The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
By Henry Frost
“To rely on Alexander Hamilton for your basic view of Aaron Burr is essentially the same as relying on Kenneth Starr for your view of Bill Clinton. Historians have repeated the conventional wisdom about Burr, promulgated by Hamilton and others, and handed down through the centuries – that he had no principles, that he was a schemer, that he had no political philosophy, that he played the villain in his duel with Hamilton. This laziness has been true of scholars and also of popular biographers.”
Q. Are you basically a cultural historian, Prof. Isenberg?
A. I find it hard to use just one label such as cultural historian. My background is in political, gender, and legal history. What makes history exciting to me is thinking about past events with reference to many things. Some of my sources are predictable, but complicated, such as the power and influence of the law in American society; I also tap into less obvious sources such as the role of political satire. Historical analysis begins with a careful reading of old documents, looking for clues about the way people thought in the past and how they explained their world.
Q. How and why did you decide to tackle Aaron Burr?
A. I was studying scandalous trials in our history – Aaron Burr, O.J. Simpson, Patty Hearst. I eventually published an article on Patty Hearst, and got drawn into Burr, examining how and why he had become such a scandalous character.
I found that historians have been lazy in approaching Burr. In their assessments of his character and actions they’ve relied on what his enemies said, including Alexander Hamilton. To rely on Alexander Hamilton for your basic view of Aaron Burr is essentially the same as relying on Kenneth Starr for your view of Bill Clinton. Historians have repeated the conventional wisdom about Burr, promulgated by Hamilton and others, and handed down through the centuries – that he had no principles, that he was a schemer, that he had no political philosophy, that he played the villain in his duel with Hamilton. This laziness has been true of scholars and also of popular biographers. Burr was, in fact, an important founder of the nation, a patriot, an advocate for equal rights, and a man of the Enlightenment committed to reasoned debate.
One reason for Burr’s bad reputation is the fact that he was unlucky with regard to the letters and papers he left to posterity. Most of the nation’s founders were able to protect their reputations far better than he did. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson – they had descendants who carefully preserved their papers. Burr was not so fortunate. His wife and daughter both died before he did. Some of his papers were lost at sea when his daughter died in a shipwreck. He asked a friend to keep his papers; this man did a bad job of it and destroyed some of the material. A lot of his papers were sold off. It was only in the 1980s that the historian and editor Mary-Jo Kline and her team went out and collected as many of his papers as they could find and published a microfilm edition, followed by two volumes of his political correspondence and public papers. That’s the starting point for a thorough investigation of Burr. The next step is to go to the archives and examine all the available evidence from a wide variety of documents – letters from various participants in the drama of these years, newspapers, political pamphlets, court cases. No historian had fully pursued all these lines of investigation before I began my research.
Q. You mentioned popular biographers. A lot of books about America’s founders have been published over the last 20 years aimed at the general reader, by Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Joseph Ellis, and so on. What’s your view, overall, of these works?
A. Most of these books try to satisfy the public’s understandable desire to seek sustenance from a golden age – but it’s a golden age that never actually existed. These authors present the founders as idealistic men of outstanding character, a generation that can never be duplicated. Even some scholarly books have adopted this pose, such as “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different” by Gordon Wood. This impulse stems from an almost religious desire for a higher power, for a moral guide to the future. We know that today’s politics is unsatisfying and corrupt; we want heroes in our past, larger-than-life figures; and so you get “founder chic,” celebrations of mythic identities instead of efforts to get at the truth and humanize the skilled politicians who emerged during and after the Revolution. (Editor’s Note: See “Rating the Founding Fathers” by David Greenberg at Slate.com.) I don’t think it’s good to just retell some breathless tale that’s been told before. You have to compare sources, compare interpretations of the same event. You have to base what you say on documents and facts. You have to uncover a broader political culture – the environment in which these historical actors operated. I am obsessed about doing research. Academic historians should not leave history to popular biographers who aren’t trained to assess sources and seek the truth, but who lay on the patriotic prose and perpetuate myth.
Q. Fair enough, but what about the readability issue? You must admit, Walter Isaacson and David McCullough can write. Few people take pleasure from reading academic history. Your book is well-written, but some academic historians are shockingly lazy about making an effort to write coherently, much less well. The great historian Henry Steele Commager suggested that this is the path to irrelevancy for scholarly history. (Editor’s Note: Here’s a link to an article about this topic by psychologist Gail A. Hornstein.)
