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Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by…
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Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

by Nancy Isenberg

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This was informative but tedious and very drawn out. It was interesting that the author had a pro-Burr stance and presented him in a positive light even for most of his scandalous behavior. ( )
  jimocracy | Apr 18, 2015 |
"It is time to start over," contends Nancy Isenberg in her iconoclastic "Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr" (Viking, 544 pages, $29.95). Burr is, of course, infamous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But historians have also branded Burr a Machiavellian villain who schemed to deny Thomas Jefferson the presidency and most likely committed treason, even though he escaped conviction.

Ms. Isenberg faults historians and biographers for not examining Burr's papers — although many were lost, thus obscuring the man, she acknowledges. In popular fiction, as well, she notes, Burr has been portrayed as a Gothic villain, highly sexed and unscrupulous, a depiction that derives from the notion expressed, for example, in the "Federalist No. 6," that "sexual corruption (i.e., seductive women) could be equated with disunion." Yet, she adds: "It should be clear that Hamilton was not one degree less libidinous than Burr:"

If one reads the newspapers, rather than simply relying on the papers of prominent founders (Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams), it soon becomes clear that sexual satire pervaded politics. The sexualization of Aaron Burr was a means for his opponents to increase their political capital, because the vocabulary to do so was already part of the political scene — not because of Burr's particular shortcomings.

Gore Vidal made the same point in "Burr" (1973), which Ms. Isenberg briefly mentions, but she does not acknowledge that her book validates Mr. Vidal's view of a man abiding by important principles the shifty Thomas Jefferson never respected, and living by a code of honor that the scandalmongering Alexander Hamilton could not fathom. Surprisingly, Ms. Isenberg spares not a word for William Carlos Williams's essay on Burr in "In The American Grain" (1925), which portrays the fallen founder as the very feminist Ms. Isenberg lauds, a man who believed in equal rights for women and practiced his principles in regard to his wife and daughter.

A man with an excellent war record as a staff officer under Washington, attorney general of New York, then a senator, Burr received 30 electoral votes for the presidency in 1796, and tied Jefferson in 1800. Indeed, many electors favored Burr over Jefferson because Burr was a man of both action and principle. He had an admirable reputation in New York —arguing for lower and fairer taxes and various public improvements — that aroused the envy of his rival, Hamilton.

There is no evidence that Burr tried to undermine Jefferson's election — Burr was quite amenable to serving as Jefferson's vice president. But Burr did resent Hamilton's swinging his support to Jefferson in the 1800 election, and the tension between them increased when Hamilton bruited about charges that Burr was a "despicable" man and public servant. Burr demanded that Hamilton explain what he meant, and Hamilton waffled, giving his version of "it depends what you mean by sex."

Hamilton accepted Burr's challenge to a duel in New Jersey (where such affairs of honor were legal), even though Hamilton claimed he opposed dueling. Hamilton left word that he would not aim to wound his opponent. Yet, as Ms. Isenberg notes, Hamilton carefully examined the dueling ground, took up various positions to check the sun's angle, and then put on his spectacles — not exactly the behavior of a man who did not intend to shoot straight. Afterward, Gouverneur Morris, a man who was an excellent "bullshit detector" (to use Hemingway's term) doubted the veracity of Hamilton's pre-duel pacifist declaration.

While many condemned Burr — even alleging that he had somehow got the drop on Hamilton (it is not clear who shot first) — many believed he behaved like a gentleman, and his popularity soared in the South. Jefferson had no qualms about dining several times with Burr after the duel, and all charges against Burr were eventually dropped. He returned to Washington, D.C., and presided with dignity and acumen over the impeachment trial of Justice Salmon Chase, drawing praise even from his political enemies.

But Burr's political career in New York was over. As many Americans did then and since, he went west, hoping to recoup his political power, and earned the admiration of men like Andrew Jackson. Burr's enemies said he was forming an army to occupy the West and overthrow Jefferson's administration. Jefferson himself, besotted with suspicion after reading Republican newspapers and relying on doubtful intelligence, rigged a treason prosecution. Already acquitted by three grand juries, Burr faced trial in Richmond, emerging triumphant both in the jury's verdict and in Chief Justice John Marshall's judgment. At worst, Burr was guilty of a misdemeanor, for organizing a "filibuster," a private army intent on liberating Mexico from the Spanish — although no proof was ever produced that such an army actually existed.

As in Mr. Vidal's novel, Thomas Jefferson emerges in Ms. Isenberg's biography as a chief executive who never seems to have understood the crucial importance of an independent judiciary or of the rule of law. It was sufficient for him to believe the "will of the people" had turned against Burr and therefore he should be punished. Burr, for his part, submitted himself to the legal process again and again, trusting in the courts. He was a brilliant lawyer, of course, but his exoneration was no mere "technicality."

I haven't done justice to Ms. Isenberg's scrupulous handling of evidence. Her work is profoundly original, and if American historians do not "start over again," they will be doing their own profession — not to mention the history of their country — an injustice. ( )
  carl.rollyson | Sep 10, 2012 |
This biography attempts to make up for two-centuries of scholarship on Aaron Burr that’s been informed by myth and fiction. Isenberg makes Burr’s case – while not ignoring his mistakes and flaws – as one of the important leaders of the early United States republic, albeit one whose career ended in failure. Not only that, but since his posterity has had no supporters, much of what is taught about Burr comes from the writings of his political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Isenberg also makes it clear that Burr had many positive qualities that have been overlooked: a war hero in the Revolution, an excellent lawyer, an intellectual, a feminist, an innovative political campaigner and someone who often refused to play the game of sycophancy nor venomously maligning his political rivals. These last traits though honest would hurt him in both his military and political careers as less noble figures would claw their way past him.

