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AN EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH
DAV I D O. S T E WA RT
When did you decide to use/write Aaron Burr as your central character?
I toyed with the idea of writing a book about Burr’s Western expedition for several years before taking it on. I kept feeling frustrated when good books would refer to Burr’s Western expedition and add with a bemused shrug something like, “whatever he was up to out there.” This man, I would think to myself, was the third vice president of the United States and was tried for treason for that expedition! There had to be some way to figure out what he was really up to. That central riddle—which has vexed writers for two centuries—lies at the core of the book and drove me to write it. There is, in fact, a good deal of ambiguity about what Burr was really intending to accomplish. The witnesses closest to Burr had big credibility problems: either they had a track record of telling lies, or they had powerful incentives to lie to save their own skins (a motive Burr shared). So solving the central riddle was a fascinating exercise in ferreting out the evidence and sifting it. I concluded that Burr fostered much of the confusion about his goals both to protect himself if the plan went awry (as it did) and so he could adjust the plan in mid-flight as opportunities shifted. In short, he was hoping to do as much, or as little, as he could get away with. If it involved creating a new American empire, then so be it.
When most people think of Aaron Burr, they likely think of his duel with Alexander Hamilton. What would surprise people most about Burr?
Much about Burr turns out to be surprising, beginning with the fact that there is no record that he ever uttered or wrote a harsh word about Hamilton before their duel! The historical image of Burr portrays him as an implacable, vindictive adversary who murdered Hamilton. The truth is that he behaved with real restraint in public dialogue and Hamilton was the intemperate provocateur. Another surprising feature of Burr’s character was his strong belief that women were the equals of men and should have equal rights and opportunities. He was dismayed by the poor education given to young women and made sure that his daughter was the best-educated woman in America. He kept a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English advocate of women’s rights, over his fireplace.
What was Burr’s vision for America?
Burr foresaw a country that would stretch across the North American continent and take its place among the great nations of the globe. Others in his generation shared that view, but Burr was unique in his willingness to do something about it—that’s what the Western expedition was all about. Burr was not content to wait for the Spanish empire to decay and for its colonies break off through insurrection; he wanted to liberate Spanish colonies by force of arms and take them! Having a pragmatic turn of mind, Burr avoided much of the political theorizing that surrounded the Revolution and the founding of the United States. As a New Yorker, though, he was sympathetic to business interests and thought the nation should support them. Indeed, he founded the ancestor of Chase Manhattan bank.
What were some of his greatest achievements?
Burr never became president (or emperor), so he was unable to leave the sort of legacy he hoped to create. His focus on the possibilities of the West helped to orient Americans to the potential of that region and the opportunities for expansion. Indeed, later leaders achieved much of the expansion he envisioned. Also, Burr proved adept at retail-level electoral politics, extending the principles of electioneering beyond the drawing rooms of the elite. His activities in New York during the presidential election of 1800 were a laboratory for the new arts of attracting votes on a mass basis.
Why does Aaron Burr command attention today?
I would cite three features that make Burr worth a close look. He dreamed huge dreams and actually tried to make them come true. In some ways, he embodied the American dream on steroids: Go West, conquer huge territories, and launch your own new nation! There is an outrageousness to Burr that is compelling and must be explored to be believed. In addition, he serves as a corrective to the widespread deification of the other Founding Fathers. Burr was not shy
about pointing out the limitations of contemporaries like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, and he helps us to see them in human scale. Finally, when he was in mortal peril in his treason trial, facing execution, Burr conducted a masterful defense that reaffirmed basic values of the American legal system and political culture. In response to Burr’s arguments in that case, Chief Justice Marshall handed down opinions that limited the scope of treason prosecutions, that allowed access to presidential papers in court cases when warranted, and that emphasized the importance of the rights of criminal defendants. These are powerful lessons that need to be relearned by every generation of Americans.
Aaron Burr or Thomas Jefferson?
Burr and Jefferson were very different men who disliked each other intensely. Jefferson thought Burr was too ambitious and untrustworthy. Burr thought Jefferson was a moral and political weakling. Both men could point to evidence supporting their views. Burr lacked Jefferson’s philosophical bent, and certainly lacked the Virginian’s ability to inspire with the written word. Yet Burr had a far more “executive” personality than Jefferson did and might have been a more effective president. The principal challenge that Jefferson faced as president was steering the nation safely through the world war that raged between Napoleonic France and Great Britain. Because his policy was to keep the military small and weak, Jefferson had few tools with which to resist European abuse of American trade, and finally resorted to shutting down that trade altogether. But Jefferson’s embargo hurt the United States far more than either France or Britain. Had Burr been president, he likely would have avoided that catastrophic policy, built up the military, and could well have brought the nation more happily through a very trying time.