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:
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.
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.”
And so it went through his political career. When his efforts in 1796 to become vice-president proved futile, he lost all interest in his Senate seat; he stopped attending the Senate’s sessions and devoted all his attention to making money through speculation. He next entered the New York legislature with the hope of aiding his business associates and restoring his personal fortune and political base. He pushed for tax exemptions, bridge and road charters, land bounties, alien rights to own land—any scheme in which he and his friends had an interest. His manipulation of the Manhattan Company in 1798 and 1799, where he used a state charter to provide water for New York City as a cover for the creation of a bank, was only the most notorious of his self-interested shenanigans. When he became vice-president in 1801 he even toyed with the idea of continuing to practice law, although he knew he would be going “into Courts with the Weight & influence of office,” until a friend told him that it was simply improper.
To explain or justify all this wheeling and dealing Burr offered his country-men little in the way of political principle or a public vision. He had, “no theory,” it was said; he was “a mere matter of fact man.” Although such pragmatism is supposed to be the source of success for American politicians, in Burr’s case it was the source of his failure.
That Burr’s career would end in failure seemed highly unlikely at the outset. He had everything going for him—looks, charm, extraordinary abilities, a Princeton education, distinguished Revolutionary service, and above all a notable lineage. John Adams said he had “never known, in any country, the prejudice in favor of birth, parentage, and descent more conspicuous than in the instance of Colonel Burr.” Burr was the son of a president of Princeton and the grandson of another—none other than Jonathan Edwards, the most famous theologian of eighteenth-century America—and he “was connected by blood with many respectable families in New England.” Unlike many of the other leaders of the Revolutionary generation—Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, or Franklin—Burr was born fully and unquestionably into whatever nobility and gentility eighteenth-century America had, and he never felt he had to earn his aristocratic status. Gentility was in his veins, and he never forgot it. He had an air of superiority about him, and though he could condescend in the best aristocratic manner he always considered himself to be more of a gentleman than other men.
He certainly sought to live the life of an eighteenth-century aristocratic gentleman. He had the best of everything—fine houses, elegant clothes, lavish coaches, superb wines. His sexual excesses and his liberality flowed from his traditional European notions of gentility. Since real gentlemen were not supposed to work, he could not regard his law practice, or indeed even money, that “paltry object,” with anything but distaste. Like a perfect Chesterfieldian gentleman he was always polite, charming, and reserved; he almost never let out his inner feelings. Only twice in his career did Burr publicly vent his pent-up passions, and these expressions are revealing: once, in his challenge to Hamilton, which grew out of his frustration over the loss of the gubernatorial campaign in New York in 1804 (“He was determined,” Charles Biddle, one of his closest friends, reported, “to call out the first man of any respectability concerned in the infamous publications concerning him”); and secondly, in 1815 in an explosive letter about James Monroe containing the most disparaging remarks ever written by one gentleman of another, which released all Burr’s accumulated frustration over what the “Virginia dynasty” had done to him.
In comparison with that of the other Revolutionary leaders what is most notable about Burr’s gentility is its lack of the one characteristic that his peers always stressed—virtue or devotion to the public good. Burr seems free of the strain of opposition Whig and classical republican thought that so colored the ideas of the other Revolutionaries. It was once said of Burr that the only virtue he ever had was not claiming any. Certainly Burr made little pretense to being public-spirited in the fulsome way the other Revolutionaries did. There was nothing self-righteous and hypocritical about him. Perhaps because he was so sure of his aristocratic lineage, he did not have the same emotional need the other Revolutionary statesmen had to justify his gentlemanly status by displaying an abhorrence of corruption and a love of virtue.
Although Burr eagerly joined the Revolutionary War in 1775 as a glory-seeking nineteen-year-old, his participation seems more personal than patriotic. He wrangled with Washington over inferiors being promoted over him, and in 1779 after several threats he finally resigned his commission, presumably because of ill health but no doubt also because he could no longer bear the slights he felt he had received from the commander in chief. In the post-Revolutionary political struggles he could have gone in several different directions; only a series of accidents in the early 1790s and his own trimming temperament threw him into the Republican party. But he was never deeply committed to it or its beliefs, and he continually flirted with the Federalists. It is not surprising that people at the time accused him of being “unsettled in his politics” and of having “no fixed principle, no consistency of character.”
Burr probably should have been a Tory at the Revolution; in fact, his ties to the Loyalists in his wife’s family remained strong. He seems to have viewed politics largely in traditional, pre-Revolutionary terms—as contests between “great men” and their followers, tied together by strings of interest and influence. He expected that someone of his high social standing and great talent was due high office, and that naturally 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. Politics, as he once put it, was “fun and honor & profit.”
Of course other politicians of the era viewed politics in much the same way, especially in New York; in the 1790s and 1800s the state was notorious for its personal factionalism. But no political leader of his prominence—senator, vice-president, and an aspirant for the presidency—ever spent so much time and energy so blatantly scheming for his own personal and political advantage, and none of the other great Revolutionary statesmen seemed so immune to the ideology of the Revolution.