A. Thanks for your kind words. I went to great lengths to make my book accessible. I don’t begrudge Isaacson and McCullough their audience; I’m saying that the professional historian has an obligation to go deeper.
Q. How has your book been received in the history profession?
A. Most scholarly reviews of the book are still to be published – reviews in scholarly journals take much longer to come out than newspaper reviews. The book has been reviewed in the Journal of the Early American Republic and in the online journal Common-place. There hasn’t been much hostility to the book in the profession as far as I can tell. At conferences people have said to me, “It’s time someone looked at Burr, I am glad you’re doing it.” I saw Joseph Ellis give a talk about the founding era. He’s met me; he’s aware of my book. Yet he went right on in his talk repeating the old canard of Burr as mysterious, self-serving, and morally vacuous. For some people, every creation story needs a villain – among those who wish to evaluate the founders solely on the highly subjective measure of “character” there is a certain amount of resistance to challenging the assumption that Burr was the black sheep of the founders.
Q. Is some of the resistance because you’re a woman, do you think?
A. The average American, even the average college student, thinks of David McCullough – who is not a trained historian – as the ideal of the historian – an older man with white hair, a tweedy look, paternal and kindly. McCullough fits the mold of an authority figure. So, in answer to your question, yes, my being a woman may be a factor.
Q. You mentioned Gordon Wood and his book about the founders. He’s a formidable figure to take on.
A. Gordon Wood has done some superb work over the years. I have great respect for him. He wrote a book recently about Benjamin Franklin that’s insightful, far superior to the simplistic account by Walter Isaacson. I take issue with Wood’s collection of essays published recently in which he celebrates this idea of the absolutely sterling character of the founders and uses Burr as a villain to make the others look better. He wants to recover certain men as superior beings. As I’ve mentioned, I see no social value in putting them on a pedestal. I must say that he’s misinterpreted Burr. If he read my book, I think he would agree that I present a lot of compelling evidence, and I think he would question his earlier conclusions.
Q. As you researched the crowded and fascinating life of Aaron Burr, the politics of New York State was clearly key to you. Clearly, New York political competition was as tough and edgy then as now.
A. The nation’s founders were politicians engaged in vigorous and sometimes nasty competitions for power – for example, the presidential campaign of 1800 was extremely heated. New York was a crucial swing state; Burr knew that presidential electors, chosen by the state legislature, would determine the presidency. He took action, locally, to ensure Jefferson’s election.
I try in my book to recover various “lost” characters, overlooked people, people who were not a direct part of the national scene but proved crucial in the presidential contest of 1800. I wanted to examine them in detail rather than just mention them in a cursory way as some books have done. For example, James Cheetham. He was born in England and came to New York in the late 1790s where he plied his trade as a journalist. At first he was an ally of Burr; then he turned viciously against him; and, in the nasty political atmosphere of the day, wrote a wide variety of attacks against him, which included sexual slander. He labeled Burr a seducer of young men, calling Burr’s followers “strolling players,” which was then a euphemism for male prostitutes. Cheetham claimed that Burr’s home was a bordello with big mirrors on the walls, a site for his followers to gather for orgies. Sexual insults and slander of this sort contributed powerfully to Burr’s scandalous reputation. It was nothing but a smear campaign. Dirty politics. Cheetham was the hired pen of a rival New York politician. At the time my book appeared, most historians were completely unaware of Cheetham’s influential role in early American politics, and no one had bothered to read his newspaper, the American Citizen. Unless you understand the political environment of New York, you cannot fully appreciate the complexity of Burr’s career.
Q. Sexual gossip and rumors and so on – this is the sort of cultural material that historians of 50 and 100 years ago would have been reluctant to get into.
