This and social context of early nineteenth-century
This is a controversial book that is well worth the read. The author comes at his subject from outside academe, albeit with impeccable credentials. Although he has authored nine books, has served as Director of the National Park Service and Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, and was once a White House correspondent for NBC, his approach remains outside the mainstream of history or journalism. To begin, it is refreshingly place-oriented and rich with detail of physical surroundings and personal relationships involving the nation’s founders.
The work is less successful in terms of the context of time. Roger Kennedy’s study is not presented in strict chronological narrative, because it is a study in “character.” Its analytical framework, however, is too value-laden, sometimes obscuring the political and social context of early nineteenth-century America.
Kennedy sets up his straw men to praise and destroy, which is an easy feat from the vantage point of twenty-first-century morality.The book is, nonetheless, intellectually honest (the author admits his biases upfront and in the appendix), provocative, and ultimately instructive. He blasts certain points of historical consensus and bias through the skillful use of both evidence and conjecture. He utilizes firsthand accounts of friends and associates, as well as rascals and enemies, to convey multidimensional impressions of Burr, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, and others. There are no flat images here.
Kennedy uncovers motivations that drove these men to do great (and not-so-great) things, which is definitely not an easy feat, especially in a prosopographical study that links the lives of its main characters. When the smoke dears, Burr comes away looking quite a bit better than reputation would have it; Hamilton emerges from a mixed review about the same; but Jefferson now looks decidedly worse–not at all the guy you think of smiling on that brand-new, shiny nickel.Burr and Hamilton were local rivals in New York politics. They had a sometimes close, but complex, relationship. When Hamilton played dirty politics (yet again) to keep Burr from becoming New York’s governor, Burr uncharacteristically lost his self-control, called Hamilton out for a duel, and shot him dead in 1804. It is quite possible that Hamilton actually committed suicide, using Burr as the instrument.
Afterwards, Burr took to referring to “my friend Hamilton, whom I shot.” At any rate, Burr was vilified nationally for his deed, and Hamilton was less-than-deservedly martyred. Burr and Jefferson, on the other hand, were national political rivals. Though Hamilton was chief (intellectual and policy) antagonist to Jefferson, he was not the elective political threat to Jefferson that Burr was. Indeed, Burr was seriously considered for the presidency in 1792, 1796, and 1800. Burr might have beaten Jefferson for top spot in the 1800 runoff had he moved resolutely to mobilize his support.
The “Revolution of 1800” was no popular or electoral landslide for Jefferson personally. Jefferson gained ascendancy because Burr swung New York to the Republicans. Burr, in fact, had his own national constituency, so Jefferson began to isolate his vice-president. Jefferson followed up Burr’s duel with Hamilton with a “duel” of his own, to expunge Burr’s good name and remaining support. Burr traveled south and west to the Mississippi and Louisiana Territories–for emotional respite; for adventure; for land and a prospective place to settle; possibly for filibustering (overland piracy by private armies) on Spanish lands. The latter activity was a misdemeanor, given that the government (including Jefferson’s administration) officially sponsored filibusters of its own.
Jefferson seized on the circumstance, however, to charge Burr with seeking to divide the Union and to set himself up as a caudillo in the West–a charge of treason punishable by death.Jefferson abused his executive power and his access to the press. Burr led no Whiskey Rebellion but was hunted by federal authorities and brigands for government bounty. Burr was abducted and tried in Richmond, Virginia in 1807. The judge was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States; the foreman of the grand jury was John Randolph of Roanoke. Though found innocent, Burr lost in the court of public opinion. The charge of black villainy stuck and all posterity learned it because the accuser was the esteemed, but politically motivated, author of the Declaration of Independence.