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British Association for American Studies


Issue 1, Spring 2001, article2


Issue 1, Spring 2001, article2

Finding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson, Republicanism and the Politics of Patrimony in Gore Vidal’s Burr

Anthony Hutchinson
© Anthony Hutchinson. All Rights Reserved

Gore Vidal’s novel Burr is narrated by Charles Schuyler, a young journalist in 1830s New York who has been assigned the task of procuring politically sensitive information from an ageing Aaron Burr. Like most of the other characters in the novel Burr is a real historical figure. Once regarded as a ‘founding father’, Burr was a hero of the War of Independence who went on to help establish the political machine that became Tammany Hall. By 1800 he had become a powerful enough figure in the Republican Party to tie with Jefferson in the Presidential election of that year. In 1804, however, Burr’s reputation took a turn for the worse. It was in that year that—whilst still Jefferson’s Vice-President—he killed Alexander Hamilton in the most famous duel of the era. Furthermore between 1805 and 1807 Burr was accused of involvement in a filibustering attempt to invade Mexico, detach the western states from the union and create an empire in the newly occupied territories with himself at its head. This image of a North American Bonaparte determined to break up the union has, at least in the eyes of historians, been a potent and enduring one.

Although often adding color to narrative accounts of the early national period, in the realm of American intellectual history Burr is a somewhat more marginal figure. US historians’ recovery of a ‘republican’ ideology of the revolutionary and early national period in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, for instance, adds little to our understanding of this figure. In contrast to the Lockean emphasis on negative liberty and the autonomy of the private sphere such historians identified an ideology that valorised the public sphere and articulated a positive sense of liberty associated with participation in civic affairs. The health of the public sphere was premised on the willingness of citizens to demonstrate their ‘virtue’ by subordinating private interests to a higher notion of the public good. Only a virtuous citizenry—whose virtue and autonomy were assured by their status as property-holders and associated freedom from the economy—could be sufficiently ‘disinterested’ in political matters to maintain the moral rectitude of the republic and resist the temptations of empire.[1] The ‘self-interested’, neo-imperial actions of Burr would thus seem to qualify him as the republican statesman’s ‘other’. Having said this in the subsequent counter-offensive which aimed to restore Lockean texts to their central position within the canon of American political thought Burr is also nowhere to be found.[2]

Thomas Jefferson was a crucial figure within this debate as both sides were eager to appropriate his political and intellectual legacy. Accordingly it is to the politics of Jefferson—both in theory and practice—as well as its contested legacy that this study will turn. By focusing as much on Jefferson as it does, Burr can be read as a contribution to this debate and Vidal himself as an insightful intellectual historian. It is not Vidal’s intention primarily to affirm or resurrect the soiled reputation of a maligned historical figure; it is rather to imagine how a cynical, political animal like Burr might have reflected on the the first few decades of the American republic. Aaron Burr, in this way, also offers a fascinating prism through which to view the historical personage of Thomas Jefferson.

Even more interestingly Vidal situates Burr’s assessment of Jefferson in the radically different context of the 1830s. The insight afforded via this retrospective narrative strategy is crucial to the way in which Burr’s views come to engage with the broader themes I am concerned with. The acute sense of historical transition conveyed in Burr is skilfully achieved via several narrative devices. The overarching narrative is set against the backdrop of Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1828-1836). More specifically it depicts the events leading to the succession of Jackson’s Vice-President Martin Van Buren in 1836, the first American President we are reminded—lest we forget the symbolism of the novel’s architecture—to be born in the post-colonial era.

In the opening scenes of the novel Schuyler quickly becomes aware that he is in pursuit of a figure now widely regarded as a traitor to the union. This hostility is compounded, moreover, with the notoriety Burr has acquired as the ‘slayer’ of a ‘founding father’ whose ideological stock has risen considerably with the emergence of a society organised around an increasingly commercial market economy. Between Schuyler’s narrative and the narrative of Burr’s political career—recalled via his own memoirs and conversations held with Schuyler—we are able to chart this very process.

