Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

In Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr , Nancy Isenberg, Professor of History at Louisiana State University, contends that she is the first historian to write a biography of America’s third vice president. She takes to task previous biographers as well as writers of fiction, who she argues, have distorted and maligned Burr’s character. Isenberg sets out to rehabilitate Burr’s reputation here. This is a well-written and thoroughly researched and engaging biography and should be of great interest to anyone interested in Revolutionary and post Revolutionary America or the history of government in general. It has much to commend it.

Burr was born in 1756 in New Jersey to a semi-prosperous family but was orphaned at a young age. He was educated at College of New Jersey in Princeton. He later became a military hero in the American War for Independence. After his service in the Continental Army, Burr became a successful attorney as well as a leading figure in New York State, and eventually national politics. Though some pushed him to be president, he emerged from the presidential election of 1800 as Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President. Amazingly, while serving in this position, he fought the famous duel that ended in the death of Alexander Hamilton. After being pushed out of office prior to the second Jefferson Administration, Burr spent several years endeavoring to establish conditions and an organization conducive for a private force to attack and conquer the Spanish Territories of Florida and Mexico, with an eye toward enlarging the young United States. As a result of these machinations, Burr was brought up on, what Isenberg argues, were trumped up charges for treason against the United States. Eventually Burr was acquitted of all crimes. Though politically ruined and hounded by creditors and political enemies for most of the remainder of his life, Burr was not personally broken, and he eventually settled down and continued to practice law and be socially accepted in New York State.  He died in 1836. For two hundred years biographers and others have vilified Bur as an immoral schemer, traitor and sexual deviant.

Isenberg makes a strong case that unsubstantiated character assassination not only destroyed Burr’s political career, but led to his demonization for two hundred years. As the practice of attacking leaders and other public figures, sometimes based upon inaccurate facts and false conspiracy theories, is ripe in the world today, I believe that we can learn important lessons from Burr’s story and from Isenberg’s chain of reasoning.

Isenberg defends Burr in several ways. First she readily acknowledges Burr’s imperfections but argues that few historical figures can be described as pure heroes or villains. She very perceptively writes that “History is not a bedtime story” and goes on to state that Burr was “no better and no worse” than the other founders of America. For example, Burr’s detractors often harp upon the fact that Burr was in debt and had a multitude of unpaid creditors. These debts were the result of poor speculative decisions. However, this tendency to accrue huge and difficult to pay liabilities was symptomatic of many of Burr’s generation, including such esteemed personages as Alexander Hamilton. Any student of Thomas Jefferson’s knows that he piled up more and more debt throughout life, in his case the result of lavish uncontrolled spending.

Another line of attack against Burr was that he was wildly and recklessly promiscuous. While he did have multiple affairs with women after the death of his wife, this pattern of behavior also was very common among Burr’s peers, including Hamilton, Jefferson as well as Benjamin Franklin.

For me, the most problematical event in Burr’s life was the killing of Alexander Hamilton in the famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. While difficult to fully justify Burr’s actions, there were strong extenuating circumstances involved. As Isenberg points out, and I believe to be true from other sources, Hamilton could be a verbally vicious man who slandered and attacked his political enemies both in writing and through gossip. After years of nasty personnel baiting, Burr had had enough and resorted to challenging Hamilton to combat. While extremely dangerous, dueling rarely resulted in the death of the participants. Though the author points out the are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened at Weehawken, she presents a strong argument that Hamilton’s death was more of a matter of chance rather then of malice.

I would surmise that the death of Hamilton would likely fall under our present day definition of manslaughter. While this incident certainly must be included in any summation of Burr’s life, I would further extrapolate Isenberg’s point that we need to make a fair comparison between Burr and his peers, by considering ugly incidents and character traits exhibited by the other men of the founding generation. For instance, Washington ordered multiple executions of both his own men as well as for loyalist and British adversaries, for minor offenses during the Revolutionary War. Washington, Jefferson and many other powerful men held large numbers of slaves during the same period. There are many other examples of founders behaving immorally. These flaws in others, in no way justify Burr’s actions. However if we do condemns Burr for Hamilton’s death, I think that such condemnation needs to be leveled for other, perhaps more severe offenses, committed by many cherished American icons at the time.

