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Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

af Nancy Isenberg

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingOmtaler
4901136,899 (3.88)16
This biography of the Revolutionary-era "villain" overturns every myth and image we have of him. The narrative of America's founding is filled with godlike geniuses--and then there was Aaron Burr. Generations have been told Burr was a betrayer--of Hamilton, of his country, of those with nobler ideas. All untrue: the politically aggressive Hamilton was preoccupied with Burr and subverted Burr's career at every turn for more than a decade. Historian Isenberg proves that Burr was no less a patriot and no less a principled thinker than those who debased him. He was an inspired politician who promoted decency when factionalism and ugly party politics were coalescing. He was as much an Enlightenment figure as Jefferson, and a feminist generations ahead of his time. A brilliant orator and lawyer, he was New York's attorney general, a senator, and vice president. His political assassination was accomplished by rivals who feared his power.--From publisher description.… (mere)
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A flawed biography of a flawed man: enlightening but not transcendent.

Aaron Burr has had few defenders over the years, as a man who ultimately repelled both major early American factions: the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians. "Defend" is the key word for this book — or rather, "defensive." At nearly every turn, Isenberg refutes voluminous criticisms of Burr, often without even describing the critiques in detail. It's a little exhausting and a little amusing, such as how Burr has "friends" and "allies" while Alexander Hamilton has "cronies" and "flunkies."

The substance of Isenberg's defense is that Burr was not a soulless, calculating, fence-straddling murderer, but rather someone who endorsed a genuine third way between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Burr, in Isenberg's position, was more democratic than the High Federalists, but more friendly to commerce and banks than the southern Jeffersonians. (In this portrayal he's somewhat similar to the Swiss-Pennsylvanian Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's Treasury Secretary, and the two men were apparently friends.) Straddling the two main ideological groupings, Isenberg implies, led both sides to paint Burr as idea-less rather than as a moderate.

Isenberg also describes Burr as the most modern of the Founders, in both his personal life and his approach to politics. She highlights his relative feminism and downplays Burr's vaunted debauchery as no worse than many other Founders (and inflated by sexualized attacks from critics).

Much of this portrait of Burr is plausible but not necessarily convincing — in part because of the aforementioned hyper-defensive tone. I'm not sold on Burr's total innocence in the Hamilton duel and the Election of 1800, but she was pretty convincing that Burr did not, in fact, commit or intend treason in his Western expedition after leaving office. (He definitely did intend an illegal private invasion of Spanish Mexico, but almost certainly not the military coup he was charged with planning.)

It is worth qualifying that biographies of Burr are apparently limited by a short paper trail — far fewer letters, books and other documents exist for Burr than for other major Founders. Many of the texts that do exist were attacks by Burr's enemies. It's pretty clear how this can affect both pro- and anti-Burr historiography.

I'd be interested in reading a fairer, better-written biography of Burr, but this book is despite its flaws a decent introduction to the man, as long as it's read with a critical eye. ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
People of a certain age may remember Aaron Burr best as a sandwich-choked laugh line from a milk commercial, but as Nancy Isenberg reminds readers of her book he was so much more than that. A lawyer, soldier, and politician, and expansionist, he had an impressively adventurous life during some of the most dramatic times in American history. Yet Isenberg argues that Burr's standing has suffered from the many scurrilous attacks leveled against him during his career, which have had the effect of defining him posthumously as a worse person than he deserves to be remembered. By contrast, her revisionist approach presents Burr as a strikingly modern figure, with surprisingly advanced views on democracy and women's equality. She also goes far to refuting the many accusations he faced about his public and personal life, mostly by an extremely effective fitting of Burr's conduct within the context of life in the early republic.

Yet in responding to these attacks Isenberg too often errs in the opposite direction, credulously accepting dubious evidence so long as it exonerates her subject. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in her handling of the Burr Conspiracy, an episode for which we may never know the full truth about Burr's intentions, yet for which she all too willingly accepts Burr's protestations that the force he was assembling was really only intended for war against Mexico and not to create an empire of his own. Because of this, while Isenberg's book is the best biography of Burr available, it is one best taken in some parts with a grain of salt and read with an awareness of the author's all-too-evident biases. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
This biography of Aaron Burr unsuccessfully tries to resurrect his sullied reputation. While as a biography it provides an excellent account of his life, its interpretation of his role and character in the founding era is utterly unconvincing. To give an idea of just how biased the biography is, its title "Fallen Founder" astounds me. While Burr was an officer during the Revolutionary War, seeing most of his action in Canada, he had no hand in the drafting of the Constitution. His primary role during the founding era was as a prominent New York politician. He was very state centric in his political dealings. In fact, it is unclear what his role was during the debate over ratification of the Constitution in New York, although he was against it. To put him in the pantheon of a founding father is not only a stretch, but frankly a little ridiculous.

