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Discovering America

Burr: A Novel

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 430 pp., $8.95

Never did America witness a stranger union than when Jefferson, the representative of ideal purity, allied himself with Aaron Burr…in the expectation of fixing the United States in a career of simplicity and virtue,” Henry Adams tells us. “And no more curious speculation could have been suggested to the politicians of 1800 than the question of whether New York would corrupt Virginia or Virginia would check the prosperity of New York.”1

In this case, as generally happens in public affairs, the answer to the question turned out to be “neither.” A generation of presidents, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, disposed of any notion that Virginia, of all commonwealths, might have need of New York’s corrupting instruction in political jobbery; while Virginia checked the prosperity of no New Yorker except Aaron Burr.

Burr has hung in our history like a thief from the gibbet ever since. Gore Vidal’s effort to bring the body down and render it an honored burial is both dexterous and affecting. His Burr is imagined at the end of his life in the New York of the 1830s. He is still lively enough for two ambitions: one is to outlive James Madison and be truly the last leaf on the tree of revolution; and the other is to try just one more of the succession of gaudy, jerrybuilt enterprises which perennially promised and never provided him his fortune. To his juniors this old man has all the fascination that belongs to someone who stands at the same time for an evil reputation and a glorious past. There is dying in him the last witness to a national ancestry already becoming unrecognizable to its children. His voice speaks sometimes in the elegance of memoir and sometimes in the casual dress of talk.

Vidal has a wonderful talent both for mimicry and evocation; and if Burr is candidly a reproduction, we cannot easily conceive of the original piece as having a detectable difference. Vidal has also the love of learning which is so often best guarded by its distance from American university education. He has never let himself be distracted by inferior models or merely satisfied with the greatest ones. Gibbon pointed—but only pointed—him toward Julian the Apostate; and Julian has the particular charm of making us imagine that we have come not upon one of Gibbon’s pupils but upon one of his sources.

The model for Burr seems to be Henry Adams; and, since Vidal can dress for any part, we ought not to be surprised at how alike they turn out to be. They share ancestral piety: Vidal is just as proud of a collateral link with a disgraced vice president as Adams was of the blood of two presidents. They are both avuncular: Burr is dedicated to three of Vidal’s nephews. And they have a similarly useful readiness to call up historical gossip to improve the gospel of history. The difference is that Adams was generally too respectable to give credence to allegations against the successful; thus the slave Sally Hemings identified by gossip as Jefferson’s mistress is an invention to Adams and a fact to Vidal.

But then it is Vidal’s point to rebel against the undeclared compact which bound Massachusetts and Virginia to speak of each other as wrong-headed but high-minded. His is the voice of the New York that Virginia and New England together agreed was the serpent in the garden that both conceived the primeval America to be.2

Vidal himself has observed that his is one of those spirits that are keenest when they are quickened partly out of a sense of mischief and partly out of a sense of justice. Burr has, therefore, some elements of the prank, but it is more a serious attack on the notion of an original American innocence. This mixture is especially refreshing because most prior apologists for Burr have been loyal enough to the tedious orthodoxies of our history to limit their imaginations to the portrait of a virtuous man misunderstood by almost as virtuous but inexplicably antagonistic contemporaries. Vidal is an altogether more enjoyable strategist; and, if he cannot quite get the rope off Burr’s neck, he can at least get it around Jefferson’s and Washington’s.

As a historian he is too scrupulous to be vulnerable to strenuous dispute in detail. Washington does seem to have employed troops disastrously while he commanded them splendidly. Jefferson was certainly duplicitous: to destroy Burr as a politician, he called in dubious characters like DeWitt Clinton; to hang Burr as a traitor, he used the Treasury to buy witnesses, and he proclaimed Burr’s guilt to the Congress before he had even been tried. The Plumbers group and the Manson Doctrine are Mr. Nixon’s most conspicuous essays in the Jeffersonian tradition.

For Jefferson indeed was the self-deceiving crank this delightful guide points us toward. Vidal’s Burr takes on a considerable, if delusive, charm in the contrast. It is no small thing in a nation sick of cant to say for Burr and Hamilton that they, alone among the fathers, never spoke of a national purpose, never, indeed, even imagined that there could be one, but were simply and candidly young men only making their way. While on the one side Jefferson was endlessly prating, on the other Burr was limiting himself to the almost solitary philosophical observation that “great souls care little for small morals.” Burr and Hamilton were our first Bonapartists and thus failures; in America there could be no successful Bonapartism without piety. If Stendhal lived too soon for Stendhal, what hope could there be for these Stendhals who lived even before Stendhal?

