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The problem for historians assessing the character of Thomas Jefferson is that they have too much accessible information. As to Aaron Burr, they have the opposite problem; after his trial, his exile, and the loss of his beloved daughter and grandchild, he made no significant effort to present his own case, while Alexander Hamilton, in his final hours, made an effort to set things straight, but only in anticipation of death, and so desperately that not even his most admiring friends accept his self-disclosure as reliable.
The three had very little good to say for each other. Except for his confessions on the night before he died, Hamilton allocated much of the energy of his final year to the destruction of Burr's reputation. After Hamilton's death, Jefferson used the full powers of the presidency to finish that work. Hamilton had charged debauchery and mendacity. Jefferson added treason. Neither, it may be noted, accused Burr of mean-spiritedness, cruelty, or vindictiveness, probably because at the time such assertions would have injured their case against him. The gentry acquainted with the three knew better.
The allegation of treason upon which Jefferson's presidential indictment of Burr centered was three times put to juries. None of the three reached agreement with Jefferson. Considering all this, the wonder is how little Burr had to say for himself. Even after Hamilton and Jefferson forced him out of politics, he still refused to explain, from his point of view, why they had been so eager to do so. If he wished posterity tothink well of him, it would have been better had he thought well enough of it to engage it in a conversation. Without turning upon those who made charges against him, he merely wrote:
I fear I have committed a great error; the men who knew their falsity are dead, and the generation who now read them may take them for truths, being uncontradicted. I admit I have committed a capital error, but it is too late to repair it.
Perhaps it is not too late. But it will require a great deal more work than doing equivalent justice to Jefferson. Knowing that historians build with paper, the bibliographer and Sage of Monticello saved and arranged every paper that might demonstrate his character as he wished posterity to assess it. The mere listing of his correspondence runs for more than six hundred pages, and he provided eighteen thousand copies of his outgoing correspondence through the use of the polygraph machine he invented. Because the process was slow, mechanical, and burdensome, we can be certain that not a word in those eighteen thousand reproduced letters was unconsidered. Neither is there anything among the twenty-five thousand incoming letters he kept on file that would unbecome him; nor did he offer any comfort to admirers of either Burr or Hamilton in the accounts of his conversations with them in his Anas.
Burr lingered on until 1836, still unwilling to provide for history those documentary conveniences upon which it depends. He did retain much useful material, but his best chronicler, his daughter, and all his crucial papers were lost at sea. (His second choice as biographer, his son-in-law, was so overcome by grief after his wife's death that he commenced a descent into an early grave.) With Hamilton dead and Burr mute, Jefferson's self-asserted character has occupied the field. He has had critics, but however skeptical they may have been, much of their work must depend upon material he selected for their use.
Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson were leery of the opinions of any large number of persons. Hamilton and Burr did not approve of what Burr called Jefferson's "Jacobin leveling principles." They knew their man well enough to doubt that Jefferson was at heart any more promiscuous in his democratic instincts than they. Yet both suspected that he would pretend to be so, despite his shrinking from exposure to people to whom he had not been introduced. Hamilton tried electioneering, once, was ridiculed, and recoiled. Burr was willing to meet with the leaders of Tammany but not to go either to their clubhouse or to the streets.
In an oratorical age, Jefferson never made an audible public orationnever. He was willing to step onto his portico to acknowledge the adulation of welcoming committees who would greet him on his return to Monticello, but that was that. He delivered two inaugural addresses as President. They read well, but we are solemnly informed by those present that neither could be heard. Hamilton and Burr were both audible as public speakers, though their audiences never exceeded the company of gentlemen. When he came before the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton essayed a six-hour instruction so deadening to his hearers that it induced a weary adjournment. Burr was better; his farewell to the Senate, in 1804, was one of the most affecting public addresses delivered between those of Patrick Henry and the advent of Daniel Webster. Perhaps that was because those affected were men of his own sort, to whom he affirmed their self-estimation as persons set aside to govern because they were not ordinary.
We need no reminding that Hamilton was charged with "aristocratical" ideas, though in fact his principles were more mercantile than aristocratic. Burr's chosen placement in society was demonstrated by his retort to a young lawyer who rose in a courtroom in Jamaica, Long Island, seeking to inflame the crowd against him:
I learned in the Revolution, in the society of gentlemen, and I have since observed, that a man who is guilty of intentional bad manners, is capable of crime.
There is more in this than the pride of a single officer. It tells us how "a society of gentlemen" thought of the nature of the Revolution itself: The affronted gentry did not rise against custom, king, and country for light or specious reasons. The affront to them was to the principles of their classa class Aaron Burr entered by "birth, parentage, and descent," according to John Adams. Adams went on to emphasize a point essential to our story, that Burr sustained his status when his military record displayed "the character of a knight without fear, and an able officer."
