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An Affair of Honor

Because he could take his aristocratic lineage for granted, Burr never had the same emotional need the other Revolutionary statesmen had to justify his gentlemanly status by continually expressing an abhorrence of corruption and a love of virtue. Certainly Burr made little pretense of being public-spirited in the fulsome way the other Revolutionaries did. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers always made a great deal of their virtue and disinterestedness and devotion to the public good. It was said of Burr that the only virtue he ever had was not claiming any.

Burr remained remarkably free of the strain of opposition Whig and classical republican thought that so colored the ideas of Hamilton and the other Revolutionary leaders, and this made all the difference in his behavior from theirs. He assumed that someone with his pedigree and his talent was due high political office as a matter of course, and in a traditional ancien régime manner he thought that public office was to be used to maintain his position and influence. Beyond what politics could do for his friends, his family, and him personally, it had little emotional significance for him. Politics, as he once put it, was “fun and honor & profit.”

We are apt to forget just how prominent a political leader Burr was. He was at one time or another attorney-general of New York, US senator, vice president (at a time when you had to be somebody to be vice president), and an aspirant for the presidency. Not only did he receive the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson in the election of 1800, but in the election of 1796 he received thirty electoral votes, which put him fourth after John Adams (seventy-one), Jefferson (sixty-eight), and Thomas Pinckney (fifty-nine), all of whom, unlike Burr, had accomplished some great service to the country. The remaining forty-eight votes were distributed among nine other candidates, only one of whom received as many as fifteen.

Burr in the 1790s was regarded as a distinguished and promising figure. Yet no political leader of his prominence in the period ever spent so much time and energy so blatantly scheming for his own personal and political advantage. And no one of the other great Revolutionary statesmen was so immune to the ideology and values of the Revolution as Burr was. Burr’s behavior seemed to threaten the great Revolutionary hope—indeed, the entire republican experiment—that some sort of disinterested politics, if only among the elite, could prevail in America. And because of this threat, Hamilton and Jefferson together eventually brought him down, Hamilton by condemning his character at every opportunity and supporting Jefferson for president in 1800 instead of him, and Jefferson by pushing him out of the Republican Party and charging him with treason in 1807.

Roger Kennedy in his book has taken on the thankless task of trying to rehabilitate Burr’s reputation and elevate him to the “Pantheon of the Founders.” He attempts to do this by comparing the characters of Hamilton and Jefferson with that of Burr. He rightly claims that the lives of the three men were entangled and can only be understood in relation to one another. Because Kennedy presumes that the reader already knows a great deal about the lives of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr, he approaches his task in a scattershot manner. He often ignores chronology and jumps about, seemingly as the spirit moves him, from subject to subject, for example, in one chapter, from “party and faction” to “emulation, rivalry, and ambition” to “the west and slavery” to “the character of Burr.” The book is also strangely written, constantly straining for intimacy with the reader. At one point in describing Washington he writes that “one came into his presence with diffidence, but, having checked our ties and hair, let us come somewhat closer to him.”

Kennedy seeks to defend Burr by extolling his inherited aristocratic status, without realizing that this may be the source of Burr’s problem. Burr, he says, has been falsely accused of having no fixed political principles, but in fact he was a coalition-builder, a pragmatic machine politician ahead of his time who organized and deployed crowds for political purposes. Sometimes Kennedy seems desperate to get us to recognize that Burr’s tastes and talents were at least equal to those of the other Revolutionary leaders. He was, he writes, more courageous militarily than Jefferson, and his dreams of promoting expeditions in the West were no more grandiose than those of Jefferson and Hamilton. Like Jefferson, he was fascinated with architecture, and, like Jefferson but unlike Hamilton, he was curious about ancient Indian mounds. Historians have not been fair to Burr. All three of these Revolutionary leaders were accused of improper sexual behavior, but, complains Kennedy, only Burr “is set down in standard texts as a philanderer.”

Kennedy has a response for every question about Burr’s behavior. Why didn’t Burr ever write anything serious about politics or even draft a thoughtful letter about political philosophy or the Constitution? Kennedy’s answer is that the early deaths of his theologically minded parents and grandparents soured him about all matters of “ideology.” Why did Burr’s contemporaries mistrust him? Probably, says Kennedy, the reason was that he was too much the eighteenth-century gentleman and possessed too “aristocratically cool [a] view of the proper demeanor for a public man” for their taste. As for the fatal duel, Hamilton deliberately provoked Burr into it “in a desire to kill his evil twin, his doppelgänger, or, by being killed, to kill Burr’s career.” Burr would have had to have “withdrawn in sackcloth to a monastery” to prevent the duel.

But Kennedy’s most important defense of Burr is the farsightedness of the man. While Jefferson was telling his daughters to stick to their knitting, Burr was providing his daughter with an education fit for a man. He was in fact a “protofeminist…, venturing where none of the other Founders dared go.” Women respected Burr, says Kennedy, because he respected them. He eagerly read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, and wondered why other Americans had not discovered the book’s merit. Moreover, he was an abolitionist; indeed, “he treated people of African descent as respectfully as Europeans, and, alone among the Founders, Burr had Indian friends.” In the 1790s Burr, along with Hamilton and John Jay, organized a “civil rights movement” in New York State. It was no easy matter, because, writes Kennedy in one of his more dubious judgments, “slavery was as deeply entrenched in New York as in Virginia, and probably more profitably.” Kennedy can be so iconoclastic and provocative that his book becomes very entertaining reading. It is probably the best defense of Burr that we are ever likely to get.

