A review of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg

The truth about most popular history," Nancy Isenberg writes in Fallen Founder, her new life of Aaron Burr,

is that even when it is not patriotically inspired, it is made up of dangerous shortcuts…. History is not a bedtime story…. We cannot make eighteenth-century men and women ‘familiar' by endowing them and their families with the emotions we prefer to universalize; nor should we try to equate their politics with politics we understand. But this is what popular biographers do….

Popular historians, in other words, are what Sir Herbert Butterfield called Whiggish in their approach to history. They look to the past to understand how countries such as Great Britain and the United States have come to enjoy the liberties that characterize their present life. Like Butterfield, Isenberg—the Mary Frances Barnard Chair in 19th-Century American History at the University of Tulsa—rejects Whig history as insufficiently attentive to the pastness of the past. The difficulty is that she, in common with other anti-Whig historians, has repudiated Whiggery without escaping it. As much as any Whig, Isenberg is in thrall to the present, though in a different, and I think in a more pernicious way.

In Fallen Founder she attempts to redeem Burr—who figures in most histories as an unscrupulous foil to the virtuous heroes of the early Republic—by portraying him as a more modern figure than his contemporaries. Burr, she argues, was "a feminist—every bit a feminist, in the modern sense of the word." He "identified easily," she writes, "with women's issues," and he was "progressive" on political and social questions.

Such anachronisms are enough to make even the most violent Whig blush. At times Isenberg appears to be better versed in the world of the 21st century than in that of the 18th. She twice calls James Boswell "Samuel Boswell," perhaps conflating the name of the biographer with that of his principal subject. Her cultural references reveal a historical sensibility that is painfully au courant. She wonders whether Burr did not suffer from an "eighteenth-century version of post-traumatic stress disorder." His accounts of his amorous dalliances remind her of a strain of romantic comedy "taken up, at a later date, by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers." General William Eaton, one of Burr's detractors, "probably suffered from impostor syndrome." Burr's legal tactics anticipated those "lawyers later would use in class action suits." His style was that of "‘effortless effort,' a trait that is more readily associated in modern times with such Hollywood legends as Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood."

Despite these weaknesses, Isenberg has performed a useful service. The evidence for many of the most important episodes in Burr's career is meager, and she argues, plausibly enough, that where the evidence admits of doubt, historians have too often resolved it, not in favor of Burr, but in favor of his adversaries.

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In Fallen Founder Isenberg gives Burr the benefit of almost every doubt. In the presidential contest of 1800, Burr and Thomas Jefferson received an equal number of electoral votes; as a result it fell to the House of Representatives to choose the president. The evidence concerning Burr's actions during the winter that followed is ambiguous. In Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (2004), John Ferling concluded that once Burr "realized that he had a shot at becoming the president of the United States," this knowledge "turned Burr's head." Ferling points to a letter Burr wrote in late December 1800 to Samuel Smith, a Maryland Congressman, in which he said that he would accept the presidency if elected by the House (despite the fact that he had run as Jefferson's number two). Offering a somewhat strained interpretation of this letter, Isenberg argues that "no reliable evidence exists" to prove that Burr secretly sought the presidency for himself. She gives him the benefit of the doubt.

After the House, voting by states, resolved the election in favor of Jefferson, the Republican-Jeffersonian faction deserted Burr, even though he was, Isenberg maintains, guiltless of any act which could have justified the Jeffersonians' malice. She concedes that Burr appeared, at times, to make common cause with the anti-Jefferson Federalists; in February 1802, for example, at a Federalist dinner in honor of George Washington, Burr raised a glass to "The union of all honest men"—a toast many interpreted as a slap at Jefferson. Isenberg again gives Burr the benefit of the doubt. The toast, she argues, was innocent. "Burr had actually rejected the Federalists' invitation to dine," she writes, "dropping by at the conclusion of the meal—by chance, his friend said. Discovering the business at hand, he offered his toast as a courtesy, and then quickly retired."

It is the same with Burr's mysterious transactions in the West, which gave rise to the charge of treason against him. No evidence proving treachery came to light at the time, and the principal witness against Burr at his trial, General Wilkinson, was himself in the employ of the Spanish crown. But an 1804 letter from Anthony Merry, the British envoy at Washington, to Lord Harrowby, the British foreign secretary—later discovered in the British archives—raises questions about the nature of Burr's Western projects. According to Merry, Burr proposed to "lend his assistance to His Majesty's Government in any Manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavoring to effect a Separation of the Western Part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantick and the Mountains, in it's whole Extent." Isenberg, however, once more gives Burr the benefit of the doubt. He might have told Merry that he was willing to engage in treason against the United States; but in fact he had "no such intent."

