Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reflections on politics -- after "reading"

Those who actually visit the blog know that one of the audiobooks which moved from "Currently Listening to" to "Recently Listened to" is Fallen Founder: The life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg, read by Scott Brick. I have been thinking about much of what was in that work.

First, let me admit that while I do know a fair amount of US History, most of what I have read in this area over the past couple decades has been fiction. Even in college, I did not take any US History courses, so I have actually read very little scholarly writing on this time period.

Certainly, I "knew of" Aaron Burr, and knew that he had shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, while Burr was serving as US Vice-President for Thomas Jefferson, and that Hamilton had died of the resulting wound. Part of why I picked up the book was that I really did not know very much of how the duel came to happen.

It is really clear in this work that part of the reason for Burr's tarnished reputation was that Hamilton had a much more aggressive "fan base" who made sure that Burr was excoriated after the duel.

However, I was surprised to hear of the level of personal attacks which regularly occurred in the newspapers of the day, in handbills, and in personal interactions. While there has been discussion about personal attacks on political figures at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of this one, those attacks seem mild by comparison to the attacks relayed in this book.

Burr is also at a disadvantage that most of his letters, and much of his writing (journals, etc.) were lost at sea when his daughter died in a shipwreck. As opposed to political rivals like Jefferson and Hamilton whose published papers run to more than 20 volumes each.

While I continue to respect Jefferson for his work in crafting the Declaration of Independence, the portrayal of his character in this book is less than flattering. It appears to me that he cast off Burr for simple political reasons. He did not have the strength of character to stand up for a man (who had his own flaws) who was honest in his political life.

It was certainly an interesting experience, and I would recommend listening to this. I suspect that I missed the footnotes, and maybe even further explanations by choosing to listen rather than read. But, as I posted earlier in March, "Generally, I look for things that I would not normally read in print. Therefore there is more non-fiction, even though this spring has been pretty heavy non-fiction print reading."


  1. I've had a long fascination with Aaron Burr. He did some rotten things but as you noted gets a bad rap out of proportion to reality. He really represented a third way in politics in the early Federal period that's been erased from the history books.

  2. Based on what is in this book, he did not act inappropriately for his time, and in most ways was *more* honorable than his contemporaries. In relation to Hamilton, he did not have as many descendants, and no where near as many supporters -- partly because he lived longer! He outlived Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Adams.

    This portrayal was of an honorable man who did, as you noted, try the "third way."