Book review: ‘Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr’

Perhaps no figure in American Revolutionary history has been the victim of vilification more than former U.S. vice president and New York senator, Aaron Burr.

And for some, with good reason. He was, after all, the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the heralded Federalist who was one of the most outspoken backers of the U.S. Constitution, supported the creation of a national bank and served as secretary of the treasury under George Washington. In his time, no one eclipsed Hamilton in economic and political influence in colonial and post-colonial America. And this brilliant thinker and fellow founder fell to Burr’s bullet in the famous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

Even to casual readers of American history, to mention the name of Aaron Burr is to conjure words such as “traitor” and “secessionist.” But is this an adequate picture of the man, or has history done Burr’s legacy a disservice?

Nancy Isenberg in “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr,” brings this enlightened and progressive man’s life back into view, without — this time — the unsubstantiated claims that have marred nearly every account of Burr up until now. Even modern biographies such as 2005’s “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow have largely perpetuated the worst view of Burr, that he held no set of political ideas worth pursuing, that he was an opportunist of the highest degree and that he was sexually frivolous.

While the latter charge is most certainly true, the other two are rather spurious. Tracing the steps of Hamilton’s widow from her life some 45 years after Hamilton’s death, Chernow claims in his prologue that Burr had:

… fired a moral shot at her husband, Alexander Hamilton, in a misbegotten effort to remove the man Burr regarded as the main impediment to the advancement of his career.

This is a dubious claim at best. Sure, Burr possessed his own political ambition, and it’s true that Hamilton and Burr were on different political spectra, but the simple reason behind the duel was Hamilton’s refusal to make an apology stemming from a statement, recorded by Charles Cooper, that Hamilton:

…has come out decidedly against Burr; indeed when he was here he spoke of him as a dangerous man, and who ought not to be trusted.

This was not an isolated statement from Hamilton against Burr’s character, but only one of any many denigrations Hamilton had made about Burr in the lead-up to the duel. This one, for Burr however, necessitated that the two settle their differences under the code duello. Had Hamilton apologized or recanted the statement, admitting that he had gone too far in his criticism of Burr, the duel probably never would have happened. Later in life, Burr admitted that

Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.

In any case, Burr penned an apology dated June 25, 1804 in which he requested Hamilton sign. Hamilton would not, and in a statement written between June 27-July 4, a day before the duel in New Jersey, said:

… it is possible that I may have injured Col Burr, however convinced myself that my opinions and declarations have been well founded, as from my general principles and temper in relation to similar affairs – I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner,and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thought even of reserving my second fire – and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and reflect.

It is not however my intention to enter into any explanations on the ground. Apology, from principle I hope, rather than Pride, is out of the question.

None of this admits that Burr entered upon the duel to protect his own political career. He was doing just fine for himself at that time in his career. He was vice president of the nation and a gifted lawyer, after all. Rather, it was the other way around. Certainly, Hamilton would have liked to have avoided a duel if he could have, but he was outspoken to a fault, as Chernow admits, and would not retract his comments about Burr. More likely is the case that — and Isenberg makes this point concretely — Hamilton, Jefferson and other political adversaries felt threatened by Burr. The only difference is that whereas Chernow links Burr’s challenge of a duel to his ambition, Isenberg does not, and in my opinion, it is the latter that stands on the right side of history in this particular case. Dueling was a common way to settle scores in those days (It was illegal in New York, and that is why the two traveled to New Jersey), and Burr, amid waves upon waves of Hamilton’s slash and burn hack campaign against him, he had had enough. Political ambition had little, if anything, to do with it.

Chernow makes another point about Burr that seems historically dishonest. He attempts to make the case that Burr did not leave behind any substantial documents that relate his political ideas, and Chernow questions why some consider Burr a founder in the first place. He says that while Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and other left behind thick and voluminous volumes, “packed with profound ruminations,” only two volumes exist of Burr’s writings. This is certainly true, but unlike some of the other founders, Burr had few living relatives in which to preserve his writings. His intelligent wife, Theodosia, died young; so did his daughter of the same name. Both were women of the enlightenment and carried their studies as far as their sex would take them at the time. Burr was more progressive than any of the founders, and he instilled, with the help of Theodosia the elder, the forward-thinking and high-minded ideals of Mary Wolstencraft and Jean-Jacques Rousseau into the younger Theodosia’s studies. The younger Theodosia, as it happens, disappeared after setting sail on the Patriot ship from Georgetown, S.C. The most common theory is that the schooner was captured by pirates, but in effect, no one knows what happened to Theodosia Burr Alston. The important point is that Burr outlived all of his immediate relatives and few, if any, were left to collect and carry on his legacy. All we are left with, as for Burr’s first-hand writings, are, unfortunately, the dregs, with a few exceptions, as Isenberg highlights.

Isenberg also makes a full account of Burr’s treason trial and his supposed conspiracy to create a new republic, separate from the United States, along with a portion of what was then called the “Southwest.” In reality, however, Burr’s schemes did not include any sort of separatist movement against the U.S., rather, he made plans to expand U.S. territory into Spanish Florida and Mexico (i.e. Manifest Destiny). Probably because he killed Hamilton and because of the political enemies he had made in Washington and elsewhere, many were suspicious of him, and it was actually Jefferson who had Burr arrested and indicted on a charge of treason. Jefferson was so cocksure of Burr’s guilt, and without any apparent reason, other than what he read in the obviously biased newspapers of the day. For all of Jefferson’s acumen in nearly every other subject that matters, I find it hard to rectify his headstrong determination to destroy Burr despite lack of any concrete evidence. Needless to say, no evidence was forthcoming in the actual treason trial because there was no evidence, and Burr was spared his life. But certainly not his political legacy.

Following the trial and still dogged by his detractors, he fled to Europe, suffered some unsuccessful ventures there and eventually returned to the U.S. in 1812 under the name, “Edwards,” which was probably a nod to his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, and his uncle, Timothy Edwards, the latter of whom helped raise him as a boy.

With Isenberg’s book, readers will get a fuller and more balanced account of Burr’s life than, to my knowledge, has ever been written. Unlike Chernow and many others who have written about Burr, she does not push aside or ignore or fail to investigate the questionable sides of Burr’s character in order to inflate the good. In “Fallen Founder,” readers will be refreshed to read an unfiltered account of the former vice president, with his sexual exploits, filibustering schemes and progressive political ideas about women’s rights and other topics of import intact. One warning here: she is not kind to Hamilton at all. Rightly so? I’m not sure. Of course, we can reward Hamilton with the titles of being a brilliant political thinker and founder. But for whatever reason, he was obsessed with destroying Burr, and seemed to have personal, and more than just political reasons, as his motivation.

In the end and ironically, Burr turned the trump card, not only “winning” the duel against his most fire-penned adversary, but outliving nearly all of his former detractors at the ripe age of 81.
Rating: ★★★★☆

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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