Equally entertaining among the works dealing with the early Republic is the historical novel Scandalmonger, written by the columnist William Safire. As Kennedy correctly points out, “Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson inhabited a world in which paid character assassins were set against each of them.” These “character assassins”—newspapermen paid to write invective about public figures—are the subject of Safire’s novel.

As a journalist himself, Safire has a good deal of sympathy for these newsmen, and in his novel he presents a more generous account of their personalities and activities than we find in most histories. Since his book is a work of fiction that relies exclusively on the conversations and acts of individuals, it cannot easily do what a work of history can—explain the larger social and cultural context for particular events. Nonetheless, Safire has a historian’s feel for the period and uses history as fairly and as honestly as one could expect; that is, if we can allow a language expert like Safire to get away with having his characters talk about “miscegenation” in 1802, when the term hadn’t been invented yet. Safire was certainly scrupulous about the kind of historical novel he wanted to write. As in his earlier novel about Lincoln, he has tried “to use a dramatic form to simulate past events and bring long-ago lives to life.” Although he has placed real characters in fictional relationships, he has avoided creating imaginary characters and mixing them with authentic historical figures. For many of the principal historical characters, he has used actual quotations, taking words from letters and putting them in conversations. Whenever he has made something up he tells us explicitly in the endnotes. All in all, I think he has done a better job explaining the history of the period than of imagining the inner lives of his characters.

Although Safire deals with several newsmen, including the English immigrant and Federalist writer William Cobbett, he concentrates on the career of James Thomson Callender, the Scottish radical writer who was outlawed by the British government and forced to flee to the United States in 1793. Although most historians have dismissed Callender as an unscrupulous newspaperman, Safire makes the man and his behavior quite understandable—except for concocting an implausible love affair between Callender and Maria Reynolds, the woman who was the mistress of Hamilton and, according to Safire, Burr as well.

Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds was the first of the scandals exposed by Callender. Hamilton had taken up with her in 1792 while he was secretary of the Treasury, and he had actually paid blackmail to her husband in order to keep the affair quiet. When privately confronted by several congressmen, including Senator James Monroe, who suspected Hamilton of misusing Treasury funds, Hamilton confessed to the affair. The embarrassed congressmen seemed to accept Hamilton’s explanation and dropped their investigation.

Rumors of Hamilton’s involvement with the Reynoldses circulated over the next several years, but it was not until 1797 that Callender used documents that he had acquired to charge Hamilton publicly with speculating in Treasury funds. Although it was probably John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives, who had supplied Callender with the documents, Hamilton suspected that it was James Monroe, and he pressed Monroe to make a public statement avowing his belief in Hamilton’s explanation of five years earlier. The confrontation between the two men became so heated that it almost resulted in a duel, averted only by the negotiating skill of Aaron Burr. In the meantime Hamilton felt the need to publish a lengthy pamphlet laying out all the sordid details of the affair. Better to be thought a private adulterer than a corrupt public official, even at the cost of hurting his wife. The pamphlet was a disastrous mistake, and it led Callender to gloat that Hamilton had done himself more damage than “fifty of the best pens in America could have said against him.”

Bitterly denounced by the Federalists, Callender now became a regular hired hack of the Republicans, with even Jefferson surreptitiously aiding him with money. Following the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalists prosecuted and imprisoned Callender for calling President Adams a “hoary headed incendiary.” The Republicans used his imprisonment and that of other editors to gain sympathy for their cause.

With Jefferson’s election as president, Callender expected some reward for his martyrdom and service to the Republican Party. When none came, he turned against the Republicans and began writing for the Federalist press. In 1802 he accused Jefferson of fathering children with his slave concubine Sally Hemings and of having made sexual advances as a single man of twenty-five toward the wife of an absent friend and neighbor, John Walker.

By this time President Jefferson began to appreciate what his predecessor John Adams had suffered from a slanderous press. “Nothing,” Safire quotes him as saying, “can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Since his opposition to the Federalists’ Sedition Act had been based on his belief that only the states could punish seditious libels, he did not hesitate now to urge sympathetic Republican governors to prosecute abusive Federalist journalists under the common law of seditious libel.

Safire concludes his novel by concentrating on the most famous of these prosecutions, that in 1803-1804 of an obscure New York Federalist editor Harry Croswell. Safire the novelist could not have imagined a more dramatic case. Not only did Hamilton, of all people, take over the defense of Croswell, but he planned on bringing Callender up from Virginia to testify that what Croswell had published about President Jefferson, particularly about his alleged sexual affairs, was true—until he learned that the scandalmonger had recently drowned in three feet of water under mysterious circumstances. Although most people assumed that Callender was drunk and died accidentally, Safire suggests foul play by supporters of Jefferson.

Hamilton’s argument before the court recalled that of Peter Zenger’s lawyer in 1735; it is a defense of freedom of the press that warms the heart of every journalist. Hamilton dismissed all the conventional arguments for the common law of seditious libel as relics of Star Chamber tyranny inapplicable to the new Republic. Since “guard[ing] against the encroachments of men in power is the office of a free press,” newspapermen, said Hamilton, must have the right to publish the truth, “no matter how severely it reflects on government, on magistrates, or individuals.” A year later the New York legislature accepted Hamilton’s argument and changed the common law of seditious libel. By that time Hamilton was already dead at the age of forty-seven.

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