Burr Blur

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I’ve been interested in Aaron Burr revisionism for a while. Burr had the bad luck to make enemies of both Jefferson and Hamilton, thus earning the ire of historians across the political spectrum; but I’ve long suspected that Burr, like Jefferson and Hamilton, was a complicated mix of good and bad and not the plaster villain he’s been cast as. (Besides, a man who wears a locket of Mary Wollstonecraft can’t be all bad!)

Aaron Burr I just saw a C-Span talk by Nancy Isenberg on her Burr-revisionist book Fallen Founder. The book sounded interesting, and less blindly adulatory of Burr than, say, Roger Kennedy’s book. (Kennedy’s Burr, an uncompromising abolitionist hero trying to carve out a territorial enclave of racial and sexual equality, always seemed a bit too good to be true.)

Unfortunately, I was put off by the fact that Isenberg said several things that seemed to me historically dubious:

1. Isenberg said that Hamilton wrote ahead of time that he planned to fire into the air during his duel with Burr. No; he wrote ahead of time that he planned not to fire at all. (Or at least he said that he planned to “reserve and throw away” his shot. “Throw away” is ambiguous, I suppose, between firing into the air and not firing, but “reserve” seems to favour the latter.)

2. She said that James Monroe’s military interventionism was at odds with the anti-interventionism of his own Monroe Doctrine. No; the Monroe Doctrine was not anti-interventionist – quite the contrary.

3. She said that Hamilton was a slaveowner. Maybe; but although Hamilton was complicit in slavery in various ways, as far as I know his actually owning slaves hasn’t been proven. (He had black servants, but I don’t believe it’s ever been determined whether they were free or slave. Of course, I haven’t read her book; perhaps she proves this?)

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4 Responses to Burr Blur

  1. John Payne July 30, 2007 at 2:48 am #

    I saw about half of that talk as well. I was rather surprised by how often Hamilton instigated duels. Kind of makes you wonder how no one killed him before.

  2. Brian July 30, 2007 at 12:03 pm #

    I wrote an in-depth paper on Burr in high school and actually won a statewide award for it. That was a long time ago. I recall that my two main points in my defense of Burr were that (1) he had been goaded by Hamilton for many years, who had been trying to provoke him into a duel, and (2) Burr was organizing an expedition to conquer part of Mexico to bring freedom to the benighted savages. The presence of (2) in my paper indicates how much ideological change I’ve undergone since I was 17. Burr was definitely an interesting and colorful character.

  3. Brad Spangler August 1, 2007 at 7:31 pm #

    re: “Kind of makes you wonder how no one killed him before.”

    My understanding is that handgun accuracy in those times was particularly wretched. It was reportedly a common occurrence for neither party to a duel to get hurt at all.

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