In that character, he might have made a great career a demagogue if that had been his nature. Burr was, however, trained in a fastidious mode of public discourse that became natural to him after a terrible childhood. He eschewed that noisy righteousness of indignation that even then was becoming an American characteristic. As the descendant of evangelists, Burr might have been fitted to sustain the emotional pitch of the Revolution, but because his every expansive instinct was extinguished in his youth, he did not possess the capacity to gush. His life oscillated only between a modernized and secularized pursuit of Puritan example and a cool, aristocratic reaction against it.
Burr came of a tradition of scholars and clerics, leavened by merchants accounted gentlemen, but without Cavalier pretensions, Like the Adamses, they might own houses beyond the city limits, but they would have though it silly to search in the attic for heraldic shields. It is crucial to recognize that such people thought first of conscience and only then of honor. "Southern honor" did not always shadow southern conscience; when a man thinks of himself as a descendant of Cavaliers, he is not likely to think like a Roundhead. In tight places, class and sectional interest do sometimes conflict with individual conviction, and in tight places Aaron Burr chose the latter. So, in fact, did Hamilton, who inherited no class nor section.
Hotspur and Bolingbroke
Hamilton was the Hotspur among the periwigs, as Jefferson was the Bolingbroke. They were different in character, and they were also different in manner. Hamilton was accounted to be more sincere, but that was because he seemed so, for Jefferson shared with Burr a cool, covered demeanor which even so early as 1800 was thought by Americans to be incompatible with candor. Hamilton made public professions of religious fervor; Jefferson and Burr did not. But we must be cautious about making a romantic of Hamilton just because his oratorical style was rapturous. He was, in fact, a calculating man, nearly as calculating as Jefferson. Burr was the romantic, though his personal style was covered and his literary mode drier than Jefferson's.
Jefferson was a landed gentleman, American stylethat is to say that he owned both real estate and "personalty" in the literal sense. In modern parlance: He owned persons. Burr, the scion of men of the Book and the Cloth, had no awe for the landed gentry. Hamilton had a tenuous connection to Scottish lairdship; his putative father was not, in fact, a "peddler" but a decayed gentleman who had descended to trade. Since that gentleman had deserted him, he early made the choice for trade writ large among a class of men making the transition from trade toward manufacturing. His determination introduced him to their way of thinking, in particular to their aversion toward dependence upon larger merchants and toward any monopoly not their own. He was the natural advocate of home industries, providing a patriotic reason for protecting them, for clearing their traffic lanes, and for taxing farmers to subsidize them. Unlike Jefferson, he correctly perceived the danger that, having declared political independence, the United States would lapse into a neocolonial dependence upon British manufacturers, as, indeed, the South did.
In Hamilton's world of contract and purchased alliances, keeping your word, or honoring your contract, is the primary gauge of character, and he was never (so far as we know) guilty of a deliberate lie. That is not to say that he always spoke the truth. A deliberate lie is different from an impetuous declaration of something which, in a cooler moment, one may admit to have been untrue. Hamilton was guilty of yielding to transitory truths of the moment, as he was guilty of yielding to sexual opportunities of the moment. His psychiatrist grandson was right: His faults were those of an impetuous nature.
Burr's lies were to foreigners, concerning politics, and perhaps to creditors concerning money, though it is possible that neither he, nor Jefferson, nor Hamilton, three chronic debtors, deliberately stated an untruth to those they owed. Not one died solvent, and all three failed to make promised payments, but they may have thought they might pay when they said they would. As to political mendacity, Jefferson's breaches of pledged word cannot be said, like Hamilton's, to have been the rotted fruit of impetuosity. From the circumstances, it is apparent that, each time, he meant to lie. Yet those who admire Burr as much as the other two must admit that many who knew them all thought him to be the shiftiest, the least reliable, and the most devious. There is no ready explanation for this, because the written record of their actions, comparatively, does not bear this impression out. Yet it cannot be denied as prevailing widely at the time. Hamilton and Jefferson did nothing to dissuade anyone of its truth, but they cannot justly be said to have created it. Burr may have delighted in giving such an impression when it cost him little to do so, for neither he nor anyone else could have anticipated that in 1804 and again in 1807 the game of politics would become deadly. He and Hamilton engaged in a duel to the death in 1804, and Jefferson brought him to trial on a hanging offense in 1807.
