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The Revenge of Aaron Burr

Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr

edited by Mary-Jo Kline, with Joanne Wood Ryan
Princeton University Press, Vol. II, 735 pp., $125.00 (both volumes)

Aaron Burr is no ordinary historical figure. What can one do with a man who skyrocketed to the vice-presidency of his country and almost seized the presidency; who challenged and killed the leader of the opposition; who organized a venture into the West perhaps to break up his own country or at least to dismember a foreign empire; who allied himself in this venture with a man, James Wilkinson, who was both the commanding general of his country’s army and at the same time a paid secret agent of the foreign empire; who was eventually accused of sedition by this same commanding general, ordered seized by the president, chased, captured, and brought back to the East to stand trial for treason in the president’s home state; who, though finally acquitted by the opinion of the chief justice of the country, who was the president’s enemy, fled his country in disgrace, only returning years later to live out his life in obscurity.

Add to all this the fact that the man was a freethinking, free-spending aristocrat who lived always on the verge of bankruptcy; had lynxlike eyes that charmed everyone he met; was a notorious womanizer who left broken hearts (and numerous offspring) scattered over two continents; and at the age of seventy-seven married a widow who was both a former prostitute and the richest woman in the country, but was divorced from her a year later on the grounds of his infidelity. The man’s life is scarcely credible: it is the stuff of which melodramas are made.

No wonder then that Aaron Burr has become the most romanticized and vilified historical character in American literature. He has been the subject of countless poems, songs, sermons, and semifictional popular biographies and the central character in nearly three dozen plays and more than four dozen novels and stories, the most recent and entertaining being Gore Vidal’s Burr: A Novel (1973).

Amid all the literary extravagances and inflated fantasies about Burr there has not been much room for the plodding prosaic historian. Not that Burr himself had any illusions about what historians would do, especially when they dealt with “great statesmen.” “Historians,” he reportedly said just before his death in 1836, “are partisans, on one side or the other,” and “no confidence can be placed in their statements, except as to dates, or some great events such as the battle was fought, etc.” Still, historians have seemed especially scared to touch a person so much under the spell of sensationalist fiction and melodramatic romance. During the nineteenth century there were several publications by Burr’s friend and executor Matthew L. Davis, and a sympathetic biography by James Parton, but not much else. Only recently have twentieth-century scholars given Burr anything approaching serious, dispassionate attention, particularly with Milton Lomask’s reliable and readable two-volume biography.*

But it has not been just the romantic brouhaha surrounding Burr’s life that has kept historians away. The documentary record of Burr’s career was so incomplete and dispersed that historians had little to work with. Some of Burr’s papers were with his daughter, Theodosia Alston, when her ship was lost in 1813. Others of his papers Burr willed to his political associate Matthew L. Davis, who scarcely could have been more negligent about what he was entrusted with. Davis did publish a two-volume Memoirs of Aaron Burr in 1836 and portions of Burr’s Private Journal two years later, both of which contained many of Burr’s letters. But many other letters, even those that were “interesting” and “amusing,” Davis chose not to print, particularly the “voluminous” correspondence which “in no manner develops any other views than such as relate to land speculations.” Eventually Davis destroyed or otherwise disposed of all the papers left in his care. Those letters of Burr’s “indicating no strict morality in some of his female correspondents,” said Davis, were especially the ones that “with my own hands I committed to the fire.” By the late nineteenth century what remained of Burr’s papers were scattered throughout the world.

Only within the past decade have they been brought together. Under the leadership of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the New York Historical Society, plans were made for the collection and publication of the papers of Aaron Burr. The editor, Mary-Jo Kline, and her staff assembled documents from two hundred manuscript repositories and private collections and in 1978 made them available to scholars in more than two dozen reels of microfilm. From this microfilm collection and some more recently discovered documents Kline and her editorial assistants have now compiled these two volumes of “selected materials” that “attempt to reconstruct the facts of Burr’s failed, tragic public career.” It is the first printed collection of Burr’s papers in American history.

Presumably Burr ought to be satisfied with small favors, but he must be smiling knowingly at the contrast between his meager two volumes and the magnificent editions of the papers of the Founding Fathers that are currently being published. Each of the lavish publishing projects of the Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Washington, Hamilton, and the Adams family papers number or will number in the dozens of volumes, and each, with the exception of the Adams family, has been virtually exhaustive in what it has printed about its subject. In contrast, Burr’s editors have had to be highly selective in what they have printed from Burr’s papers, and despite their best efforts to fill in gaps by quoting extensively from unprinted documents and by making lengthy annotations, their volumes, as they admit, “do not pretend to present a complete picture of Aaron Burr the man or Burr the political leader.”

