June 13, 2016

Aaron Burr: More Than Just the Guy Who Killed Alexander Hamilton

I'm sure I wasn't the only one geeking out over the Tony Awards last night. I've been loving the Hamilton soundtrack, I've watched Lin Manuel Miranda's carpool karaoke several times, and I loved seeing the cast perform during the awards!

And then, coincidentally, I was looking through some old book lists, and I remembered that waaaay back in 2008 I read Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, which was basically a big attempt to whitewash the most maligned of the founding fathers.

While I will admit that Burr was obviously tainted by the duel with Hamilton and that his tarnished image was unfair, I kind of feel like American history needs him as a bad guy. If all the founding fathers were really that great, then it just makes the current political trends in this country even more depressing. (I mean, come on. I'd take Aaron Burr over Donald Trump in a heartbeat!) 

We need to know that Hamilton picked fights and Adams was bad-tempered and that Jefferson could be petty and duplicitous, and that Burr was a murderous, lecherous, possibly treasonous man. I'll give us George Washington as a paragon of perfection, I think it's just as necessary to have a "good guy" to look up to, but I think Burr is needed as the archetypical antithesis of Washington's persona.

This is partially Isenberg's point of course, she points out that Burr has had popular biographies, movies, and even pornography (!!!) written about him, but up until now there was never a serious intellectual biography about him. Most historians of the founding era have been content to let him remain the bad guy, the scheming counterpart to the others' nobility. It seems like Isenberg has gone too far the other way though; her attempts to show that Burr's shady land deals and frank sexual affairs were just part of his era, or at least no worse than any of his other contemporaries on the New York political scene don't make him seen any less sketchy; they just make all the politicians, including the Clintons and other big New York families seem equally tarnished. 

The two things that I learned about Burr that really interested me were (1) that he was Jonathan Edwards' grandson. (How did I miss this?!?) and (2) that he was pretty much an early feminist. His wife Theodosia was ten years his senior, a well-educated, articulate, political hostess, who was actually married to a British officer when he met her. He and Theodosia exchanged very intellectual letters discussing the educational philosophy of Rousseau and the feminist philosophy of Wollstonecraft. Their daughter Theodosia was educated in Greek and Latin, highly unusual for a woman of that era, and Burr treated both Theodosias as his intellectual equals, a refreshing mindset in a man of his status.

I do think that Isenberg brought up a good point here; that both Theodosias died young, and therefore Burr didn't have numerous progeny polishing his image for posterity the way that Adams and Washington and other founding fathers did. But all in all, I got the vague impression that the book was as much about Isenberg trying to resolve a crush on Aaron Burr as it was about revamping his image. If you're looking for an unusual lens for viewing early American history through, this book will fit the bill. Otherwise, I'd stick to David McCullough or Joseph Ellis, they're much more readable.

And, of course, one of these days I need to actually get around to reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow! I heard that Hamilton the play is coming to Tempe in 2017, so if I can manage to get my hands on tickets without having to sell a child, I'll definitely read the book!

What say you? Team Burr, anyone?