In this book Hamilton comes across as the Fox News pundit of the Federal period willing to wield his poison pen to bear false witness against his political rival. Jefferson on the other hand is intent on building a Virginia dynasty and while willing to have Burr get him votes from New York did not want to lose power to the Northern Democratic-Republican Party. Isenberg explores all the famed events of Burr’s life – the contested election of 1800, the duel with Hamilton, and the western filibuster – and Burr comes out looking pretty good in all of them, at least on a relative scale. For if Burr is ever immoral, corrupt, or dishonest he is no more so (and often less so) than his contemporaries who have much better historical reputations.

Isenberg’s final paragraph sums it best:

These were our founders: imperfect me in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities. That they did good for our country is understood, and worth our celebration; that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography. What seperates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods. ( )
  Othemts | Apr 21, 2010 |
I found this book to be a solid winner. Isenberg's writing style is easy and engaging, and she tells a compelling story largely vindicating Burr not only from his reputation as murderer, traitor, and libertine, but also vindicating him from his undeserved obscurity compared to others of the period. Though through extensive reading on the Revolutionary period I had some idea of the importance of Aaron Burr, this book fully confirmed my perception that Burr was as worthy of a prominent place in our memory as Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Marshall (if admittedly not as prominent a place as Franklin or Washington).

On first reading this book, a serious amateur historian may find Isenberg's story to be too favorable to Burr. At times, parts seem to cross from historical revelation to personal advocacy on Burr's behalf. DO NOT BE FOOLED! Isenberg made what I feel was a great decision to allow the narrative to push into advocacy in order to maintain the coherence and flow of the work. But Isenberg provided over 115 pages of notes on her truly remarkable research; each and every time I read something that seemed to depart even slightly from academic objectivity, I referenced the notes, where without fail I not only found the authors detailed description of the source, but where Isenberg also frankly and honestly described alternate views and refuting evidence just as fully sourced as her own opinions.

In the end, I found this writing decision very good. Isenberg bog her readers down with extensive references and discussion of all alternative views, she just laid out her case. At the same time, she respectfully acknowledged alternative opinions, showing a great deal of respect for her readers and presenting a confident style by providing us all the sources we need to decide for ourselves.

Excellent book. I rate this in the league of David McCullough's "John Adams," true standouts in a genre full of solid, intelligent work. ( )
  linedog1848 | Dec 18, 2009 |
I really enjoyed this biography of a much maligned and poorly understood character in American history. It is interesting to see the political machine in the early days of the republic. It offered me a good perspective of politics today and how our current issues are really just a continuation of that early unstable time.

Isenberg paints a very sympathetic picture of Burr. For the most part, the facts support this opinion, especially from a modern point of view. Unfortunately, in her attempt to exhonerate him of the unfounded murder and treason charges which have persisted throughout history, she is a bit too forgiving in some of his policital blunders. Mainly trusting the wrong people and not knowing when to stop.

Overall, I would say this is a highy entertaining read for anyone who is interested in early American history and can read a story with the knowledge that the protagonists downfall is just around the corner. ( )
2 vote wykidgrrl | Mar 25, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670063525, Hardcover)

This definitive biography of the revolutionary era villain overturns every myth and image we have of him

The narrative of America’s founding is filled with godlike geniuses—Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson—versus the villainous Aaron Burr. Generations have been told Burr was a betrayer—of Hamilton, of his country, of those who had nobler ideas. All untrue. He did not turn on Hamilton; rather, the politically aggressive Hamilton was preoccupied with Burr and subverted Burr’s career at every turn for more than a decade through outright lies and slanderous letters.

In Fallen Founder, Nancy Isenberg portrays the founders as they all really were and proves that Burr was no less a patriot and no less a principled thinker than those who debased him. He was an inspired politician who promoted decency at a moment when factionalism and ugly party politics were coalescing. He was a genuine hero of the Revolution, as much an Enlightenment figure as Jefferson, and a feminist generations ahead of his time. A brilliant orator and lawyer, he was New York’s attorney general, a senator, and vice president. Denounced as a man of extreme tastes, he in fact pursued a moderate course, and his political assassination was accomplished by rivals who feared his power and who promoted the notion of his sexual perversions.

Fallen Founder is an antidote to the worshipful biographies far too prevalent in the histories of the revolutionary era. Burr’s story returns us to reality: to the cunning politicians our nation’s founders really were and to a world of political maneuvering, cutthroat politicking, and media slander that is stunningly modern.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:04 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

This biography of the Revolutionary-era "villain" overturns every myth and image we have of him. The narrative of America's founding is filled with godlike geniuses--and then there was Aaron Burr. Generations have been told Burr was a betrayer--of Hamilton, of his country, of those with nobler ideas. All untrue: the politically aggressive Hamilton was preoccupied with Burr and subverted Burr's career at every turn for more than a decade. Historian Isenberg proves that Burr was no less a patriot and no less a principled thinker than those who debased him. He was an inspired politician who promoted decency when factionalism and ugly party politics were coalescing. He was as much an Enlightenment figure as Jefferson, and a feminist generations ahead of his time. A brilliant orator and lawyer, he was New York's attorney general, a senator, and vice president. His political assassination was accomplished by rivals who feared his power.--From publisher description.… (more)

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