Burr became Vice President of the United States in 1800 despite Hamilton's having turned the full force of his excoriative skills from John Adams toward Burr. Thomas Jefferson was the beneficiary of Hamilton's work on Adams and was again indebted to Hamilton in 1804 when, by dying, he weakened Burr. The price was very high, but the result was devoutly desired; Hamilton only disdained Adams, while his feeling for Burr was deeper than hate.
As early as 1800, Hamilton was writing his friends that he could do no "better than withdraw from the scene. Every day proves to me more and more that the American world was not made for me." What other world was there? Sohow to make an exit? "For some time past," Hamilton told those at his bedside as he lay dying, he had known "that my life must be exposed to that man." Why? Henry Adams hazarded an answer: "Instead of killing Burr, [Hamilton] invited Burr to kill him." Another historian, Douglas Adair, took Hamilton's admission that he had been guilty of maligning Burr to be a step toward expiation, so that death at Burr's hands would become "an act of repentance." That is certainly how his religious contemporaries took it, and they sainted him for it.
In 1978, four psychological biographers discussed the matter and concluded that Hamilton had committed suicide, "using Burr as an instrument," having projected upon Burr his failures as man and leader. Burr became his own "evil self," to be entrapped into taking them allHamilton the protagonist, Hamilton the projected evil one, and Burr the adversaryall down with a single shot.
And what if Hamilton thought he was going to die soon enough anyway? It is possible that his life was coming to an end, or that he thought so. His physician, Dr. Hosack, reported that he was unable to treat Hamilton's wound with "all those remedies which are usually indicated on such occasions" because "his habit was delicate and had been lately rendered more feeble by ill health, particularly by a disorder of the stomach and bowels."
Whether he thought of himself as sacrifice or hero or instrument of fate, Hamilton wrote his farewell documents to establish his own character and to destroy Burr's. Hamilton needed to make himself a victima Christian victim.
Let us see how he sought to establish his character, and Burr's as well. As our tale unfolds, the reader can then juxtapose what Hamilton said of himself with what his actions tell us. It will then be a great convenience that, because of the precision with which his projection mechanism operated, we can judge both him and Burr by what he said of Burr. Let us begin with what he wrote of himself.
I think it proper to make some remarks explanatory of my conduct, motives and views. I was certainly desirous of avoiding this interview.... My religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of dueling.... I am conscious of no ill will [Hamilton's emphasis] to Col. Burr, distinct from political opposition, which I trust has proceeded from pure and upright motives....
... my animadversions on the political principles, character, and views of Col. Burr ... have been extremely severe.... In proportion as these impressions were entertained with sincerity, and uttered with motives and for purposes which might appear to me commendable, would be the difficulty (until they could be removed by evidence of their being erroneous) of explanation or apology.... It is not my design, by what I have said, to affix any odium on the conduct of Col. Burr, in this case. He doubtless has heard of animadversions of mine, which bore very hard upon him; and it is probable that as usual they were accompanied with some falsehoods. He may have supposed himself under a necessity of acting as he has done. I hope the grounds of his proceeding are such as ought to satisfy his own conscience.
I trust at the same time, that the world will do me the justice to believe that I have not censured him on light grounds, nor from unworthy inducements. I certainly have had strong reasons for what I may have said, though it is possible that in some particulars, I may have been influenced by misconstruction or misinformation. It is also my ardent wish that I may have been more mistaken than I think I have been, and that he, by his future conduct, may show himself worthy of all confidence and esteem, and prove an ornament and blessing to the country.
As well because it is possible I may have injured Col. Burr, however convinced myself that my opinions and declarations have been well founded, I have resolved ... to throw away my first fire. ... It is not, however, my intention to enter into any explanations on the groundApology from principle, I hope, rather than pride, is out of the question. To those who, with me, abhorring the practice of dueling, may think that I ought on no account to have added to the number of bad examples, I answer that my relative [his emphasis] situation as well in public as private, enforcing all the considerations which constitute what men of the world denominate honor, imposed upon me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call. The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good ... would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.
Hamilton did not offer this document to Burr, or to anyone who might have spoken to Burr of it before the duel. The apology was to be posthumous. Whatever Hamilton intended, it was not to avert a fatal encounter. A man who writes in this way is engaged in defining himself, correcting thereby what he fears he has, until then, conveyed about himself. In Hamilton's case, the image he might most have desired to erase was himself-in-Burr, as he had depicted Burr to others. Anyone who knew them both could readily hold up a mirror to Hamilton when he presented his projection of evil as Burrhis doppelgänger, his other. What he said of Burr was true of himself.
(1) He is in every sense a profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme .... His very friends do not insist upon his integrity.
(2) He is without doubt insolvent for a large deficit....
(3) He must therefore from the necessity of his station have recourse to unworthy expedients. These may be a bargain and sale with some foreign power ... and probably, to enlarge the spherewar.
