Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg (2007)

Isenberg is probably more famous for White Trash (2016), but this 2007 volume is a fantastic addition to the many books about the American founders.  Gordon Wood argues in Revolutionary Characters that Burr is most useful as an anomaly, because he sheds light on the “real” founders. While admitting that Burr was cast as the villain by contemporaries, Wood claims that Burr’s lack of interesting surviving letters and his eschewing of classism and non-cultivation of his legacy have made it difficult to know much.

It is true that most of Burr’s papers were destroyed or lost.  His edited papers and letters are contained in a mere two volumes where the other founders have provided posterity with much more grist for the history writing mill. Isenberg has painstakingly analyzed not only Burr’s surviving papers, but numerous letters by other contemporaries which mention Burr or are related to events in his life.  She has included sources from all over the spectrum–Burr’s friends, his enemies, his champions and detractors, in an effort to present a fuller picture of Burr than has previously imagined.

Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, even ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have a son.  She makes clear that Burr did have a political philosophy, contrary to what some historians have written, and that though he was ambitious, his ambition was not overweening, and certainly did not override his principles, of which he had many. She successfully argues that his roles in both the 1801 election and the 1804 duel with Hamilton have largely been misconstrued both by the popular press and by the other founders, who were willing to paint Burr as a traitor in order to further their own political ambitions–Hamilton and Jefferson seem to be the most culpable, Madison less so.  It is interesting to note that Wood largely agrees with Isenberg’s assertion that Burr’s lack of care over his own legacy in contrast to the other founders’ near obsession with theirs contributed mightily to the oversimplification of Burr’s role in the early Republic. Isenberg successfully shows that Burr’s land speculation and debts, for which he was so vilified, were not altogether unusual for men of his class.  Speculation in the Western lands was a favorite pastime for those trying to make their fortunes; Burr was just not very good at it.

As James E. Lewis wrote in a review of Fallen Founder, the section on the Western Conspiracy is the weakest.  The problem is that there is almost no way to know exactly what happened. However, Isenberg does a good job presenting some evidence that would tend to exonerate Burr of the most heinous of the treason accusations.  The fact that most of the evidence against him was provided by James Wilkinson, known to have been a Spanish agent, would seem to indicate his probable innocence. Isenberg is also accurate in her recounting of the many filibustering expeditions into Texas and Louisiana during the years between 1803 and 1812.  It is possible that Burr was involved in yet another unsuccessful speculation scheme rather than an armed rebellion.  However, it was convenient for Jefferson to divert attention from his own behavior by hanging Burr out to dry (363-4). Burr’s biggest mistake seems to have been trusting Wilkinson, which is puzzling, since Wilkinson was widely regarded as possibly on the Spanish payroll as early as the 1790s (288). 

In the last section, Isenberg makes the case that Burr deserves reassessment as a founder.  He had flaws, but they all did;  he was an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times, but he was neither angel nor demon. 

I am still waiting for Burr the Musical!

Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr. Viking, 2007.

Lewis, James E. Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp. 132–134. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30043577. Accessed 27 Dec. 2020.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: what made the founders different. Penguin Books, 2006.

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