By the 1830s the United States is seen to have realised the Hamiltonian vision of an expansionist republic supported by those modern economic principles that aroused the suspicions of the old Republican opposition during the first Federalist administrations. Furthermore, Burr’s commentary on the first Republican administrations from 1800 onwards clearly shows the extent to which—once these structures were in place—Jefferson could not dismantle the whole edifice of the ‘treasuro-bankites’.[3] Equally interesting, however, is the way in which this is in tension with certain democratic developments of the Jacksonian era that bear a trace of the Jeffersonian tradition. Most prominent amongst these are Jackson’s hostility to the idea of a National Bank, appeals to states’ rights and the anti-élitist character of the era’s populist political rhetoric.

The Jacksonian Democrats perceived themselves to be at the vanguard of a de-centralising movement that would ultimately place power back into the hands of the people. But what type of power: economic or political? And if the appeals were to Jefferson’s principles then which Jefferson, the liberal forward-looking commercial farmer or the classical republican yeoman? The formal structure of Burr foregrounds this notion of political legacy as it manifests itself in a more recognisably modern social context. What was the legacy the founding fathers wished to leave to their descendants and how might they have wished them to interpret it? And what was the interpretation of that legacy by those descendants in the new social world? Although the United States was still a pre-dominantly rural society in the 1830s, it was nonetheless a society in transformation. Schuyler’s New York City, for instance, is beginning its march towards the twentieth century. Burr relays how Manhattan Island is about to be occupied by its first commercial buildings and new penny papers are appearing ‘…that make a fortune by each day giving the public some atrocious novelty’.[4] It is a city in political turmoil where masses congregate; abolitionists trigger riots; and anti-Catholic diatribes lambast the new ‘papist’ immigrants as a threat to American civilisation. These were circumstances that could not possibly be foreseen by the constitution-makers for whom mass meetings were a cause for alarm; slavery an accepted (if somewhat troubling) component of the economy; and ‘liberty of conscience’ a cornerstone of the American moral universe. By the 1830s new patterns were beginning to emerge and the sense of a gap between past and future they prompted explains the narrative complexity of Vidal’s novel.

Some of these new patterns evident in Burr intersect, of course, with those traced by the intellectual historians of liberalism and republicanism referred to earlier. There is an important sense, however, in which Vidal’s novel avoids some of the drawbacks inherent in this debate. One of the blind spots in this debate has been its inability to perceive the extent to which both republicanism and, more obviously, liberalism are ex post facto concepts. Despite having provided us with trenchant understandings of how Lockean and classical republican concepts entered the mainstream of American political thought, both sides in the dispute have tended to dichotomise these respective theories. The impression left is of the United States as understood unequivocally by its founders as either a modern liberal polity or a civic-humanist republic. This almost certainly downplays the flexibility, or—as Vidal would no doubt argue—the expediency, of the founders’ politics.

The problem is particularly evident, for reasons I will explore, in those instances where the thought of Thomas Jefferson is under consideration. A certain consistency is invariably assumed in the way in which liberal or classical republican ideas shaped Jefferson’s confrontation with modernity. But what is not commonly taken account of is the fact that although Jefferson was himself undoubtedly aware of such phenomena as an expanding economy, commercialisation, property rights, corruption and so forth, he was not aware in the same way as we are retrospectively in the late twentieth century. They may have been striking features of American public life to Jefferson but they were certainly not perceived in the context of the ‘rise of liberal capitalism’ or ‘the end of classical politics’ in the sense we (can only) now understand such developments. Before speaking of the ‘Lockean’ or ‘Machiavellian’ nature of Jefferson’s encounter with modernity, then, we might recall that, in Gordon Wood’s words,