(4) He has no pretensions to the Station [the presidency] from service [in the Revolution] ... He ... gave indications of being a good officer; but without having had the opportunity of performing any distinguished action.... In civil life, he has never projected nor aided in producing a single measure of important public utility....
(7) He is of a temper bold enough to think no enterprise too hazardous and sanguine enough to think none too difficult....
(8) Discerning men of all parties agree in ascribing to him an irregular and inordinate ambition ... he will in all likelihood attempt an usurpation.
And, finally, with the most astonishing self-deception about the perils of self-revelation, Hamilton said of the circumspect Burr: "He has held very vindictive language respecting his opponents."
Pretensions to Character
When in 1800 Hamilton had done with John Adams, Adams was finished as a leader of the Federalist party, and Hamilton was left to choose whether, among the survivors, more was to be feared from Jefferson or from Burr. His conclusion was that "Jefferson is to be preferred. He is by far not so dangerous a man; he has pretensions to character." As if instantly to offer a parody of what pretensions to character might permit, he proceeded to urge other Federalists of character "to throw out a lure for him [Burr], in order to tempt him to start for the plate, and then lay a foundation in dissension between the two chiefs." Thus, having dissembled just enough, or lied just a little, the Federalists could snap shut the trap and leave their opponents divided and weakened.
"Pretensions to character." What might those be? Is pretension something different from possession? Jefferson's response to Hamilton's charges was that his accuser was "a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country ... not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption."
Corruption was incompatible with "character," as these men used the term. Our use of the term "integrity" reminds us that for them a person of character manifested a harmonious wholeness out of which correct behavior ensued. Character did not necessarily require goodness of heart, nor was a person of character expected to be generous. Generosity expressed something beyond character, a quality the eighteenth century admired and called "liberality." After 1800 or so, as too much amiability or generosity came to provoke apprehension, "liberality" fell from fashion. Saving (a bourgeois virtue) replaced benign expenditure (a characteristic of feudal chieftains), and reinvestment replaced potlatch. As Burr learned to his sorrow, too much liberality became a sign of bad character. This transition can be observed in what was said of Burr by Hamilton, by Hamiltonians, by Jefferson, and by a host of others. Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all died bankrupt after lavish expenditure upon their own comfort and upon expensive country houses, in the English fashion. While Jefferson was generous to his friends, Burr was munificent. This was one of the ways in which he was becoming an anachronism.
Bankruptcy had been commonplace among gentlemen and merchants in the founding generation. Financial mismanagement carried nothing of the onus it carries today, nor did improvidence in providing for oneself. Gentlemen were not thought lacking in character merely because they left to their heirs only debts. The emergent century, however, brought with it, after the economic confusions of the 1790s, a saving-and-investing society, looking forward to Ebenezer Scrooge rather than backward to Charles James Fox. Aaron Burr had no place in a society in which character was defined among the middle class as abstinence from expenditure they could afford, and among the workers as a willingness not to ask for more than they might then spend. The sphincter replaced the open palm as the preferred portion of a good citizen's anatomy.
The emergent middle class coupled its crabbed avoidance of philanthropy to a boisterous expression of religious conviction. Burr was "liberal" in the eighteenth-century sense, as "liberalism" in the nineteenth century came to mean approval of the free play of market forces, without distortion by generosity. Though middle-class people who professed that sort of liberalism found Burr's kind condescending and vaguely irresponsible, they talked much of religion, while Burr did not. To the day he died, he was coy about public pronouncements of his moral motivation and of its religious grounding. Hamilton could be generous, too, but hardly to the point of liberality, in part because he had generated a large and expensive brood, which had first call upon his resources. Like the business men he served, however, he thought it necessary to profess "pure and upright motives," asserting publicly his "religious and moral principles." Jefferson instructed posterity as to his religious views by way of his own scissors-and-paste Bible but, during his lifetime, was as coy as Burr and as indisposed to the noisier forms of religious expression.
Burr's coyness was, as he said, a great mistake in spin control. Hamilton's effusions were wiser, and Jefferson's addresses to coming generations cleverer still. Had Hamilton survived the twelfth duel he provoked, we can be confident that we would have heard a good deal more about his "principles."
