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…

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