For early Americans there never was a stark dictionary of traditions, liberal or classical republican. None of the historical participants ever had any sense that they had to choose or were choosing between Locke and Machiavelli. The categories of ‘liberalism’ and ‘classical republicanism’ into which the participants in the past presumably must be fitted are the inventions of historians and as such are gross distortions of past reality.[5]

In this sense recent historiography has constructed two Jeffersons from a broad spectrum of ideas that have only subsequently acquired their own respective coherence. The historical novelist, of course, can re-construct the past in the present tense. Within this context the imposition of such conceptual frameworks appears more conspicuous. The self-serving and evasive dimensions of Burr’s narration, moreover, are made explicit in the novel. Accordingly when filtered through Vidal’s narrative Jefferson is no strict adherent to any cohesive body of political thought. Burr notes, rather, how ‘each swift response’, of Jefferson’s, be it as ambassador to France or as President, ‘[is] rich with ambiguities’.[6]

The reader is presented via the focalised voice of Burr, with a radical re-reading of Jefferson’s character and thought as it responds to a number of unfolding political crises and predicaments. Jefferson’s posthumous glory is inexplicable to the elderly Burr who, as the presiding authority in the Senate, witnessed Jefferson’s attempt to ‘subvert the Constitution and shatter the Supreme court’ during the trial of Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. ‘Judge Chase was acquitted’, Burr writes in his memoirs, ‘for the very good reason that there was no true case against him’.[7] Burr regards Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territories as similarly unconstitutional. Furthermore, compounding this apparent deviation from strict ‘constructionist’ republican constitutional principles was the fact that

Jefferson made it plain that he was in no hurry to extend to the 50,000 souls he had just bought any of those freedoms he had once insisted must be enjoyed by all mankind.[8]

This remark is foreshadowed in the novel by an earlier episode recalled in Burr’s memoirs where Jefferson is recorded as speaking favourably of Montesquieu. The principle, however, of true republican government being able to exist only on a small scale espoused by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws is seen by Burr to prompt a drastic change of opinion in Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps because Burr’s career itself is notable chiefly for the absence of any consistent adherence to a political philosophy, Vidal can portray him as alert to instances of this shortcoming in the views of his contemporaries.

Certainly this ‘ideal’ [republican] form of government is not practical for an empire of the sort Jefferson gave us when he illegally bought Louisiana. …To justify himself Jefferson turned on his old idol [Montesquieu] and attacked him for (favourite and characteristic Jefferson word) ‘heresy’.[9]

Likewise Burr wryly notes the irony of Jefferson’s republican suspicion of executive power throughout the first federalist administrations. ‘By the time Jefferson’s Presidency ended’, he claims, ‘the Executive was more powerful than it had ever been under those two ‘monarchists’, Washington and Adams’.[10] Moreover, it is not only Burr who is shown to make such cynical assessments of Jefferson. We learn, for instance, how ‘[Alexander] Hamilton and Jefferson spent a good deal of time reading each other’s correspondence’. Hamilton has discovered that Jefferson ‘had wrote to advise a Mr Short to invest his money in the bank! In the very bank Jefferson is publicly accusing of being a menace to the republic!’. With regard to his self-cultivated image as a peace-loving, frugal yeoman suspicious of luxury, commerce and the unbridled accumulation of wealth, Hamilton claims Jefferson is ‘as two faced as Janus’. His eagerness for a war in Europe, he adds, is based on the opportunity it allows him for personal enrichment via sales of hemp, cotton and flax. War is, Hamilton quotes Jefferson, ‘helpful to domestic manufacture’. Astutely, Burr goes on to add: ‘I have no idea if any of this were true. The important thing is that Hamilton believed it to be true.’[11]