Conspiracy theories play an important part in past and present attacks upon Burr. After his tenure as vice president, Burr was involved in organizing and planning a “Filibuster”, or civilian invasion and conquest of what were then Spanish territories, presumably in conjunction with an American war against Spain. Isenberg’s book argues that Burr’s plans against Spain were twisted and distorted by hysterical enemies into a non- existent plot to formant succession of the western United States, as well as the overthrow of the Jefferson Administration by force. Supporting the contention that there was no truth to the accusation of treason, is the fact that although Burr was subjected to several trials arising out of these charges, he was eventually acquitted of all involvement with any crimes.

The claims revolving around Burr’s supposed seductive power and escapades also remind me of similar attacks leveled upon modern politicians and even American Presidents. Burr was and is often portrayed as a rakish womanizer. Isenberg argues that the fraction of stories that are accurate, in no way set Burr apart from many of his historically esteemed peers such as Hamilton and Jefferson. There was however another dimension to these attacks and insinuations. Both as a political leader and organizer, as well as a planner of a potential Filibuster, Burr seemed to attract many young men as dedicated followers. Isenberg speculates that Burr’s appeal may have been attributed to a strong and compelling personality, and surmises that he may have exuded a charisma not unlike Humphrey Bogart or Clint Eastwood. Burr’s enemies characterized this tendency to attract such followers in a sinister light, as some kind of homosexual erotic seduction.

Burr’s adversaries often portrayed Burr as having no real ideals, of taking whatever position benefited him at the time. Isenberg points out that the opposite was true. Politically, while a moderate, he was steadfast to his beliefs and loyal to his friends. Contrary to false allegations, several episodes, including the contentious Presidential election of 1800, found Burr acting both ethically and fairly.

 Furthermore, Isenberg presents Burr as an enlightened and progressive thinker. He was an advocate of the political philosophy of Utilitarianism. He championed and advanced the right of the public to directly elect representatives. He held and exorcised, what for the time, were radical feminist ideals, strongly advocating education for women as well as women’s rights in all areas. He educated his daughter beyond the level of most upper class men of the time. This was unprecedented for late eighteenth century America.

Isenberg makes a strong case that Burr has been terribly maligned in his time and throughout American history. I do tend to distrust the general consensus historically or contemporarily, when a person is either exalted or vilified.  I am leaning towards the opinion that Isenberg ‘s interpretation is fair and relatively accurate. As my knowledge of Burr’s life was sketchy before reading the book, however, I need to be exposed to contrary sources before being really certain. Isenberg points out that Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton presents a much more negative take on Burr. That book is sitting on my shelf and I need to read it in order to really be more confident that I comprehend the issues.
I must conclude that Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr  lays out a case study as to how a prominent figure’s enemies can create a web of slander and inaccurate impressions aimed at damaging and ruining the victim. In our age where media outlets, as well as communication networks, such as cable television stations, newspapers, partisan websites, etc. very effectively pursue nearly identical tactics, this history book should be read as a cautionary tale.

My commentary comparing Nancy Isenberg’s “Fallen Founder” and Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” can be found here.


Violet said...

Sadly, I know nothing about American history, but this book sounds like a good attempt to set the record straight about someone whose reputation has taken a battering. Politics creates powerful enemies, so it is little wonder the public gets less than a true account of many politicians' lives.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet – The interesting thing is that some public figures are showered with undeserved adoration, occasionally even for horrendous acts while others are sometimes vilified for the wrong reasons. I think that Isenberg gets it right when she points out that the truth is somewhere in between.