Book Review: Life of Flawed Founder

Article excerpt


In the early history of the United States, the names of two might-have-beens stand out. Each fought bravely in the American Revolution, though each was hamstrung by vanity, easily hurt feelings and a deep-seated rage against those men they considered ungrateful for services rendered.

One was Benedict Arnold, America's most famous traitor. The other was Aaron Burr (1756-1836), a man best known for killing former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel: a rash, needless act that effectively destroyed not one life but two. Both Arnold and Burr went down in history as men accused of treason, and in time each died as a man without a country.

Arnold could never return to America after famously turning his coat. But Burr - accused of fomenting a revolution on the frontier that would have separated the fledgling United States from all the lands west and south of the Allegheny Mountains - lived on in America after several years in exile, nursing his grievances and largely forgotten by his countrymen.

In this short, accessible study, written entirely in the present tense, historian H.W. Brands has contributed a much more tightly focused work than the massive studies he has published in the past. (His magisterial biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin, for example, are essential works on these historical figures: well documented, learned, and accessible to both the general reader and the scholar.)

In The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr, Mr. Brands goes beyond what is commonly known about Burr to show his more admirable side, which lay in his developing the mind and character of the treasure of his life, his daughter Theodosia (1783-1813). Mr. Brands goes on to show how Burr, like a figure from classical tragedy, had what little joy he possessed snatched from him by his nemesis, having to some extent set the stage for his own ruin.

Quoting judiciously from the letters of the key players in the tragedy, Mr. Brands portrays Burr as a brave soldier, a brilliant lawyer, a rising star within Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party and a man hobbled by his sensitivity to the slights and attacks that are the warp and woof of American political life. He was a man who suffered much, first when his beloved wife died after just over 10 years of marriage, leaving him to raise young Theodosia alone.

At the time of his wife's death, he had already taken steps to raise his daughter as the equal of any man. Although he was frequently away from home on business, Burr insisted that she gain an extensive education, learn to write remarkably well-considered letters, master the French language and read extensively. (When shopping for presents for his daughter, Burr seems always to have purchased books - which she devoured, reading Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman by age eight.)

She was also tutored in the social graces, and as a teen Theodosia was hosting parties and other gatherings on behalf of her father at their home in New York. …