Friday, July 27, 2012

On the Road with Aaron Burr

The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H.W. Brands is not a classic work of history or a definitive biography but it does more to humanize America’s most notorious founding father than any book I’ve read.  (save perhaps for fiction)   It’s a slender volume, 173 pages in paperback, based primarily on the surviving letters between Aaron Burr and his daughter, Theodosia.   Burr’s relationship with his daughter is at the center of the story.  And while Burr is remembered by history for audacious things – the killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel, his naked political ambition, his bold schemes to annex Western territory – it is Burr, the loving father who emerges in this book.  By focusing on Burr’s private correspondence rather than his public notoriety, we see Burr in a surprisingly sympathetic light.   Brands’ narrative focuses on Burr’s many disappointments, the defeat of his political aspirations, the loss of his fortune, but most poignantly, the loss of his family culminating in his daughter’s disappearance at sea.   But there’s also a sense of excitement in these pages.  Brands reminds us of how unique and remarkably thrilling Burr’s life was.
Among the founding fathers, Burr is regarded as a dark angel.  But he has a resume unlike any other:  He was the grandson of colonial America’s most famous pastor (Jonathan Edwards), a patriot and hero in the Revolutionary War, New York’s first Attorney General, a Senator to Congress, a leading attorney in New York City, Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President, a duelist who killed his political rival (Hamilton), a leading advocate for education and women’s rights, and an adventurer who was charged with treason for a plan to annex Spanish territory and establish an independent nation.   And we’ve only scratched the surface.   But in reading Brand’s account, one is struck by yet another side of Aaron Burr:  Burr the traveler. Aaron Burr might have been the most widely traveled American in the early years of the republic. 

As a soldier in the Continental Army, Burr serves throughout the Northern colonies and takes part in an expedition through the Maine wilderness in a failed attack on Quebec.  In the 1790s, he makes his residence at Richmond Hill (roughly three blocks north of the Holland Tunnel entrance in Manhattan) and over the next decade, politics and law take him from Albany to Washington DC.  But it is not until his middle age years that the adventure truly begins.  After killing Hamilton in 1804, Burr has to flee.   Dueling is illegal in New York and New Jersey and Burr has many political enemies who wish to see that law enforced.  He wants to visit his daughter in South Carolina but he’s a political pariah and doesn’t wish to expose her.  He journeys further south to Saint Simons Island where he stays at the plantation of Senator Pierce Butler.   Eventually, he returns to Washington where he resumes his duties as Vice President and presides over the Senate.
But soon his term will be up and he will flee again.  This time from creditors.   He goes where Americans go when they want to escape their past.  He goes west, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and then a houseboat down the Ohio River. He sees frontier towns – Wheeling, West Virginia, Marietta, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky.  He visits Andrew Jackson in Tennessee before continuing down the Mississippi River to Natchez and New Orleans, the great port of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.  President Jefferson has sent Lewis and Clark to explore this territory and the land further west but they haven’t been heard from in over year. Meanwhile Burr seems to be everywhere.  He meets Henry Clay in Kentucky and General James Wilkinson in St. Louis. He sizes up the land and the people of these western territories and he dreams of great things.

In 1806, Burr is reunited with his daughter and again goes west to the Ohio River.   A plan is hatched to gather an expeditionary force and seize Spanish territory in the south and west.  As far as President Thomas Jefferson is concerned, this is treasonous.  Federal agents chase Burr and apprehend him in Pensacola.  He is brought to Richmond, Virginia and tried for treason.  But whatever it was that Burr was planning, there was no evidence that he was levying war against the United States or aiding their enemies.   Burr is acquitted.  But his prospects in New York are limited and his creditors are growing in number.  He again takes refuge in flight.
This time, he sails for London where he visits with the famous writer and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.  From across the sea, he still dreams up plans for Spanish Florida, the territory between St. Augustine and Baton Rouge. He longs to see his daughter, Theodosia.  But it’s a tough time for an American to be in England.  The two nations are on the verge of war.  Burr travels to Scotland and then to Sweden, where he marvels at the beauty of the women of Stockholm.  He travels to Germany and meets the famous poet, Johann Goethe (an episode curiously omitted from Banks’ book).  In 1810, he travels to Paris. But the journey is no longer a grand tour of romance and adventure.  Burr is now a man of modest means and the Paris of Napoleon is not friendly to him.  He wants to return to the United States, but is unable to secure a passport.  He is cold and must sell books in order to eat.   Eventually, he is able to sail but only back to England.  He finally lands in Boston and then sails under a fake name to New York City.

Like Odysseus, the wily Burr finally returns home. There, he learns that his only grandson has died of illness.  And the reunion with his daughter never comes to pass.  From South Carolina, Theodosia boards a schooner bound for New York but the ship never arrives.  There was a bad storm off of Cape Hatteras which may have been responsible.  There are also suspicions of piracy.  No trace of the ship is found.  Burr lives long enough to see his western schemes realized by Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston.  But they are remembered as heroes.  Burr will forever be a villain.  Burr’s life has all the makings of Greek tragedy.  But it also contains something else, a quintessentially American experience.  A great road story.