There is a positive aspect of this biography in that it is it is very well researched and provides a good account of Burr's life. The best part for this reader was to provide a detailed account of Burr's actions after his Vice-Presidency where he as accused of treason for plotting to separate southwestern states from the United States and create his own country. I do believe that the author has proven, to the extent possible, how his political enemies used his actions to lead a filibuster into Mexico, to create an incredible and unbelievable set of charges against him.

That said, for the most part this biography fails to convince that Burr wasn't just a power hungry opportunist. The author clearly demonstrates what a nasty, mean spirited political world it really was back then. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and his political enemies in New York are shown to be vicious politicians who were untrustworthy and used personal attacks, often attacks that were not true or so exaggerated as to be the same as untrue, to undermine their opponents. Jefferson, of course, being the sly fellow he was, used others to do his dirty work while staying out of the fray to protect his reputation. Hamilton was willing to throw his name out there with is attacks, which eventually lead in a more roundabout way to the duel where Burr killed Hamilton. Isenberg tries to paint Burr has having a higher level of honor and code of ethics in his political dealings than his opponents. While he didn't necessarily use the personal attacks, his machinations in New York politics, during the debate over the tie for the Vice-Presidency with Jefferson, and his questionable, if not treasonable actions in trying to lead a filibuster into Mexico belie this. Isenberg spends a lot of time talking about sexual ethics of the founders, particularly Hamilton, as they were all philanderers and had what some would consider questionable ethics in their private lives, which they often used to attack each other. She points out that Burr is no better or worse than his contemporaries in sexual morals. This is undeniably true. But this reader also believes that Burr was no better or worse than his opponents in his hunger for power and political position. It is clear that he was unfairly and viciously attacked by his opponents, but the bottom line for this reader is he is not as bad a man as his opponents made him out to be, but I doubt his political ethics are as pristine as this biography suggests.

Finally, you can't write a biography of Burr without talking about his duel with Hamilton. Historically the key question is the intent of both parties and who fired first. Neither of these can be answered with any certainty. Some claim Hamilton intended to waste his shot hoping for a peaceful, non-lethal resolution of his dispute with Burr. Burr obviously killed Hamilton. The historical record here is very muddy and the author does of good job of discussing it without drawing conclusions where none can be found. Given the accounts of the seconds at the duel I have no idea what Hamilton's intent was, despite some proof exists he did indeed intend to waste his shot, at least he told this to others. But I do believe, as Isenberg's account and others have conveyed, that the actions of Hamilton and his stray shot over Burr's head would have appeared to any reasonable person to be an attempt to kill Burr. And given the descriptions of the duel, I lean toward believing Hamilton fired first or they fired at nearly the same time. Either way, given the gravity of the situation and the enmity between the two men, it's hard to blame Burr for his actions during the duel given culture of the time period.

In conclusion, I find the thesis of this biography unbelievable. His opponents, including Hamilton, did unfairly and viciously attack him and he was probably a better man than history has painted him. Burr was no better or worse than any of the other political players of this era. But the author goes too far in trying to make a claim that, in fact, his political ethics were more honorable than those of his opponents. ( )
  DougBaker | Jul 24, 2019 |
A fantastic read on the man that was Aaron Burr. ( )
  avarisclari | Jul 13, 2018 |
This was informative but tedious and very drawn out. It was interesting that the author had a pro-Burr stance and presented him in a positive light even for most of his scandalous behavior. ( )
  jimocracy | Apr 18, 2015 |
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This biography of the Revolutionary-era "villain" overturns every myth and image we have of him. The narrative of America's founding is filled with godlike geniuses--and then there was Aaron Burr. Generations have been told Burr was a betrayer--of Hamilton, of his country, of those with nobler ideas. All untrue: the politically aggressive Hamilton was preoccupied with Burr and subverted Burr's career at every turn for more than a decade. Historian Isenberg proves that Burr was no less a patriot and no less a principled thinker than those who debased him. He was an inspired politician who promoted decency when factionalism and ugly party politics were coalescing. He was as much an Enlightenment figure as Jefferson, and a feminist generations ahead of his time. A brilliant orator and lawyer, he was New York's attorney general, a senator, and vice president. His political assassination was accomplished by rivals who feared his power.--From publisher description.

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