17 Jun

Aaron Burr: Too Honorable, Too Honest?

Aaron Burr is the odd man out in the short list of founding fathers. He is variously portrayed as a sneaky villain, a snake charmer, a foppish dandy, an empty suit accidentally thrust into the spotlight, or some combination of all of these. For the most part what we hear of Aaron Burr has been assembled from the words of his enemies. Until recently most historians had simply been too lazy to revisit original sources to check the facts, as far as they can be found out.

Fallen Founder, the Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg

Finally a historian has put in the work required to investigate the actual story of one of the most interesting of our founding fathers. The most glaring difference between the Burr we have been told about and the Burr that Isenberg has uncovered is that the real man was an idealist, a feminist, and a very modern thinker. He was also very honorable, to a fault. It was Burr who refused to dignify the slanders and libels that Hamilton and Jefferson used to destroy him. Such a stand on principle hurt his career many times throughout his life. Burr just refused to play the game. Under Washington during the Revolutionary War he refused to lobby for promotion and was passed up by lesser men who were willing to play the game (like Hamilton and Monroe). During the crisis of 1800 when he and Jefferson were tied in the Electoral College he stated that he supported Jefferson and then refused to play backroom politics. To this day Burr is maligned for “trying to steal the presidency from Jefferson” when he most certainly did no such thing. Burr’s campaigning in New York and Pennsylvania helped get Jefferson elected.

The duel with Hamilton was certainly a mess, but the biggest surprise is not that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, but that he did not do it sooner. Hamilton had been slandering Burr for almost a decade at that point, and in the most outrageous terms. Killing Hamilton was certainly a big political mistake, the backlash was powerful, but once again Burr stood on principle come what may.

Jefferson decided to help destroy Burr in New York state so as to grease the skids for Madison to become president. Burr was trying to build a national Democratic Republican party, but Jefferson was more comfortable with a sectional party of only Southern states. Burr was simply to popular nationally, so he had to be destroyed.

And then Burr made his biggest mistake, he tried to organize a filibuster into Mexico, gambling that the US would be at war with Spain very soon. What Burr wanted to do was well within the mainstream at the time, but the way he went about it showed very little understanding of how he was viewed by his enemies at the time. Jefferson decided that Burr was trying to break off the western states and form his own country, and several farcical trials for treason were conducted against Burr.

When all the facts are put together, Aaron Burr is still as fascinating as he was as a super villain, but now his story is more tragic. He was a man of great talents, loyalty, honesty, and intelligence – but he refused to play politics as it was conducted in his day. The story of Aaron Burr is yet another proof of the old maxim that “history is written by the victors”. It may be a little late, but “Fallen Founder” is a good first step towards putting Aaron Burr back in his rightful place among the founding fathers of our country.

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