Burr’s editors, however, have included enough of what hitherto has remained unpublished to give us a rather new and revealing picture of Burr’s career—but not in any obvious way. The documents presented in these volumes do not tell us anything startlingly new about the major controversies in which Burr was engaged. To be sure, the editors argue convincingly that the July 1806 “cipher letter” addressed to General James Wilkinson, concerning Burr’s “conspiracy” in the West, was actually written not by Burr, as Wilkinson alleged, but by someone else, probably Jonathan Dayton, Burr’s associate in his Western scheme. In the end, however, the discovery that this letter was not written by Burr does not actually reveal anything more about his goals and activities in the West in 1806 than we already knew. The same is true of the documents relating to the other big controversial events of Burr’s career—the presidential electoral tie with Jefferson in 1801, Burr’s duel with Hamilton, and his trial for treason in 1807. Any reader of these papers hoping for sudden clarification of these headline events in Burr’s life will be disappointed.

What the reader of these volumes will find, however, is a clarification of the more humdrum day-to-day events of Burr’s career. It is not in the extraordinary but in these ordinary events that the real significance of Burr’s public life can be found. In this new printed collection there are hundreds of very mundane letters relating to Burr’s workaday life in politics and business, and cumulatively they create an image of Burr that we had never perceived quite so clearly before. Beneath the great romantic hero or villain there lies a very pedestrian politician.

Burr’s correspondence differs markedly from that of the other distinguished statesmen of the Revolutionary era. Many of the letters to and from Burr deal either with patronage and influence or with speculative money-making schemes of one sort or another. One searches Burr’s papers in vain for a single thoughtful letter about political philosophy or government, or, indeed, for a carefully developed letter of any sort. Many of Burr’s letters seem to be the hastily scribbled notes of a very busy man who did not have the time or the desire to put much on paper. Here is a not untypical sample written in 1795, when he was a senator, to Timothy Green, one of his New York business partners:

Dr. Sir

Your letter of the 24th. is just come in—I will be your Bail to any amount & have written to Mr. Prevost to that effect—he will do what may be necessary—

I do expect Mr. Schultze will be this Day appointed—nothing has been left undone on my part—but there is competition.

On Sunday I shall have the pleasure to see you in NYork—

Yr. Ob St.

Aaron Burr

Say nothing to Mr. Brauer abt Schultze—if I succeed I would choose to announce it to him & would not wish to flatter him with expectations which may not be realized.

Burr did not seem to care about his letters or about posterity. Burr, said Hamilton in his most damning indictment, “never appeared solicitous for fame.” His files were a mess: he could not find his past letters or be sure if he had answered a correspondent. His letters were for the moment and for particular people. In fact, at one point he told the acting secretary of the Navy, “Have the goodness to recollect that my letters are not official letters to be filed in the Navy office for the benefit present Clerks & future Ministers!” Burr certainly had no sense of a future public audience for his letters in the way, say, Jefferson did. Following a long, informative, and polished letter from Jefferson in 1797, for example, Burr wrote a brief reply, apologizing that “it would not be easy neither would it be discreet to answer your enquiries or to communicate to you my ideas with satisfaction to either of us, in the compass of a Letter—I will endeavor to do it in person.”

Writing out his thoughts was not Burr’s way. As he once warned his law clerks, “Things written remain.” He was always worried that his letters might “miscarry,” and thus he tried to avoid saying anything in them too implicating. “If it were discreet to write plainly,” he said at one point, but in Burr’s conspiratorial world it was rarely possible to do so. He repeatedly appended warnings to his letters: “Say nothing of this to any other person,” or “Let no suspicion arise that you have any knowledge of these matters,” or “The recommendation must not appear to have been influenced by me,” or “You & I should not appear to act in concert.” It was a highly secretive, suspicious world he moved in. As he told one business associate, as a member of the assembly he could not give any written opinion on how a piece of legislation might influence the businessman’s company, “except confidentially.”

But the problem of Burr’s correspondence goes deeper than just his preoccupations with haste and secrecy. Burr never developed any ideas about constitutionalism or governmental policy in the way the other Revolutionary statesmen did because in truth he was not much concerned about such matters. If he had an idea about the new Federal Constitution of 1787, we do not know about it. Nor did he have much to say about the Federalists’ great financial program of the early 1790s. He mentioned Hamilton’s plan for a national bank at one point, but confessed he had not read Hamilton’s arguments. He recalled that Hume had “some ingenious thoughts” on banking in his essays, “but I have not the leisure to turn to them.”

  1. *

    Aaron Burr: The Years from Princeton to Vice President, 1756–1805 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979); Aaron Burr: The Conspiracy and Years of Exile, 1805–1836 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982)

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