The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr

The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr

The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr

The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr


In American political fantasy, the Founding Fathers loom large, at once historical and mythical figures. In The Traumatic Colonel, Michael J. Drexler and Ed White examine the Founders as imaginative fictions, characters in the specifically literary sense, whose significance emerged from narrative elements clustered around them. From the revolutionary era through the 1790s, the Founders took shape as a significant cultural system for thinking about politics, race, and sexuality. Yet after 1800, amid the pressures of the Louisiana Purchase and the Haitian Revolution, this system could no longer accommodate the deep anxieties about the United States as a slave nation.

Drexler and White assert that the most emblematic of the political tensions of the time is the figure of Aaron Burr, whose rise and fall were detailed in the literature of his time: his electoral tie with Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the accusations of seduction, the notorious duel with Alexander Hamilton, his machinations as the schemer of a breakaway empire, and his spectacular treason trial. The authors venture a psychoanalytically-informed exploration of post-revolutionary America to suggest that the figure of "Burr" was fundamentally a displaced fantasy for addressing the Haitian Revolution. Drexler and White expose how the historical and literary fictions of the nation's founding served to repress the larger issue of the slave system and uncover the Burr myth as the crux of that repression. Exploring early American novels, such as the works of Charles Brockden Brown and Tabitha Gilman Tenney, as well as the pamphlets, polemics, tracts, and biographies of the early republican period, the authors speculate that this flourishing of political writing illuminates the notorious gap in U.S. literary history between 1800 and 1820.


Where did (or do) the Founding Fathers come from?

There are two default answers that seem to prevail. The first understands the elevation of the Founders as a natural phenomenon, the result of some determinable combination of moral or social complexity, political superiority, and/or practical efficacy. Thus, we remember Thomas Jefferson because of his leadership of the Democratic Party, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, the hallmarks of his presidency, his exceptional intellect, his tortured grappling with slavery, and so on. Or we commemorate George Washington because of his military leadership, his combination of virtues, his special status as a “first” president, his Farewell Address, and the like. By this reasoning, the lesser status of second- and third-tier figures (the Patrick Henrys, Silas Deanes, or LightHorse Harry Lees) simply reflects their lesser abilities or achievements. A second, more complex explanation for the Founders’ status focuses on their construction by contemporary and subsequent cultural productions. We honor a Benjamin Franklin because of his thorough self-promotion and an extensive array of portraiture, poems, parades, and so forth, which have been glossed and perpetuated for more than two centuries. That both of these explanations—a quasi-Darwinian natural selection of great men or the concerted efforts of cultural hegemony—seem commonsensical and, often enough, compatible speaks to the tremendous cultural power of the Founders, so dominant that they corral nature and history to justify their genealogies.

The most basic objection one might raise to such explanations is their profoundly tautological nature. Is it not possible that we perceive the achievements of the Founders precisely to the degree to which they have already been elevated? That the gist of our explanations is already the fruit of their status, rather than the cause? One of the remarkable details about Washington is his symbolic elevation before he had really done anything—Washington Heights on Manhattan Island, for example, was . . .

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