The Chesterfieldian Fallacy
The character of Aaron Burr lies hidden from us by clouds of false witness borne against him by his political opponents, behind his own persistent refusal to explain himself, and obscured by certain platitudes about him composed even by those who thought themselves his friends. His first biographer to be trained as a historian, James Parton, set adrift the notion that "Chesterfield was not a more consummate Chesterfieldian than Aaron Burr." To support this assertion, Parton, eloquent but careless, offered only a sentence in a letter to Burr from his wife, in which she discounted the utility of Chesterfield as a guide to the young, along with other fashionable preceptors of the day, such as Rousseau and Voltaire. As if in the belief that good manners cloak a bad heart, many subsequent biographers seeking such a heart in Burr have cited Parton, implying or assuring us that Burr disagreed with his wife. For example, Nathan Schachner, otherwise an admirable guide through this thicket, tells us that Chesterfield, Rousseau, and Voltaire guided Burr's education of their daughter after the death of his wife, despite her wishes.
If this were true, we might deduce from it not only that Burr was a Chesterfieldian but also that he had little respect for his wife's intellect and preferences. In truth, however, there is not a single reference to Chesterfield in all his hundreds of instructions to their child. Nor did he adopt for his own behavior the most obvious of Chesterfieldian characteristics, which Dr. Johnson singled out as an insolent lack of kindness or "consideration." Both Burr and his wife knew that the Letters of Chesterfield were amusing but useless as instruction. They were written in a vain attempt to school Philip Stanhope, Chesterfield's dull, loutish, shambling though amiable, bastard son, in the behavior necessary to gain favor in the corrupt court at Versailles.
The callous admonitions of Chesterfield did not supervene the precepts of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Plutarch in setting the moral standards of the classically trained Burrs. At her parents' insistence, their daughter Theodosia gained fluency in both Latin and Greek before she was twelve, and was assigned to read the classics as Plutarch would have them read: for moral instruction. Burr bestowed upon her the calm Aurelian spirit, not the waspish tone of Chesterfield, in setting forth his own maxims of good behavior in adversity:
Receive with calmness every reproof, whether made kindly or unkindly; whether just or unjust. Consider within yourself whether there has been no cause for it. If it has been groundless and unjust, never the less bear it with composure, and even with complacency .... We must learn to bear such things; and let me tell you, that you will always feel much better, much happier, for having borne with serenity the spleen of anyone, than if you had returned spleen for spleen.
You will, I am sure, my dear Theodosia, pardon two such grave pages from one who loves you, and whose happiness depends very much on yours.
When David Reisman discovered "sincerity" in the 1950s, the irony was new, but the phenomenon was not. Alexander Hamilton may not have possessed a "sincere tie," but he had a "sincere suit" and a very "sincere voice." Hamilton was impetuous in large matters, but he was deliberate in details, skilled in the rhetoric of dress and behavior that, as any actor knows, can immeasurably improve the effect of mere language. It was well for Jefferson to have been so masterful in prose, for he had to rely so much upon language. He utterly lacked a theatrical sense.
In the company of others, Hamilton was charming, effusive, effulgent, and apparently candid. Burr was always covered, always apparently scheming. Benjamin Henry Latrobe wrote that Burr's demeanor belied his nature, dissembling his "benevolence," as if he wished to seem less benevolent, less passionate, less candid, and more devious than he actually was. As a result, it became conventional to attribute to him a diabolical cleverness even before the duel with the saintly-seeming Hamilton, even before the "conspiracy" of which he was charged by Jefferson.
Yet no one who knew them both, or studied them both with any care, accepted as authentic either an angelic Hamilton or a Satanic Burr. Dr. Allan Hamilton, the first professionally trained psychiatrist to examine the two in retrospect, quoted with approval the conclusion of one of his grandfather's most admiring biographers, Frederick Scott Oliver: "Lovers of Hamilton and of a settled order ... have drawn the picture of Burr which is accepted in history books. It is only natural that the shadows have been overblackened." But Burr himself had provided the shadows. Latrobe lamented his persistent refusal to emerge from them to contend for the sunlight with the apparently openhearted Hamilton:
Mr. Hamilton had more apparent frankness and candor, with less actual benevolence; Colonel Burr, more discretion and command of himself, with the most generous and liberal mind. Of Colonel Burr, numerous proofs of the most disinterested benevolence are known. Not a single instance of munificence is known of Hamilton.
Trying to be fair, with Allan Hamilton's assent, Oliver could only bring himself to write:
Strictly he was an immoral citizen, because he flouted the sanctity of contract and gave away upon an impulse what was already hypothecated to others. But at least he did not spend upon himself.... He gave because he could not resist appeals, because he could not help giving.... His charity was of the heart, spontaneous, promiscuous, and usually misdirected.... In his old age the habit amounted to a mania.
Now, after another ninety years have passed, is it truly "too late" for a person to be thought sane if given enthusiastically to liberality and to adventure? I do not think so. Instead, it seems to me, it is high time to restore Aaron Burr to the Pantheon of the Founders.