It is via such means that the novel acquaints the reader with how the tensions in Jefferson’s commitment to republican principles were first received. These are the very tensions that persist in historiographical debates today but are perceived, with hindsight, within the context of an emerging liberal democracy underpinned by a capitalist economy. The siege mentality of Jefferson and Hamilton becomes more comprehensible, however, if we—following Vidal—realise that this eventual path was far from clear to the protagonists themselves. Jefferson and Hamilton believed that at stake in their quarrel was nothing less than the survival of the republic. Whether their respective philosophies were informed by Lockean or Machiavellian values was neither here nor there: they embraced or espoused such values as and when the occasion demanded. As Lance Banning has written in an attempt to bring his fellow historians around to this fact: ‘Logically, it may be inconsistent to be simultaneously liberal and classical. Historically, it was not.’[12]

No era in American history perhaps illustrates Banning’s distinction with greater clarity than the period in the early nineteenth century associated with the rise of Andrew Jackson. Jackson came to power in 1828 with Jefferson’s funeral eulogies still ringing in American ears. In many ways the election of that year re-enacted the bitterly partisan battle of 1800. The spectre of monopoly, in the form of a second National Bank, for instance, was once more the object of fiery political rhetoric. Was the United States, the Jacksonians asked, as Jefferson had in 1800, to be governed by the few or the many, the minority or the majority, the aristocracy or the people? What remained unaddressed was whether such appeals to the people’s sovereign will undermined the republican order championed by the Founding Fathers.

Public reaction to Jefferson’s death in 1826 helped sweep the Democratic Republicans to victory in 1828, tributes to the sage of Monticello giving added resonance to Jackson’s professed commitment to ‘repeat [ Jefferson’s ] revolution of 1800’.[13] The reaction to the death of Aaron Burr ten years later was somewhat different. On Burr’s death, it was said, ‘decency congratulated itself that a nuisance was removed, and good men were glad that God had seen fit to deliver society from the contaminating contact of a festering mass of moral putrefaction’.[14]

Vidal is only too aware of the ironies of this characterisation of Burr given the political developments of the 1830s. Such is Burr’s infamy at this historical juncture, the reader learns, that the establishment of any connection, particularly a political connection, past or present, with the disgraced former Vice-President could seriously check the ambitions of any aspiring politician. With this effect in mind, Charles Schuyler’s employer at the Evening Post, William Leggett, attempts to ruin Vice-President Martin Van Buren’s chances of succeeding Jackson by unmasking him as Burr’s illegitimate son.

Leggett claims to be acting in the name of democracy, as a supporter of Jackson, whose reforms, he believes, will be reversed should Van Buren attain office. Revealing Burr as Van Buren’s biological father, however, is intended by Leggett only as a preliminary strike which will help establish what he perceives to be a more pernicious figurative form of paternity. Burr, he wishes to show, can also be regarded as Van Buren’s political father. ‘Americans are a moral people,’ Leggett tells Schuyler, ‘but even more damaging than his bastardy is his political connection with Burr, particularly in recent years. If we can prove dark plots, secret meetings, unholy combinations—then, by Heaven, Van Buren will not be chosen to succeed General Jackson.’[15] This exchange in the novel gives an early signal of Vidal’s interest in the politics of patrimony, in this case by excavating a long-forgotten rumour ultimately lost to history as a result of its failure to ignite a full-blown political scandal. The figurative pull of such genealogical themes is a powerful one within American political culture. If it has been said of Jefferson that ‘parties do not take sides for or against him, but contend, like children, as to their legitimate descent’,[16] then what, Vidal appears to be asking, might it mean if a whole generation of American politicians could be construed as, in some sense, the ‘heirs’ of Aaron Burr?

