Random House, 1973, 430 pages
Here is an extraordinary portrait of one of the most complicated - and misunderstood - figures among the Founding Fathers. In 1804, while serving as vice president, Aaron Burr fought a duel with his political nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and killed him. In 1807, he was arrested, tried, and acquitted of treason. In 1833, Burr is newly married, an aging statesman considered a monster by many. But he is determined to tell his own story, and he chooses to confide in a young New York City journalist named Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler. Together, they explore both Burr's past - and the continuing civic drama of their young nation.
Burr is the first novel in Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire series, which spans the history of the United States from the Revolution to post-World War II. With their broad canvas and sprawling cast of fictional and historical characters, these novels present a panorama of American politics and imperialism, as interpreted by one of our most incisive and ironic observers.
Are you Aaron Burr, sir?
Having read biographies of six of the Founding Fathers in the last year, including Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, there are a lot of recurring characters. It was a pretty small society; everyone knew each other.
One character who figures significantly throughout the early Republic is Aaron Burr.
The third Vice President, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was later accused of trying to create his own empire in the West. He was tried for treason for allegedly planning to take part of the United States with him. A rascal and a rake who was the toast of Southerners who hated Hamilton, the toast of ladies throughout Europe, he later remarried and then was divorced by a rich widow who was represented by one of Hamilton's sons. He seemed in all the biographies I've read to be an interesting man.
But he's always described as more or less a villain. Whatever his charming qualities (he's often mentioned being genuinely beneficent towards poor ladies), very little else good is said about Aaron Burr. Ron Chernow calls him a murderer, and in describing his duel with Hamilton, goes over all the claims made by partisans on both sides but is clearly more sympathetic to Hamilton's version.
“If Hamilton had shot first, he had wasted his fire, exactly as foretold. And if Burr had fired first, as Pendleton alleged, then Hamilton seems to have squeezed the trigger in a reflexive spasm of agony and shot involuntarily into the trees. In neither scenario did Hamilton aim his gun at Aaron Burr.”
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton
Biographers of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all describe a man who was a political weathercock, devoid of any genuine principals except self-interest. He switched between the Republicans and the Federalists when it was convenient, all with the ultimate goal of becoming president himself. When that didn't work out, he tried to raise an army to start a war with Spain and take over Mexico.
I could not help wondering whether Aaron Burr was being portrayed fairly. After all, to have held so much influence for as long as he did (there was an electoral path that could easily have made him president instead of Jefferson, had things worked out just a little bit differently), he must have had friends. Surely Burr felt justified in his reasons for dueling Hamilton; they had once been friends. Did he just decide he wanted to murder a political rival out of spite?
There are biographies written of Burr that appear to be sympathetic. He definitely has his defenders. Yet to get another view of the man, I ended up reading a work of historical fiction, by the late author Gore Vidal.
Burr is the first in Vidal's Narratives of Empire series. In the author's preface, he comes off as a little pretentious, as if he invented the idea of historical fiction. But this novel was truly a fantastic experience, and Vidal absolutely researched the hell out of his subject. Every large and small event, even minor anecdotes from the lives of the Founding Fathers, I recognized from the biographies of those men.
The Aaron Burr that Vidal brings us in this book is a fictional character, yet it's a compelling and believable version of him. This Aaron Burr is wry, witty, cynical, even playful, and oh yes, he was always right and everyone else, from Washington to Hamilton, were the real scoundrels, who constantly took advantage of Aaron Burr's good nature. Burr alone actually cared about preserving democracy, freedom of the press, and judicial independence, and as for that little adventure in Mexico? Well, that was just what ambitious men did in those days. Can't blame a brother for wanting to carve out a little piece of empire.
This may not be the truth, and it may not even be how the real Burr would have told his own story. But let's say it's a version of the truth.
The device Vidal uses to tell Burr's story is the one fictional character he introduces: a young journalist named Charles Schuyler (not one of those Schuylers, as he has to remind people), who's hired to do a hit piece on the elderly former senator and vice president. The election of 1836 is looming, Martin Van Buren is the heir apparent of President Andrew Jackson, and the anti-Van Buren faction wants to stop his election by digging up evidence that long-whispered rumors of Van Buren being Aaron Burr's illegitimate son are true. (This, like all the other details in Vidal's novel, was based on historical fact: it really was a rumor that circulated at the time.) So young Charles Schuyler ingratiates himself with Aaron Burr, and ends up having his entire life history dictated to him, including the "real" story about everything from the Revolutionary War and Washington's generalship (terrible, according to Burr, and again, historians actually agree that Washington was pretty bad as a military strategist) to that fatal duel with Hamilton (in one of the few clearly fictional embellishments — or is it? — Vidal has Schuyler learn of Hamilton's real reason for challenging Hamilton to a duel, a reason that is plausible but, as far as I can tell, not actually mentioned in any historical records).
“After Hamilton's death, I remained at Richmond Hill for ten days. I confess that I was not prepared for the response to our interview. Apparently no one had ever fought a duel in the whole history of the United States until Aaron Burr invented this diabolic game in order to murder the greatest American that ever lived (after George Washington, of course). Over night the arrogant, mob-detesting Hamilton was metamorphosed into a Christ-like figure with me as the Judas—no, the Caiaphas who so villainously dispatched the godhead to its heavenly father (George Washington again) at Weehawk, our new Jerusalem’s most unlikely Golgotha.”
