What scoundrels teach us.

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Let's Raise a Glass to Aaron Burr

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
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Enough about Hamilton. Let's talk about Burr.

I mean, about "Burr," Gore Vidal's 1973 historical novel.

It's more accurate, and far more colorful, than schoolbook versions of the most important period of American history. And after reading it, I came away thinking that Aaron Burr is more than the rapscallion who killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel, among other perfidies. While Hamilton's reputation has enjoyed a renaissance, thanks most recently to the Broadway musical based on Ron Chernow's biography, Burr's role as villain seems secure in every American era. 

But as Vidal shows, after mining the historical archives, the real Burr's flaws and petty machinations were no more or less roguish than those of some heroic figures around him.

Through him, we are disabused of numerous myths. For example, he didn't nearly steal the presidency away from Thomas Jefferson in 1800. He allowed Jefferson to become the nation's third president, after they received equal votes in the Electoral College, by refusing to lobby House members to give him the job. Burr was tried (and acquitted) on treason charges for allegedly trying to foment rebellion among the Western states. In fact, he was trying to free territory from Spanish rule, many historians have come to believe.

Burr doesn't get a founding-father halo, though he fought on the Revolutionary War battlefield with more courage than men we honor as heroes. Then he served as New York's attorney general, as a U.S. senator and as Thomas Jefferson's vice president. So he missed the Constitutional Convention. So did Jefferson.

Vidal uses Burr as a foil to tell on his revolutionary peers. George Washington won a few major battles but he was an inept military tactician overall, and no sooner was he elected president than he got an advance on his salary from the Treasury. And as for pompous and hypocritical Jefferson, writes Vidal: "Although often prone to truth, Jefferson was never a fanatic when his own legend was at stake."

Of the duel with Hamilton on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, Vidal writes in Burr's voice:

As usual with me, the world saw fit to believe a different story. The night before our meeting, Hamilton wrote a letter to posterity; it was on the order of a penitent monk's last confession. He would reserve his first shot, he declared, and perhaps his second because, morally, he disapproved of dueling. Then of course he fired first. As for his disapproval of dueling, he had issued at least three challenges that I know of. But Hamilton realized better than anyone else that the world -- our American world at least -- loves a canting hypocrite.

Only James Madison seems irreproachable. He "was a strange pale youth, all head and no body, addicted to theology -- a subject with which I wanted nothing ever to do." Because Madison was so small, "people tended to ignore him until he began to speak (in a voice nearly as weak as Jefferson's); then, very gradually, listening to him one became most vividly aware of what a great little man he was."

Vidal, who died in 2012, painstakingly researched his subject, and historians gave him high marks for following the documentary evidence. When his novel first appeared amid the Watergate scandal, it was seen as a well-timed allegory of the Richard Nixon era.

The mean and vindictive Jefferson could be seen as a stand-in for Nixon, a portrayal that became more meaningful as events played out. The Supreme Court justices who ruled in 1974 that Nixon had to release the White House tapes are reminiscent of Chief Justice John Marshall, who acquitted Burr of treason in 1807.

Marshall had subpoenaed letters in President Jefferson's possession that might help in Burr's defense. Jefferson turned over other documents but not the letters, insisting (wrongly, ultimately) that the executive branch could never submit to the judiciary. Marshall had the last word: His instructions to the jury left it no choice but to acquit Burr. For a while, Jefferson considered, but decided against, impeaching the chief justice.

Vidal's "Burr" is useful for any era of U.S. politics. For those who think Donald Trump and all the rest are scoundrels today, and represent some new low point, it always helps to turn over the rock of history.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net