The point Vidal wishes to extrapolate from the Burr-Van Buren rumour is twofold: who are the Founding Fathers and who are their legitimate heirs? Burr is at pains to stress how virtually every senior politician of the 1830s—including Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay—were, at the very least, tacit supporters of Burr during his Mexican misadventure. William Leggett’s attempts to discredit the Vice-President by raising the spectre of Burr are motivated by a refusal to acknowledge Van Buren as the legitimate heir to Andrew Jackson. Vidal, however, ironises Leggett’s efforts in those sections of Burr’s memoirs which recall Jackson’s own fierce loyalty to Burr in his several hours of need. Here for instance is Burr’s recollection of Jackson’s response to the Hamilton duel:

‘Never read such a damn lot of nonsense as the press has been writing!All that hypocritical caterwauling for that Creole bastard who fought you of his own free will, just like a gentleman which he wasn’t, if you’ll forgive me, Colonel!….He was the worse man in this union, as you, Sir, are the best’.[17]

The irony thickens, furthermore, when Burr records how the great champion of the ‘common man’ was once himself the object of public derision in the aftermath of the Burr conspiracy trial:

A few days later Jackson was nearly mobbed when he addressed an anti-Burr crowd….But he held his ground and with many an oath declared that I was the victim of political persecution….I fear—hard as it is to believe now—that the plebs actually laughed at their future idol Andrew Jackson. I at least blessed him for the friend he was.[18]

What then are we to make of such affiliations and their bearing on any understanding of the American political tradition? What does it mean when Vidal has Aaron Bur—a figure supposedly antithetical to that tradition—announce: ‘it has been a rule with me to measure people by what they think of Andrew Jackson. Anyone who does not appreciate that frank and ardent spirit is an enemy to what is best in our American breed—by the Eternal!’?[19] did a man perceived by Jefferson himself as a grave threat to the republic acquire support from Andrew Jackson, later promoted as Jefferson’s supposed political heir? Furthermore, how does Burr come to admire the supposed inheritor of the Jeffersonian political tradition? Has the imperialist, we might ask, come to embrace the republic or has the republic, without realising it, always secretly embraced the imperialist? These are intriguing questions which finally bring us back to the issues of commerce and expansion, democracy and empire given a fresh impetus by the republican turn in early American historiography.

In Burr, it might be said, we find a discernible slippage between rhetoric and reality, word and deed, theory and practice in the early republic: a gap prompted by the confrontation between republican discourse and an emerging capitalist economy. For Vidal this gap gave many of the ‘republican’ pronouncements of the founding generation of American statesmen a contradictory flavour. Aaron Burr, Vidal’s novel makes clear, was one of the few members of that generation who consistently refused to countenance the republican claims of the American Revolution. Burr’s eventual fate, it is implied, is tied to his contempt for such idealistic claims and his refusal to harness new economic impulses and developments to the spirit of 1776, 1800, 1828 or any other republican meridian. Jefferson and Jackson, on the other hand, are depicted as careful to acknowledge the cultural power and importance of such demands, so re-assuring Americans by connecting past to future, modernity to tradition.

Vidal’s Burr views his own career retrospectively as a premature attempt to embrace new realities which was doomed precisely because of its failure to provide a commensurate (and to Burr no doubt a spurious) political discourse. His inability to legitimate his actions within an acceptable republican rationale resulted in marginalisation and ignominy. By contrast, for Vidal, Jefferson and Jackson deftly circumvented this problem by extending the conceptual territory covered by the term. They knew that although liberalism—the philosophy best suited to the demands of a broadening capitalist economy—appealed to the heads of Americans, republicanism still appealed to their hearts. It is the complex set of contradictions involved in this harmonising strategy, however, that makes the politics of these figures so difficult to compartmentalise. In this vein Vidal has a cynical Burr articulate the persuasiveness and sphinx-like qualities of Jefferson in the following passage:

It is amazing how beguilingly [Jefferson] could present [his] contradictory vision. But then in all his words if not deeds Jefferson was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers…when Jefferson saw that he could not create the Arcadian society he wanted, he settled with suspicious ease for the Hamiltonian order…he was the most successful empire-builder of our century succeeding where Bonaparte failed. But then Bonaparte was always candid when it came to motive and Jefferson was always dishonest. In the end,candour failed; dishonesty prevailed. I dare not preach a sermon on that text.[20]

