Monday, August 3, 2009

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr / Nancy Isenberg -- NY: Viking, 2007.

Nancy Isenberg's biography of Aaron Burr Fallen Founder will change what we think of Burr. Known primarily for three notorious acts, Burr's life has never been seriously studied by dispassionat historians -- at least this is Isenberg's plausible contention. Instead, what we believe we know about Burr has been given to us by his political enemies and has passed into history without careful scrutiny.

Isenberg's investigation of Burr's life prompts her to tell a far more sympathic story and rewrites what is thought to be known about the Election of 1800, Burr's duel with Hamilton, and Burr's alleged plot to conquer Mexico and separate the Western States from the Union. Isenberg's research into these and other events is meticulous. Her 521 page book includes 107 pages of notes, referring the reader to crucial primary sources that not only paint a different picture of Burr, cast doubt on the motives and testimony of his accusers.

It is commonly thought that during the constitutional crisis that threw the Election of 1800 into the House of Representatives, Burr worked to defeat his running mate, Thomas Jefferson, and secure the Presidency for himself. He might have been able to do this by persuading the Federalist members of Congress to join his own loyalists and win a majority of the states voting. According to Isenberg, Burr made his intentions clear: he had no desire to defeat Jefferson and that remaining a candidate for president was necessary to avoid electing the Federalist John Adams Vice President. Given Burr's youth, it seems quite plausible that he would be satisfied with serving as Vice President under Jefferson and then inherit the Presidency eight years later. However, Jefferson's animosity toward Burr would indicate that he was not able to gain Jefferson's trust, providing further circumstantial evidence in favor of a Machievelian reading of Burr.

Isenberg's description of Burr's duel with Hamilton leads one to see Hamilton as the most culpable member of the pair. Isenberg describes Hamilton's volitile and sometimes abusive personality in contrast with Burr's even genial temper. She writes that Burr was involved in only two duels in his life, while Hamilton was involved in 11 duels. Dueling was common in 1804, and given the abuse that Hamilton heaped on Burr over many years, one might not be surprised that Burr would issue the challenge. Isenberg's scholarship gives ample support to this reading.

Finally, Burr was famously tried by John Marshall and the Senate for treason. He was charged with planning an invasion of Mexico to establish himself as King and then inciting the Western United States to separate from the union to join his empire. In the course of the trial, he was also accused of plotting the assassination of Thomas Jefferson. What seems clear is that Burr intended to recruit a private army to invade Mexico. The invasion would, apparently only take place in the event that the US first declared war on Mexico. Raising private armies was, again, not unknown at the time. After two trials, one in Mississippi and one in the US Senate, Burr was cleard of the all charges against him. Isenberg persuasively argues that Burr's enemies fabricated the evidence against him and that the verdict of the courts were completely accurate.

Isenberg's rehabilitation of Burr is a splendid piece of history. Whether it is completely accurate or not is not as significant as the fact that she has opened an new field of study that will surely correct the unfair treatment that Burr has received for more than 200 years.

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