One cannot, however, engage Vidal without being willing to oppose Jefferson to Burr. There are, to be sure, the charms of the narrative: the agonizing delights of being young and a soldier and the sport of Washington’s “eerie incompetence”; the gay imbecility of Philadelphia under those twin plagues, the yellow fever and the Washington administration; the lost New York with its portraits of Bryant and Irving, and the silent figure of the stout, slow, ermine-clad John Jacob Astor dragging himself along like some huge caterpillar toward our future.

These felicities are the expected gift of Vidal’s particular elegance in the plain style, but I doubt that they mean as much to Vidal—nor ought they, I think, mean as much to us—as his message does. What are we to decide about these times and their quarrels?

There is a way, less chivalrous than Vidal’s, to dodge the case by suggesting that his Burr is too much more attractive than the real one very likely was. He is brought to us here exempt from the rancors which, since the society was smaller and its frictions more intimate, poisoned the politics of his time even more than they do our own. And yet Burr was, in fact, hardly less envenomed than his contemporaries. 3

He appears in his later years to have retained no tenet of his Calvinist ancestors except their fixed conviction that the most a master could do for the soul of an apprentice was to work him to death. His discontents with Jefferson were generally about patronage. As Vice President he presided over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase with a repellent coldness, and excused the indignities he visited upon his victim by explaining that it was the custom of the House of Lords to require the accused to crawl before it upon his knees. He seems to have been thought of as a profligate by profligates and a scoundrel by scoundrels.4

These are hardly defects sufficient to disable Vidal’s case. Still there does remain, along with an undiminished respect for the teacher, a perhaps irrational rejection of the lesson he conveys. What is this hold that Jefferson still has upon the rest of us, or anyway upon me? I do not think of it as the range of his qualities: he was considerably more superstitious than scientific; as an architect he had the single distinction of recognizing that, when the imagination is deficient, it is safest to stick to Palladio; even as a tinkerer he was a noticeable distance below Franklin.

But perhaps it is the confusion and not the clarity of his mind that makes Jefferson so irresistible. All that loony Utopianism overcrowding the page, muddying the sentences, forcing us to suspend our disbelief. I doubt that we could find many pieces of humbug in the papers and addresses of American presidents that do not echo some self-deception of Jefferson’s. He did not invent the monarchical tone but he was the first to dress it in carpet slippers and make it comfortable enough to be the affliction that so many of our presidents have made it for us since. And yet how marvelous were his delusions, his assurance of an America especially called, the moral earnestness of his refusal to make acquaintance with his own sins.

I should suppose that the excess in Jefferson and the deficiency in Burr come home most vividly when Vidal’s Burr explains that the one purpose of his design to seize Mexico was “to make a civilization on this God-for-saken continent.”

I can assure you that this early Republic of ours was no place for a man who wanted to live in a good world, who wanted to make a true civilization and to share it with a host of choice spirits, such as I meant to establish in Mexico.

Those great souls who have freed themselves from small morals have a way of enchaining themselves instead to puny aspirations. Burr is less than Julian because Julian fought for Helios/Apollo and Burr schemed only for Burr. With that comparison, amusing though this game is, we become finally too conscious that Vidal has, at least once, played a better one; and beneath all the gaiety, something comes out that is cramped here.

Burr has left behind very few observations that we can think of as expressing a theory of politics, because to him politics was largely property. His trust was confined to his own star and—here was a fatal susceptibility—to the sort of rascals who trusted only theirs. History has made him out more of a scoundrel than he really was; but then Jefferson used him shamefully and thus raised the problem of how a good man could do such atrocious things to someone else. Most historians have done their duty, which is to overlook complexities of character, by agreeing that Burr got only what he deserved, it being one of our most durable popular principles that our instruments of justice exist only to protect the well-behaved.

Still, Burr was not enough more than an adventurer, and adventurers are not quite interesting enough. His life leaves a few attractive puzzles even after our judgment has otherwise disposed of it. Why, for example, did Burr hold back from snatching at the presidency when he had his chance in 1800? Vidal argues most plausibly that he stayed his hand because he had promised Jefferson the lead place on their team. But, in the end, all of us grow up; and the occasional honor of unscrupulous men ceases to be the involving mystery that the frequent dishonor of virtuous men always remains. The fascination of Burr’s treason trial, once that distinction intrudes, has rather less to do with the defendant than with the chief prosecutor, George Hay, a libertarian theorist extreme even by Virginia standards, who nonetheless bayed with a most unappetizing fervor as Jefferson’s lead dog in the hunt after Burr.

The Virginia republicans never really thought of America as needing redemption except for the tidying grace of their own election, and so they were a formative and permanent part of our national history. Burr, once he decided that America was irredeemable for his purposes, fled our history and returned to it only for the interval when he was hauled back as its victim.

