In these days of supercharged political acrimony, I found myself this past week thinking a lot about the most acrimonious political feud of them all, the one that ended at Weehawken, N.J., on July 11, 1804, with Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton dead. This has been occasioned by reading Nancy Isenberg’s superb biography of Aaron Burr, Fallen Founder: A Life of Aaron Burr, one of the finest political biographies I have read in a very long time. It is well written and meticulously researched, but what makes the book so persistently fascinating is her stalwart defense of Burr, certainly one of the most reviled figures in American political history.. Again and again Isenberg makes one rethink the conventional wisdom, that has made Burr into a devious, conniving scapegrace, Nixonian in his political ethics, Clintonian in his personal morality, who assuaged his failed ambitions by killing his rival. Isenberg makes a convincing argument for Burr’s behavior during the duel, during the election of 1800 (he was not trying to defeat Jefferson for the presidency), and even, though I’m not sure I totally buy it, for his actions in 1805 and 1806 in the West (he was just a premature filibusterer, with hopes of wresting Mexican territory for the US, and not a plotter of treasonous designs to separate the United States.) He come across as a thoughtful, passionate man, a natural politician, who without much in the way of money or important connections, created one of the most significant American political careers in the first fifteen years after independence.
What is particularly satisfying about Isenberg’s book, as one might expect from a defender of Burr, is her no holds barred attack on Hamilton, who comes across as a person who found Burr an impediment to his overweening ambition, and while appearing to take the high road of being above politics, spent most of his time penning scurrilous attack after attack on Burr, until push came to shove, and following the custom of the day, the two men met on the field of honor. I have not been very happy with the recent spate of works on the Founding Fathers, which have overpraised both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was of course a figure of unquestioned brilliance, and a shaper of early national politics, but for all that, it seems to me to be something of a dead end, whose vision of government had little in common with the democracy that was developing in the early 19th century, and whose essentially mercantilist vision of capitalism had little in common with the free and largely unfettered free markets that triumphed during the Jacksonian period. But Hamilton has benefited from the fading reputation of Jefferson, now generally seen (with much justice) as more of a slaveocrat than a democrat, and a slave owner not above enjoying his seigniorial privileges.
But Isenberg convinces me the more apt comparison is not Hamilton/Jefferson but Hamilton/Burr. It is Burr who first organized lasting popular democratic institutions in the largest state in the north, who, until he faltered, managed to flourish amidst the treacherous factional politics in New York State in the 1780s and 1790s. He was in many ways New York State’s first great democratic (and Democratic) politician, a coalition builder like his friend Martin Van Buren, and perhaps a more distant remove, politicians like Al Smith and FDR, and perhaps even, at a further remove, his successor as a US senator from New York State, Hillary Clinton. A committed feminist and close student of Mary Wollstonecraft, he would have been delighted to see a woman president, I think. And as a member of the New York Manumission Society (though like Hamilton, both an advocate of manumission and a slave owner) he would have also been delighted by the candidacy of Barack Obama.