Decades ago having waded through Gore Vidal's lengthy--make that extremely lengthy--novel "Burr" and having also navigated Nancy Isenberg's more recent biography "Fallen Founder", I thought I was done with Aaron Burr, perhaps American history's most complicated and least understood persona. Then along came author H.W. Brands with a bravura performance on CSPAN's Book Notes, and I thought, "Oh why not? Maybe another look at Burr would is warranted."
It certainly is. Brands has portrayed Burr in a kinder, gentler form without bending over backwards to do so (my main quibble with Isenberg's more detailed biography). "The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr" is not a traditional biography. Sure, the three great moments of Burr's life are covered (the controversial election of 1800; the duel with Hamilton; and the treason trial). However, this book is really the story of a great relationship between a man (Burr) and his beloved daughter (Theodosia).
With the Isenberg book, we learned that Burr was without a doubt the first great American feminist. He believed in equal opportunity for women and insisted that his daughter be educated to the fullest extent which most men, even the enlightened founders, would have provided to only their sons.
Letters between the two of them form the basis of this short book (only 175 small pages with big type--you can easily read it in a day; perhaps even one sitting). In choosing this means of telling the story of Burr, Brands gives us an all-too human being. It's hard not to like this Aaron Burr, even if you had been led to believe he tried to steal the 1800 election from Jefferson (he's most likely not guilty of that charge) and even if you thought he engaged in treasonous behaviors in his subsequent adventuring in Western lands (he was indeed found not guilty of that charge, thanks in no small part to the instruction of Chief Justice John Marshall in a trial Jefferson was way too intimately involved in).
Brands introduces us to the Burr who, after being set free, was still rather despised in this country and sets off for Europe. He becomes fast friends with the great utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, but winds up virtually destitute in Paris when he decided to return home in 1812.
Then comes the heartbreak. He quickly discovers that his grandson has died (death often came without notice to young people back then), and Theodosia herself is lost at sea as she attempts a voyage from South Carolina (her husband is governor of the state) to visit her father in New York.
If you want to know the details of Burr's life, this book is not for you, but if you want to acquire a more vivid picture of a man history has come (probably wrongly so) to view as a scoundrel, "The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr" is worth a read.
CSPAN's session with Brands not only prompted me to pick up this book, but I'm also going back to read other things he's written (a biography of Ben Franklin and the rather famous "A Traitor To His Class" on the life of FDR).
Two asides from this book.
In this age of instant communication and the headaches of being delayed a few hours at an airport, it's a real eye opener to once again discover how dangerous getting from point A to point B could be as recently as 200 years ago.
Then there's Burr the charmer. Here's what he said upon his departure from the Senate where he presided as Vice President even after the death of Hamilton.
"I am sensible that I must at times have wounded the feelings of individual members. I avoided entering into explanations at the time, because a moment of irritation is not a moment for explanation. If any have been...My errors, whatever they may have been, were those of rule and principle, not of caprice. If, in the opinion of any, the discipline which has been established approached to rigor, you will at least admit that it was uniform and indiscriminate."
"This house is a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order and of liberty. It is here, it is here in this exalted refuge, here if anywhere that resistance will be made to the storms of political corruption and the silent arts of corruption...Though we separate, we will be engaged in the common cause of disseminating the principles of freedom and social order."
Words as important today as when Burr uttered them (as captured by Brands) in 1804.
Mark this down as a good quick read.