It is at once infuriating and heartening that the imaginary Jefferson has survived every assault that critical realism has mounted against him. He endures as the one essential figure on the landscape of that lost American Arcady which has been the sustaining illusion of some of our best and most ardent spirits. The fiction of a pure past from which we fell and whose memory is an example to the few good spirits in the polity, and a reproach to the many bad ones, may be foolish, but it has been immensely useful. It was, to take one instance, so precious to Justice Hugo Black that he indignantly refused even to read Leonard Levy’s Legacy of Suppression, that disabling challenge to the doctrine that the founding fathers were absolute civil libertarians. Yet Mr. Justice Black’s stubborn persistence in error kept some light alive in the darkest days of the Supreme Court and glowed triumphantly in its brightest ones. When we compare Black’s simplicity with the informed ambivalence of Justice Frank-furter, we are far from encouraged to assert that man is always better off undeceived.

Still we might all be better off if Jefferson had been undeceived. To cling to the image of an American Eden is also to believe that there was a fall, and it is hard to identify anyone more than Jefferson as its author. Not of course because of his native duplicity but because of his habitual inattention. He was inattentive, and the empire he left behind him to mock his republican principles seems to have grown largely from his habitual absentmindedness. Vidal’s Burr dies convinced that Jefferson let him wander the West peddling intimations of secession simply to collect enough rope to hang him. But Henry Adams argues that Jefferson allowed Burr to stir up every species of plot simply because these matters were too bothersome to worry about, and was only stirred to action when John Randolph aroused Congress with rumors of a treason in the provinces that was flourishing with the tolerance, if not the downright complicity, of the White House.

Adams’s version suggests that, in his subsequent harrying of Burr, Jefferson was impelled less by personal malice than by a compulsion to get rid of the imputation that he was Burr’s secret accomplice. Shrewd as Vidal is, Adams’s guess seems shrewder, if only because it fits so well our political history. It is always unfortunate for pariahs to have a president accused of being soft on pariahs; who can say how much less hard on sissies Woodrow Wilson might have been if Theodore Roosevelt hadn’t called him a sissy, and how much less savage Mr. Truman might have been toward the communists if the congressional Republicans hadn’t accused him of coddling communists?

Jefferson fell exactly at the moment of his rise, when he made the alliance with Burr that was the necessary element in his election. Having joined with Burr when he needed him, Jefferson moved to dispose of him when he was an inconvenience and, in the process, called up allies no better. Never since has democratic government proceeded unafflicted by political jobbery. Perhaps I am sentimental about the Virginians, but I still believe that they damaged us more by this bargain with commercial politics than they did by their indulgence of slavery, which they might after all have ended if they had only remained otherwise in a condition of grace.

They had made government safe for the placeman, the indispensable prop for all monarchical systems, and thereafter it was a very easy passage for them to the state of affairs in which, by 1815, Burr could with entire justice complain from his internal exile that “a certain junto of actual and fictitious Virginians, having had possession of the government for twenty-four years, consider the United States as their property and, by bawling ‘Support the Administration,’ have so long succeeded in duping the republican public.”

So I am ready to concede that Jefferson did us more harm from high motives than Burr did from lower ones. Why then does he seem to me still so much more, appealing a figure than the one Vidal has chosen to elevate above him? The need to have an illusion, I suppose, for it takes a man of stern morality like Vidal to be ready to move ahead undeceived. As for me, had I no illusions, I should lose what few reasons are left to make the effort.

  1. 1

    In his History of the United States During the First Administration of Jefferson (Antiquarian Press, New York), Volume I, p. 114.

  2. 2

    In New York, wisdom and virtue as understood in New England were but lightly esteemed” (Henry Adams). “What pretension had Aaron Burr to be either President or Vice President?” (John Adams)

  3. 3

    Here is his tone, long after he had the excuse of ambition, on the subject of James Monroe: “…the man himself is one of the most improper and incompetent that could be selected. Naturally dull and stupid; extremely illiterate; indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him; pusillanimous and, of course, hypocritical; has no opinion on any subject and will always be under the government of the worst men….”

  4. 4

    John Randolph, that divine maniac, did, it is true, much admire the tenor of Burr’s letters to Hamilton before their duel. “They are,” he confessed, “the first proof I ever saw of his ability.” As to the judgment of scoundrels, here is the assessment of Louis Marie Turreau, Napoleon’s man in Washington: “Mr. Burr’s career is generally looked upon as finished; but he is far from sharing that opinion, and I believe that he would rather sacrifice the interest of his country than renounce celebrity and fortune.” These appraisals are not cited in Vidal. Both surfaced after Burr died, and Vidal is too true a storyteller to tell us things his hero did not know; for example, his Burr is most mellow about Hamilton and apparently unconscious of the unappeasable spite with which Hamilton had pursued him.

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