Burr absolutely trashes every other Founding Father. His description of George Washington ("He had the hips, buttocks and bosom of a woman") is of a dullard whose stoic, presidential demeanor was a veneer over his greed and ego. According to Burr, they'd have captured Canada if Washington had listened to him. He also claims that Washington really wanted to be king, an accusation that was often made by Washington's enemies, but is probably an embellishment by Burr/Vidal.
John Adams is quarrelsome, arrogant, pompous, thin-skinned, paranoid, and also a would-be monarch. (Probably mostly true, except for the last part.)
But the most bile is reserved for Jefferson.
“But then in all his words if not deeds Jefferson was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers. Proclaiming the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves, Indians, women and those entirely without property), Jefferson tried to seize the Floridas by force, dreamed of a conquest of Cuba, and after his illegal purchase of Louisiana sent a military governor to rule New Orleans against the will of its inhabitants.”
Burr's Thomas Jefferson was a sleazy little sneak who considered the Constitution to be just words that meant whatever was convenient for him. Vidal's Burr gives a very believable version of Jefferson's double-dealing and selling out his own vice president, and later trying to have him convicted of treason over a plan that Jefferson himself supported. Jefferson probably was not quite as amoral and unprincipled as Burr describes him; Burr is not an unbiased narrator here and Jefferson screwed him over. But his description of Jefferson's character as the sort of duplicitous weasel who won't look you in the eye as he stabs you in the back is consistent with other descriptions, even Jefferson's own biography.
Burr describes James Madison as a brilliant but sad little 40-year-old virgin until Burr hooked him up with Dolly. (Again, a harsh version of the story, but not far from the truth, though Vidal's Burr also claims Dolly was destitute and desperate and initially tried to snare him. In fact, Dolly was a recently widowed, impoverished single mother, but she was also very beautiful and was being courted by other men in Philadelphia, so her situation wasn't quite as desperate at Burr describes.)
According to Burr, James Monroe actually hated Washington, all the way back to his service under him during the war. (True? Monroe's biography doesn't claim this, but on the other hand, the men did have a break, Monroe was pissed at Washington over a lot of things, and we don't know for certain that Monroe ever actually liked him, so Burr's description of Monroe as constantly sneering at an oblivious Washington is, if not true, not unbelievable.) He also describes his role in preventing a duel between Monroe and Hamilton, portraying them both as posturing cowards who didn't really want to fight.
“For the average American freedom of speech is simply the freedom to repeat what everyone else is saying and no more.”
Vidal's Burr does have principles, though he's certainly no saint. He cares about the Republic, but predicts the Constitution will not last his lifetime. He's not an abolitionist, but he gleefully points out Jefferson's hypocrisy, and his animosity towards Negroes while fathering his own replenishing stock of slaves at Monticello. Madison he rather likes, though he describes him much the way Lin Manuel-Miranda does, as a tool of Jefferson.
And he certainly liked the ladies. Charles Schuyler meets Eliza Bowen Jumel, portrayed by Vidal as a lively ex-madame, who was in fact actually raised in a brothel and did marry the elderly Aaron Burr, only to divorce him with the help of Alexander Hamilton's son.
Burr may have been something of a proto-feminist. He helped poor ladies find eligible husbands. He deeply missed his wife, Theodosia, and raised his daughter (also Theodosia) to be highly educated and independent. He shared everything with her in his letters, including (as a scandalized Charles Schuyler discovers), his sexual exploits.
It's his daughter that Burr sings to in the musical Hamilton.
Dear Theodosia, what to say to you?
You have my eyes, you have your mother's name
When you came into the world, you cried
And it broke my heart
Theodosia would later be lost at sea.
In Burr, Aaron Burr is marvelously bitchy and cynical. As he takes down America's founding fathers while narrating his story to Charles Schuyler, Schuyler's own ambitions and unfortunate love life forms the only definitely made-up part of the novel (though even here, Vidal uses real people, like having Schuyler fall in love with a prostitute named Helen Jewett.) Schuyler's part of the story is interesting enough, as it adds a narrative framework around Burr's memoirs. Schuyler becomes enchanted by the old rascal while he tries to worm the truth about Alexander Hamilton and, most importantly, Martin Van Buren, from a clever subject who knows exactly what his interviewer is after. Eventually Schuyler meets Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren himself.
I really enjoyed Burr. Gore Vidal wrote an Aaron Burr who is definitely the hero of his own story, and while it may or may not be true to the real Burr, it at least presents a believable version of the man who wasn't just Jefferson's foil and Hamilton's killer.
“…the American reader cannot bear a surprise. He knows that this is the greatest country on earth…and evidence to the contrary is not admissible. That means no inconvenient facts, no new information. If you really want the reader’s attention, you must flatter him. Make his prejudices your own. Tell him things he already knows. He will love your soundness.”
This irreverent, uncharitable, and cynical depiction of the other Founding Fathers reportedly so enraged a young Michelle Bachmann that "he was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought—I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, 'You know what? I don't think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican." Good job, Vidal.
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