After Burr was acquitted of treason, he went to Europe and proposed to renounce his American citizenship on grounds that he had been born a British subject, a repudiation of his country that marked him as a scoundrel in the eyes of many. According to Isenberg, however, Burr's proposal "was just a ploy." He subsequently returned to America and married a rich widow, Eliza Jumel, who a year after the wedding brought suit for divorce, accusing her husband of squandering her money and engaging in adultery. A servant, Mariah Johnson, gave evidence that she had caught Burr in the act; and Burr did not contest the divorce. It is nonetheless "clear," Isenberg maintains, that the servant was bribed, and that her testimony is not "ultimately persuasive." The idea that Burr "was bedding a twenty-six-year-old-woman," she writes, "seems farfetched." Surely Isenberg has here gone too far in her charity. That the aging roué should have given such ardent proofs, as he neared 80, of fidelity to his libertine philosophy almost does him credit.

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The difficulty with Isenberg's attempt to give Burr the benefit of every doubt, valuable though it may be as an academic exercise, is that the resulting portrait is not credible. Burr emerges, in Isenberg's telling, as a benign naïf who, through no fault of his own, was persecuted at every turn by malignant rivals. He was generous to Hamilton, who pursued him with a rabid fury. He never did Jefferson any harm, yet Jefferson destroyed him, not, Isenberg maintains, because Burr was (in Jefferson's words) a "crooked gun," but because the Virginian wanted his pal, James Madison, to succeed him as president.

Historians and novelists might at times have gone too far in painting Burr as an American Lucifer, but Isenberg's depiction of him as a benevolent ingénu has still less plausibility. Such an interpretation obliges the reader to view Hamilton, Burr's greatest detractor, not merely as an ogre, but as a stupid one, a bumbling and ineffectual hypocrite. When writing of the great men—Hamilton among them—who played a part in founding the Republic, Isenberg puts the word "great" in quotation marks. Here Isenberg's sense of proportion fails her. Hamilton established the credit of the United States. Though he was skeptical of the durability of the Constitution, he was one of its foremost champions. He said, with truth, that few men had done more than he to "prop" up what he called, in his despair, "the frail and worthless fabric." Burr, by contrast, was a polished hustler, an elegant epicurean who dabbled in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and opposed the ratification of the Constitution. He cannot meet Hamilton on equal historical terms.

Isenberg retorts that Hamilton was a sinner too. So he was, but that does not justify the quotation marks around the word "great." Isenberg equates greatness with moral flawlessness. To the contrary, great men, from Alexander to Napoleon, are more likely than ordinary men to succumb to até, the tragic infatuation which ends by destroying them. This is why the literature of human greatness is so comprehensively tragic; the flaws of the hero are in proportion to the largeness of his personality. Hamilton's achievements were outsized, and so too were his errors; there was grandeur in his very failings.

Burr was a smaller man, and Isenberg's revisionism adds little to his stature. A man who, during the Revolutionary War, displayed courage under fire, he never fulfilled his early promise. He concealed, under a pose of languor and nonchalance, a keen ambition and a projecting boldness. Trials that would have broken another man he bore, not merely stoically, but gaily. When he stood in the dock in Richmond, accused of treachery to the Republic, he displayed an astonishing sangfroid. In his prison outside the city he lived in "great style"; the ladies showered him with gifts. He was an iron-nerved adventurer, a charming blackguard, one who was ever ready to seize the main chance, but never succeeded in doing so.

As he worked on his great History of the United States in the early 1880s, Henry Adams wrote a volume on Burr, and asked John T. Morse for permission to include it in the "American Statesman" series. "[John] Randolph is the type of a political charlatan who had something in him," Adams wrote. "Burr is the type of a political charlatan pure and simple, a very Jim Crow of melodramatic wind-bags. I have something to say of both varieties." Morse turned Adams down, arguing that Burr was not a statesman. Adams took his point, and threw the parts of the volume not suitable for the History into the fire. Isenberg's contentions to the contrary notwithstanding, the judgment stands.