Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
By Nancy Isenberg; Viking, 518 pages, $29.95
Talk about a historical figure who needs a makeover. Aaron Burr killed one of the nation’s most important founders, lost several key elections and is now often relegated to being a historical footnote.
In an era when both popular and scholarly writers have taken a fresh look at most of the Founding Fathers, Burr has usually been treated as an adjunct to the lives and careers of others. Biographers of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson often devote a lot of space to Burr, but the accounts of him are generally unflattering.
Fortunately for Burr, his literary ship has come in.
Nancy Isenberg, a history professor at the University of Tulsa, has produced a glowing portrait of Burr that is a valiant attempt to right what she sees as the historical wrong. Unfortunately, the turgid writing style of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr detracts from its overall effectiveness.
Isenberg thoroughly portrays the political environment at a time when the nation’s future well being was anything but a done deal. She is a bit too much of a Burr booster and describes him “as far more sincere, and far more enlightened, than he has been given credit for.” But when she puts away her literary pompoms we learn quite a bit about Burr.
Personally, he was a collection of contradictions. For example, Isenberg calls Burr a feminist—giving his daughter an education that was generally reserved for boys— yet he was also a womanizer whose relationships gave fodder to his opponents. Politically, Burr held several important state and federal offices, but for reasons of his own doing and the power of his political foes, he never made it to the top jobs he desired, such as president of the United States or governor of New York.
Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president and helped provide some of the electoral votes needed to ensure that Jefferson won the presidency in 1800. But when Burr’s political missteps were seen as a liability, he was dropped from the ticket for Jefferson’s second term. Isenberg accuses Jefferson of stabbing Burr in the back while trying to keep his fingerprints off the maneuver. “The president tried to have it both ways: appearing aloof while subtly pulling the strings,’’ she writes.
Burr and Hamilton were longtime rivals, but it was Hamilton’s spreading rumors about Burr while he was vice president that triggered the series of events that led to their legendary duel, in which Hamilton was killed. Isenberg contends that Hamilton had engaged in a 10-year effort to engineer Burr’s political assassination. She portrays Burr as having taken the high road and not being as vindictive or Machiavellian as his political rival.
After the duel, Burr became a fugitive. In 1807 he was charged with treason for his involvement in a plot to separate newly acquired western territories from the United States. Burr was acquitted, but he spent the remaining years of his life moving throughout the United States and Europe, a tragic figure never able to enjoy much happiness.
Burr’s rich life is a wonderful prism through which one can understand a complicated and important era in American history. Isenberg’s historical insights make Fallen Founder worth reading. A more balanced approach coupled with better writing, however, would have made for a more compelling narrative.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.