Aaron Burr, Gore Vidal, Random House, New York, 1978
This first paragraph below has been used previously to introduce author Gore Vidal’s’ output of other interesting historical novels (that, however, when necessary hew pretty close to the historical record- hence their value).
Listen up! As a general proposition I like my history straight up- facts, footnotes and all. There is enough work just keeping up with that work so that historical novels don’t generally get a lot of my attention. In this space I have reviewed some works of the old American Stalinist Howard Fast around the American Revolution and the ex-Communist International official and Trotsky biographer Victor Serge about Stalinist times in Russia of the 1930’s, but not much else. However, one of the purposes of this space is to acquaint the new generation with a sense of history and an ability to draw some lessons from that history, if possible. That is particularly true for American history- the main arena that we have to glean some progressive ideas from. Thus, an occasional foray, using the historical novel in order to get a sense of the times, is warranted. Frankly, there are few better at this craft that the old bourgeois historical novelist, Norman Mailer nemesis and social commentator Gore Vidal. Although his politics are somewhere back in the Camelot/FDR period (I don’t think he ever got over being related to Jacqueline Kennedy) he has a very good ear for the foibles of the American experience- read him with that caveat in mind.
Vidal, as is his style, combines fictional characters with the makings and doings of real characters. In Burr we once again meet Charles Schuyler the narrator/protagonist of his novel 1876. There he was a world weary old journalist seeking politically to get back to his pleasant long time voluntary exile in France after the dust of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune and the establishment of the Third Republic had settled down. This return was projected by way of a sinecure in the American Embassy courtesy of a victorious Samuel Tilden in that controversial 1876 presidential race against Rutherford B. Hayes. In the present novel Charles is just beginning his career as a writer in the mid-1830’s while also in the throes of becoming a lawyer in ante bellum New York. But he apprenticed, as was the norm in those days, not with just any lawyer but the controversial American historical figure- an aged Aaron Burr- successful lawyer, Revolutionary war soldier, ladies’ man, leading Republican politician, political foe and physical killer of Federalist political leader Alexander Hamilton, putative emperor of the Western American frontier (via Mexico) and almost President of the United States in the hot-disputed presidential election of 1800 (the famous tie with Jefferson).
Vidal lashes the action together here by having Charles commit, as a partisan political act, to writing Burr’s memoirs in order to get Burr’s side of the story about the various controversies that swirled around his life. As a subplot, and something of a ruse, the need for this information is alleged to be necessary to help (or hinder) the efforts of President Andrew Jackson’s then Vice President, the Red Fox of Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren by clearing up the relationship (possible fatherhood) between Burr and Van Buren. Whether Van Buren, the wily leader of the Albany Regency and premier political operative in his own right, needed such help from the outside is a separate question but it allows Schuyler (through access to Burr’ papers, mementos and personal remembrances) to present us with a broad and interesting look at the first fifty years or so of the American Republic.
Vidal has mentioned in connection with this series of historical novels that he has produced over the years (some six in all, I believe) that part of the interest for him was to provide, while hewing as close the historical record as possible, through his characters some motive for the actions that they did (or didn’t take) under the pressure of particular events. That approach is generally frowned upon in the academy. Thus, while this particular novelistic approach to Burr’s life is not an apologia it nevertheless gives Vidal’s’ interpretation of what he thinks Burr’s motives were from the historical record. Since Burr is something of a murky, shadowy character in the annuls of early American republican history (especially as most people know of him mainly through his deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton) even this novelistic opening up of his side of the story accrues to his benefit.
And what is Burr’s side of the story? Aside from the self-proclaimed bravado of his claim, in the end, to be as pure as the driven snow in his ultimate motivation in defense of the American republican interest and to have been the “last true patriot” his story belies some of that image. Along the way Burr (Vidal) takes the traditional potshots that, until recently, most historians of the period had to take at George Washington’s leadership of the military forces against the British in the Revolution and his essentially regal reign as first President of the United States. He also highlights the long term rivalry between himself and the previously mentioned Hamilton as the competing class interests (mercantile/agrarian/urban plebeian) of the early Republic got encapsulated into political factions- the Federalist/ Republican controversy that in various guises continue until this day.
Needless to say Burr rips into the Adams presidency, especially the Adams policy toward the French under the Directory and Napoleon that put the country on the cusp of war. A bit surprisingly he also tears apart that “paragon” of democratic virtue Thomas Jefferson- the man who defeated him during the odd-ball presidential election of 1800 that was held under the bizarre and severely undemocratic) old constitutional rules (They were amended, although no more democratically. Some things do not change). Along the way he takes other potshots as Washington and Jefferson’s fellow Virginia presidents Madison and Monroe (not all of them so far off the mark). Finally we get Burr’s take on his duel with Hamilton, his role in the infamous Western expedition that lead to his trial (and acquittal)on treason charges and his rather puzzling positive take on the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
Okay, so here is your prescription for dealing with this period of history and of the Honorable Mr. Burr. Read Vidal’s little book (well, maybe not so little at over five hundred pages). Then go and get some books on the period to read about these other figures. I have addressed the question of Martin Van Buren elsewhere in this space in his political biography by Richard Remini and that of Andrew Jackson (Arthur Schlesinger Jr, of course) as well as John Adams (David McCullough). Read on.