A. We should not be surprised that sex was part of politics 200 years ago. Today’s academic historians are trained in new ways of thinking about gender and masculinity and are willing to look seriously at this material and use it. If there is a discourse we can identify, we pose relevant questions: Who is making these sexually-laden charges? What’s the larger agenda and political motive? What is the meaning of these strange phrases they use? So when Burr was accused by Cheetham of being a “proteus,” of having a fluid sexual identity – a hybrid identity, of being unstable, unreliable, hypersexual, a dandy – this connects to the notion that he was “not a true Republican” and had “no ideas.” If he could change sexual identities so easily, went this line of thinking, he could be said to lack a coherent political identity as well. It was a false charge, but politics, then and now, was full of false accusations and attempts at character assassination.
Q. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel in New Jersey on July 11, 1804. This is one of the most riveting moments in the history of the early republic, a complicated event that’s debated to this day. Ron Chernow, in his best-selling Hamilton biography, is sympathetic toward Hamilton in the duel and the ramp-up to it; you, much less so, saying Burr was not the villain.
A. I challenge Ron Chernow’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow presents a very one-sided story about the duel: Hamilton’s side. He relies on a lengthy document prepared before the duel by Hamilton, about how he intended to shoot in the air, and why he was morally opposed to dueling. Hamilton’s close friend, Gouverneur Morris, who gave the eulogy at his funeral, confessed in his diary that he found Hamilton’s claim about opposing dueling to be inexplicable. Hamilton opposed dueling – but died in a duel? Everyone – Chernow, Joe Ellis – ignores the fact that Hamilton, before the duel, put on his glasses, made adjustments for the sun, and aimed his gun. This is hardly the behavior of someone who intended to shoot in the air. This idea that Hamilton was so noble that he shot in the air and Burr shot to kill – it’s so one-sided! It hardly reflects the whole story. Yet it’s been told so often that it has acquired legitimacy. This is a perfect example of the vilification of Burr and the deification of Hamilton, in which a morality tale of good versus evil has been substituted for historical accuracy.
Because the background to the duel is deeply enmeshed in New York State politics, a thorough knowledge of this subject is crucial. Hamilton had been spreading vicious rumors about Burr for years, because Burr competed with him where it mattered most, in New York. Hamilton had a talent for attacking his political opponents. Prior to the duel, when Burr was running for governor of New York, a comment by Hamilton was published in the newspaper. It was an early form of the political attack ad. Rumors had circulated that Hamilton did not care who won the governor’s race. This published attack was released to quash the idea of Hamilton’s neutrality over the election. It was reported that Hamilton used the word “despicable” with the intent of slandering Burr’s private character. That word had very specific connotations then. Hamilton made this remark in a room full of gentlemen who would instantly understand the implications of the language. Hamilton could have apologized and avoided the duel; he had done so twice before with Burr, after making disparaging remarks in public. But this time, Hamilton refused to take back his characterization, and the duel resulted.
Q. A back-to-back reading of your version of the event and Chernow’s is very interesting indeed. Let me ask you this – is it possible, in your opinion, to know with certainty what happened at the dueling ground that day? I ask this with reference to the postmodernist approach to history, a pathway that a few scholars find interesting, wherein the idea of truth is regarded as largely, perhaps essentially, unknowable; a belief that the probing of historical events and personalities is profoundly conditioned by various large forces.
A. We cannot know everything about what happened that day in 1804 but I think it’s possible to know certain things, if we objectively weigh all the evidence, and resist getting overly attached to evidence that we like and ignoring evidence we don’t like. There is truth out there.
Q. As you studied this era, were you influenced in your thinking by other historians?
A. The person whose work on this era is really important, but doesn’t receive adequate attention because it focuses on local politics, is Alfred F. Young. He has done meticulous study of the Democratic Republicans and Federalists of New York. His work inspired me to take state politics seriously, to realize that national politicians are always local politicians.
Q. Didn’t you do a lot of research at the American Antiquarian Society?
A. Yes, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a wonderful archive with an incredible collection of 18th and 19th century newspapers, political pamphlets, broadsides, and rare books. I found several satirical essays about Burr that had escaped the attention of other historians. I spent a great deal of time reading old newspapers on microfilm. I also used the New-York Historical Society, reading manuscript letters of less well-known figures. I used materials from the Library of Congress and the special collections of the University of Virginia and Princeton University. Spending time in archives is what historians do.
Q. What is your next project?
A. I am co-authoring a dual biography, “Madison and Jefferson,” with historian Andrew Burstein. ●
1. “What a perpetual delight manuscript research is!” – historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 1990.