Burr certainly had little of the aversion to the use of patronage or “corruption” that a Revolutionary ideologue like Jefferson had. Jefferson’s pained scrupulousness over throwing out Federalist officeholders and putting in Republicans after his presidential victory in 1801 was incomprehensible to Burr. Burr was utterly shameless in recommending anyone and everyone for an office—even in the end himself. His zealousness over patronage in fact was crucial in convincing Jefferson that Burr was not Jefferson’s kind of Republican.
Burr showed no embarrassment in promoting friends for office or doing favors for them in the legislature because for him that was the way politics and society worked—befriending people and creating personal loyalties and connections. Aristocrats were patrons, and they had clients who were obliged to them. Hence Burr sought to patronize as many people as he could. His celebrated liberality and generosity grew out of this need. Like any “great man” of the age he even patronized young artists, including John Vanderlyn. In fact, in bustling republican America no opportunity to create an obligation or interest could be overlooked. When Burr learned that a French agent in New York was to purchase provisions for the French troops in the West Indies, he quickly wrote him to recommend “Winship the Butcher as a Man on whose ability & punctuality he may rely for any supplies of meat.” Not surprisingly, Winship the butcher was one of Burr’s loyal political lieutenants.
The great flaw in Burr’s scheme of being an eighteenth-century aristocrat was that he lacked the money to bring it off. Money was “contemptible,” he said, but he needed it. Despite being one of the most highly paid lawyers in New York, he was perpetually in debt and often on the edge of bankruptcy because of his lavish living and his aristocratic liberality. He lived in an expanding entrepreneurial world where, as one associate told him, “You cannot Git the most menial servant without his perquisite and the same system pervades all Classes thro the country.” And so he borrowed, and borrowed over and over again, and created complicated structures of credit that always threatened to come crashing down. It was this insecure financial situation coupled with his grandiose expectations that led directly to his wheeling and dealing and self-serving politics. And the more desperately he sought to establish his financial independence with one great scheme or another, the more he did violence to what the rest of his aristocratic peers thought was the proper role for a gentlemanly leader in post-Revolutionary America.
Burr could never be the leisured aristocrat, the independent country gentleman living off his landed estate. In classical republican thinking only such disinterested gentlemen were free from the petty concerns of the market-place and ideally equipped to lead the society and promote the public good. Many thought that only in the South was this ideal image of the independent country gentleman even partially realized in America, and there, of course, gentlemen farmers like Jefferson had hundreds of slaves to keep them in leisure and wine. Hamilton tried to argue that members of the learned professions could likewise play the role of impartial umpires between the conflicting interests of the society and thus promote the common good. But what a talented gentleman like Burr seemed to be doing was beyond the pale of any sort of ideal republican leadership. Burr was not even pretending to stand above the different partial interests of the society and arbitrate between them; he was right down in the pits with all the other narrow, self-seeking factions.
It was not that Burr’s behavior itself was uncommon; indeed, it was precisely the prevalence of this kind of self-interested politics in the state legislatures and even in the Congress that made his behavior seem so alarming. Madison in The Federalist had foreseen that legislative politics in America would be a competition among various particular selfish factions, but he also hoped that someone with Burr’s cosmopolitan background, education, and talents would rise above these special interests and act differently. It was bad enough for ungenteel merchants, money-hungry stockjobbers, or illiberal artisans to scramble in the political arena for their parochial interests; but when obviously distinguished and liberally educated “great men” like Burr did the same, there was no one left to reconcile these narrow interests and look after the good of the whole society.
No wonder then that Burr’s behavior filled many of his fellow “great men” with horror. Both Hamilton and Jefferson, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, were scared to death by what Burr was doing—and this well before his wild adventure in the West. Burr seemed to threaten the great Revolutionary hope—that disinterested politics could prevail in republican America; and for this reason Hamilton and Jefferson together eventually brought him down.
America’s future, however, lay not with disinterested aristocratic statesmanship but with Burr’s interested and factional brand of political management. Although Burr clung to an older, pre-Revolutionary conception of aristocratic leadership, he was relentlessly pushed by post-Revolutionary democratic circumstances into an anticipation of what was coming. When in 1801 a close political associate reminded him of the Presbyterian vote and warned, “Had you not better go to church?” the future of American politics was already present.
In his shrewd novel about Burr, Gore Vidal knew what he was doing when he made Martin Van Buren Burr’s illegitimate son. For although the rumored connection was not literally accurate, figuratively it was. Van Buren was Burr domesticated and democratized. Van Buren, the son of a tavern keeper, became as much of an elegant gentleman as nineteenth-century America was to produce, but he was no disinterested eighteenth-century “great man.” Before his elevation to the highest office in the land Van Buren had performed no notable feats either on the battlefield, in government, or in the field of learning. He had written no great treatises or made any distinguished speeches. He had no public charisma and was barely known throughout the United States. But what this “little magician” had done was to build the best political machine the country had ever seen. Through the likes of Van Buren, Aaron Burr finally got his revenge.
February 2, 1984