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Book Review: The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H.W. Brands

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There’s times you’re surprised at the thoughts a book prompts. Take the new biography of Aaron Burr by H.W. Brands. I couldn’t help but think about how technology may impact authors and readers of history and biographies.

You see, one of the primary sources for The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr is Burr’s letters, particularly to his daughter, Theodosia. Consider the state of written correspondence today, though. More and more of it consists of email or texts that are easy victims of hard drive failures or targets for the “delete” key.

Although Burr is the subject of numerous biographies, Brands’ use of the letters between Burr and Theo, named after her mother, allows a somewhat different perspective. As the title may suggest, this sketch seems to look more at Burr the man than the other categories in which he could be placed — politician, duelist, accused traitor. While Brand concisely covers the breadth of Burr’s life, it is clear that the father-daughter relationship was an extraordinary one. Burr was decades ahead of his time when it came to Theo. Throughout his life, he was devoted to seeing that she had an education equal to any man’s. Even after she was married and a mother, Burr would suggest matters for her to study and ask that she report back her thoughts and ideas upon doing so. His view of women was such that he described Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, as “a work of genius.”

Despite his love for his daughter, Burr’s ambitions frequently took him away for extended periods of time. Yet those ambitions never produced the greatness Burr believed was his future. Burr’s political status in his native New York made him one of the key figures in the struggle between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans, a dispute Brands summarizes rather handily. This would lead him to become Jefferson’s vice president in 1800, only for Jefferson to shut him out and Burr be left off the ticket when Jefferson sought re-election.

The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr also recites the political atmosphere that led a longstanding enmity between Hamilton and Burr to culminate in the duel in which Hamilton was killed. While dueling was illegal, it was not uncommon. Although still vice president, Hamilton’s death stirred such a reaction that Burr had to flee to avoid criminal prosecution. Becoming essentially a political pariah, Burr ventures out to explore the U.S. west of the Allegheny Mountains, a venture that would result in Burr being tried for treason.

Brands fairly outlines the scheme in which Burr engaged and its players. Essentially, he is accused of assembling an armed force — which he did — in an effort to have the western areas split from the United States, forming their own nation. In addition, he wanted to gain control of Louisiana and invade Mexico. Still, Burr was circumspect enough that the full extent of his plans and goals remain unclear. When an alleged co-conspirator sends Jefferson a coded letter supposedly written by Burr, the president proclaims Burr guilty of treason and directs federal authorities to arrest him. Burr is ultimately indicted by a grand jury for treason.

Abut a quarter of the slim volume deals with Burr’s 1807 trial. There’s good reason. As Brands note, not only does it present key issues about the only crime set out in the Constitution, the cast of characters is “illustrious.” Burr is both defendant and active in his defense. His defense counsel includes Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States and former Secretary of State. And as this was still in the day where Supreme Court justices would “ride the circuit” to sit as trial judges; Chief Justice John Marshall presided over the trial. The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr frequently quotes from the trial transcript in presenting the factual and legal issues in a readable and understandable fashion. Burr is acquitted but his notoriety means an effort to return to the practice of law fails. As a result, he departs for Europe.

Letters continued between Burr and his daughter while he was in Europe. Yet believing their mail may be too easily read in the lengthy transit, they use false names and employ a cipher when referring to individuals. This correspondence, though, reveals that Europe may well be the nadir of Burr’s life. Far from family and friends, unable to build support for any of his plans, and then largely stranded due to the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Britain that would culminate in the War of 1812, Burr becomes essentially destitute. He then has to sneak back into the U.S. because there remains a warrant for him as a result of the Hamilton duel. Burr’s correspondence reflects his personal and political misery, although undoubtedly the situation may have been much worse than he let on to Theo.

Once back in the U.S., Burr eventually recedes from view and he yields no power, political or otherwise. Family tragedies would further affect him and Brands’ use of Burr’s letters throughout the book that established the strength and importance of those relationships helps bring home the effect of those tragedies on the man. Largely from beginning to end the portrait Brands creates is crafted with Burr’s own words.

The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr certainly is not an in-depth look at the enigmatic Burr. But lengthier works tend to focus on details of what led to the duel with Hamilton and what Burr did in the west that led to the accusations of treason. As such, they give us more a picture of the political Burr than the personal one. This also makes the narrative quite readable and well-paced.

We are fortunate that individuals like Burr tended to keep copies of their letters, both sent and received. While we don’t know where technology will take us, I can’t help but wonder whether the sources will exist in the future that make works like this possible.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.