A good historian knows there’s more to a story than meets the eye. Nancy Isenberg was drawn to the story of Aaron Burr at first for the scandal of it. But she quickly found that the historical record did not support the characterization of Aaron Burr as an unethical man and a womanizer to boot.
Much of this persona was developed in 19th-century novels and even a work of pornography from the 1850s that focused on Burr’s love life. But as Isenberg started to look at the historical evidence, she learned that much of what had been attributed to Burr, even by historians, was not only unfair but wrong. “Most people have repeated conventional wisdom and repeated stories, without finding out if the story was true,” she says. “Even well-known historians have perpetuated the mythology about Burr.”
Isenberg will speak about her new book, “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr,” on Wednesday, May 23, at 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble in Marketfair. Burr has several Princeton connections. He graduated from Princeton, Class of 1772, at the age of 16, and according to Alexander Leitch, author of “A Princeton Companion,” “was thought to be one of the most brilliant students who graduated from Princeton in the 18th century.” His father was Princeton’s second president, and his maternal grandfather was Princeton’s third president.
Isenberg, who holds an endowed chair in 19th-century American history at the University of Tulsa, suggests two ways that historians have been led astray. The first is that many who have written about politics in the early days of the American republic have relied primarily on the published papers of key individuals like Jefferson and Hamilton but did not use period newspapers as sources. “That would be like ignoring TV coverage today,” she says.
A second issue is that “often historians need villains,” especially historians who are writing about the birth of our nation and its founders. “Burr has served as the Judas, the bad boy, the one with all the flaws,” she says. And as for Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson, “it makes them appear more virtuous if you have a black sheep in the group.”
The period of the nation’s founders saw the emergence of vicious party politics. In the 1790s two parties were competing for power and there were rivalries within Jefferson’s party as well. Burr, as a rival of both Hamilton and Jefferson, was in a precarious no man’s land between the two parties.
At the same time, many of these politicians, Jefferson in particular, were concerned about leaving their own legacies and hence slanted their writings in their own favor. “It is the same as today,” says Isenberg, “with people putting a spin (on facts) — people would write things to attack political enemies and pretend they were being objective.”
It is the role of professional historians, as opposed to popular writers who had previously written about Burr, to be more sensitive to these issues and complications. Isenberg did the leg work and tracked down sources, newspapers in particular, that people had never uncovered, and these shed important light on Burr’s reputation.
Isenberg discovered, for example, in New York newspapers why it is that Burr has such a negative reputation. One of his rivals was writing almost daily articles against Burr in his newspaper between 1802 and 1804. “Today we think politics is sleazy,” says Isenberg, “but it was far more nasty then.” Burr’s enemies, for example, used sexual slander to attack him, claiming that his home had been turned into a bordello with mirrors on the walls where he and his minions gathered for sexual orgies. Furthermore, his supporters were called “strolling players,” a euphemism for male prostitutes. Isenberg says “he was portrayed as a man who could seduce both young men and women, and this is just a small taste.”
In truth, Burr was an extremely popular figure and a liberal. “Burr was the only one of the founders who can be called a feminist,” says Isenberg. “He raised his daughter to be a prodigy, to prove that women had the same intellectual abilities as men.” A man of the Enlightenment, he read Mary Wollencraft, the leading feminist of the 18th century, and thought her a genius. “He was extremely modern in his vision about politics and society,” she says, “and the reason he became a contentious figure is that people don’t like change.”
Burr was also an innovative politician, introducing the modern techniques of political organizing that secured the swing state of New York for Jefferson and thus enabled him to win the presidency. Burr traveled around New York City taking down data about who was supporting Jefferson and who was wavering, and he turned his home into a political command center. During the election itself he stood at the polls and gave speeches in the street.
As a progressive, Burr established a bank in New York City that was revolutionary at that time — it loaned money to people beyond the elite classes, even to lowly cartmen who sold goods in the street. That bank, which would eventually become Chase-Manhattan, “was the first financial institution in New York to allow the working class to borrow money and have a chance at social mobility,” says Isenberg. “Burr understood that to have political rights, people needed to have economic rights.”
