful and able Northern politician made him a rival across political lines as well as for other ambitious figures within his state and within rival blocs in his party. His candor and sense of manly personal honor threatened his less scrupulous rivals. His lack of a powerful family bloc meant that his support was based on the people rather than on an incestuous elite connected by dynastic marriages and nepotism (like the Southern aristocratic political base or the Livingston and DeWitt families in New York). His lack of surviving heirs meant that he did not have a genetic base of posthumous defenders nor anyone to protect the publication of his most personal records, which were burned by the prim and proper heirs of his contemporaries.
The end result is that this book allows us to see a darker side of the Founding Generation than most books of the period provide, a book useful for demolishing the marble myths of supposed demigods who were, like the rest of us, imperfect, but capable of nobility in their better moments. Burr comes across as an acceptable (if odd) member of his generation, a worthy founder, an especially worthy model of the later course of American political history (if an ominous one in certain aspects), and a man more sinned against than sinning. If you have a taste for defending unpopular causes, a fondness for revisionist history, and a willingness to deal with somewhat unpleasant subjects (treachery, libelous slander of incest and immorality by political enemies), as well as an interest in the political history of the early American Republic, this is a most excellent book for one’s library.