Blogs > Liberty and Power > Burr Blur

Jul 29, 2007 1:26 am

Burr Blur

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

I’ve been interested in Aaron Burr revisionism for a while. Burr had the bad luck to make enemies of both Jefferson and Hamilton, thus earning the ire of historians across the political spectrum; but I’ve long suspected that Burr, like Jefferson and Hamilton, was a complicated mix of good and bad and not the plaster villain he’s been cast as. (Besides, a man who wears a locket of Mary Wollstonecraft can’t be all bad!)

I just saw a C-Span talk by Nancy Isenberg on her Burr-revisionist book Fallen Founder. The book sounded interesting, and less blindly adulatory of Burr than, say, Roger Kennedy’s book. (Kennedy’s Burr, an uncompromising abolitionist hero trying to carve out a territorial enclave of racial and sexual equality, always seemed a bit too good to be true.)

Unfortunately, I was put off by the fact that Isenberg said several things that seemed to me historically dubious:

1. Isenberg said that Hamilton wrote ahead of time that he planned to fire into the air during his duel with Burr. No; he wrote ahead of time that he planned not to fire at all. (Or at least he said that he planned to “reserve and throw away” his shot. “Throw away” is ambiguous, I suppose, between firing into the air and not firing, but “reserve” seems to favour the latter.)

2. She said that James Monroe’s military interventionism was at odds with the anti-interventionism of his own Monroe Doctrine. No; the Monroe Doctrine was not anti-interventionist – quite the contrary.

3. She said that Hamilton was a slaveowner. Maybe; but although Hamilton was complicit in slavery in various ways, as far as I know his actually owning slaves hasn’t been proven. (He had black servants, but I don’t believe it’s ever been determined whether they were free or slave. Of course, I haven’t read her book; perhaps she proves this?)

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Roderick T. Long - 7/29/2007

In related news, does anyone remember that Green Lantern once dueled Aaron Burr?