As a senator, Burr supported liberal suffrage reform, and then when he returned to the state assembly in New York, he also supported the rights of aliens. In the 1790s, the hostility to anything associated with the French led to attacks on foreigners and to passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Burr stepped up to the plate with a surprisingly modern approach. “He made an important speech against the effort to restrict the rights of aliens,” says Isenberg, “celebrating what it means to be an American, the importance of the Constitution, and the need to make the United States a place that welcomes foreigners.”
People forget, in fact, how much support Burr had, says Isenberg, and there were people who assumed that Burr going to succeed Jefferson as the next president.
Burr, of course, was not perfect. Like many of the founders, he got involved in risky speculation ventures. He made bad decisions regarding land investments and got himself into a precarious situation financially. “Finances haunted him until the day he died,” says Isenberg, adding that Jefferson and Hamilton also died in debt.
And what about the duel in which Burr killed Hamilton? Before Isenberg’s book, only half the story has been told, she says, in part because historians have relied on Hamilton’s account rather than look at all the sources.
One critical part of the sequence of events that led to the duel is Hamilton’s actions against Burr. “As a politician, Hamilton was known for his poison-tipped pen,” says Isenburg. He started rumors and made vicious attacks against Burr and had been bad-mouthing him for over a decade. Isenburg attributes this in part to Hamilton’s sense of lingering animosity because Burr had beat out his father-in-law for the New York Senate seat. This was worsened as Hamilton began to see Burr gaining a following and becoming a serious political contender.
“Any time Burr ran for any political office,” says Isenberg, “Hamilton would spread rumors, write nasty letters, and then try to cover his tracks saying he didn’t invent the rumors (although the documents say something different).”
In 1804, when Burr was running for governor, Hamilton made an outrageous statement about Burr to a group of prominent men at a private party, and his statement was printed in a New York paper.
This started an affair of honor — Hamilton had previously been involved in eleven, but Burr only two — between the two men. In such a case, the two elite men would follow a series of rules. When one man felt insulted, he would send a letter to the other, saying, “I will challenge you to a duel unless you apologize.” With a public apology, the affair would be over.
Because Hamilton would not apologize, the two men ended up on a dueling field in Weehawken, since it was illegal to duel in New York State, although no one had ever been prosecuted. Eventually lawyers would replace duels altogether with suits.
When Hamilton died in the duel, his friends were so upset they tried to initiate an indictment against Burr not only in New York but also in New Jersey, and Burr was forced into exile so he wouldn’t be put in jail and prosecuted for the duel.
But even at this juncture, Burr went to Washington, where he began to reinvent himself. As he was finishing his term as vice president to Jefferson, he had to preside over the impeachment trial of a Supreme Court justice and was highly praised for his impartiality.
Although his New York enemies were seething, says Isenberg, “he had a talent for government and a special charisma” that people have ignored. His farewell speech in the Senate was the most remarkable speech ever given in that austere chamber. Many of the ordinarily sedate men in the audience, she says, burst into tears: “He spoke what he felt and was being candid to this crowd where no one expected anyone to be candid.”
Isenberg, whose father is a dentist and her mother an artist and homemaker in Moorestown, says her family always loved to argue politics. “There were fierce debates at family events,” she remembers, “but everyone went home friends.”
After earning a bachelors in history at Rutgers University in 1980, Isenberg went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, earning a master’s and Ph.D. in women’s studies in 1990, where she studied how gender issues shape politics. Always interested in political history, she ended up studying cultural history as well, and her primary focus “was looking at the connection between culture and politics; not just votes, but what people think about political issues.”
Isenberg’s first book, “Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America,” is about the origins of the women’s rights movement. It was published in 1998 and won a prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Her next book is tentatively titled “Dirty Politics in Early America,” co-authored with her husband, Andrew Burstein, who just published a biography of Washington Irving.
For Isenberg, Burr’s life has been a great subject, both because she was able to wrest the truth about Burr from the sources in a way no one else has and also because of the man himself. A revolutionary war hero, a popular politician, Burr led an amazing life. “That’s why he is such a perfect subject for a biography. Readers will find material on politics, law, ambition, courage, love, and death.”
Nancy Isenberg, Wednesday, May 23, 7 p.m. Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Author of “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.” 609-716-1570.