Jefferson’s self-deception was generated by the co-existence of a republican philosophy which associated ‘virtue’ with participation in government alongside a laissez faire economy where it was transplanted into the social sphere and became associated with participation in society. Having never subscribed to any notion of ‘virtue’, in his public or private life, Aaron Burr consequently remained untroubled by this paradox. With virtue banished from the public sphere, the imperial adventurism and political opportunism of a later generation of Americans gives Burr’s actions, in Vidal’s representation, something of a prophetic quality. ‘Ahead of the times! That should be on his tombstone’, exclaims one character in Vidal’s novel, ‘Aaron Burr always saw the future first. Yet never profited by it’.[21] of the several fascinating sub-plots within Burr features the ageing ‘embryo Caesar’ gambling, one last time, on America’s deviation from its republican heritage. In attempting to buy land in Texas to be settled by German immigrants, Burr’s prospective investment turns on the United States ultimately annexing the territory from Mexico. He dies, however, before the onset of the Mexican War that would have made his investment good by extending US territories beyond Texas to the Pacific Coast.

Vidal’s focus on this prophetic dimension of Burr’s career—his emphasis on the secret imperial impulse that lurks behind the façade of agrarian republican innocence—is a useful corrective to the relatively uncritical interpretations of early American political thought often evident in the debates on republicanism. Burr not only foregrounds some of the destructive effects and legacies of the aggressive and acquisitive individualism unleashed by modern liberalism but also questions the tenability of reading ‘republicanism’ as a central guiding ethos in the early national period. Yet Vidal is, also, obviously taken with the idea of republicanism as a path not chosen, as a set of ideas to be invoked against the imperialism and the centralisation of power characteristic of the twentieth century American state.

This sentiment appears more explicit in an afterword where the author distances himself from Burr’s view of early American history. ‘All in all’, Vidal admits, ‘I think rather more highly of Jefferson than Burr does; on the other hand, Burr’s passion for Jackson is not shared by me.’[22] This betrays Vidal’s sympathy for a figure who, unlike Jackson, understood virtue in still broadly classical terms and, however much in self-deception, sought to keep the United States’ republican robe unsoiled by imperialism and the base imperatives of commerce. There was, after all, none of the US military imperialism during Jefferson’s period in office which Vidal believes has ultimately led in the twentieth century to a tax devouring military-industrial leviathan and global American ‘empire’ premised on economic power. With regard to this latter development, however, Burr himself appears less convinced in Vidal’s novel. ‘I do think that we are the first empire in history’, he recalls Jefferson remarking after the Louisiana purchase, ‘to buy its territory rather than to conquer it.’[23]

University of Nottingham


[1] The most notable amongst these works were Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) and J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).

[2] For a statement of the ‘liberal’ interepretation see the essays collected in Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[3] ‘This cumbersome phrase’, Burr explains in the novel, ‘was of Jefferson’s coinage’, Burr, p.242.

[4] Burr, 522.

[5] ‘Hellfire Politics’, a review of John Patrick Diggins’ The Lost Soul of American Politics, Gordon Wood, The New York Review of Books, February 28, 1985, 30.

[6] Burr, 431.

[7] Burr, 404 -5.

[8] Burr, 342 –3.

[9] Burr, 215.

[10] Burr, 268.

[11] Burr, 224.

[12] Lance Banning, ‘Jeffersonian Ideology Revisited: Liberal and Classical Ideas in the New American Republic’, The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan 1986, 43: 1, 12.

[13] Quoted in Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 72.

[14] Quoted in Peterson, 144.

[15] Burr, 28.

[16] Quoted in Peterson, 29.

[17] Burr, 416.

[18] Burr, 483-84.

[19] Burr, 426.

[20] Burr, 218.

[21] Burr, 440-41.

[22] Burr, 576.

[23] Burr, 430.