What made Aaron Burr AARON BURR? Edmund Wilson and Harriet Beecher Stowe have some answers.

burrWhat made Aaron Burr become Aaron Burr?  Not just in 1804, but before and after?  I can think of no historical figure for whom Milton’s phrase “sense of injur’d merit” applies more strongly–and yet Milton, in Paradise Lost, was talking about the motivation of Satan.

The Burr that emerges in Gore Vidal’s novel (Burr, 1973) is supremely cynical, which sounds close to the mark, as does the outraged, haughty, secretive, and slippery Burr that Ron Chernow describes in Alexander Hamilton. I haven’t come to sections dealing with Burr in Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor  yet, or finished Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder.  Since I’m not a historian, Burr remains for me a fascinating literary character, and a tragic one.


A. Burr and his Memoirs.

Matthew Davis’s  Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1836, 1855) (free at Archive.org) includes a raft of letters portraying Burr as the brave young officer, something of a martinet but a rational one. Among the interesting pieces there is a letter from Gen. Charles Lee, who confirms a Hamilton lyric by writing to Burr in October 1778, after he had been sentenced at his court-martial:

“As I have no idea that a proper reparation will be made to my injured reputation, it is my intent, whether the sentence is reversed or not reversed, to resign my commission, retire to Virginia, and learn to hoe tobacco, which I find is the best school to form a consummate general” (135).

As Thomas A. Foster writes in Common-Place, however, Davis was not a sympathetic biographer, at least where Burr’s relationships with women were concerned; that would wait for the later biographer James Parton, perhaps better known to most 19th-century Americanists as the husband of Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern).


Burr as an older man, behind a tissue mask in the frontispiece of The Private Journal of Aaron Burr.

But The Private Journal of Aaron Burr (1903; free at HathiTrust) already gives a less elevated picture of Burr, and in his own words. It’s a book that could be subtitled Down and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c.  It’s difficult to reconcile the man of such intellectual gifts and bravery during the siege of Quebec and the Revolution, who (maybe, kind of, sort of–but acquitted!) thought about establishing a Western empire, with the man we see in his daily life drinking a little too much and seeking out some cream of tartar punch for the hangover, visiting his tailor, ordering a chess set, and so on. The reader can only think about the waste of talents that this represents.

Which brings me back to the original question: why did you do these things, Burr? Chernow makes a good case about why the duel with Hamilton occurred, but so much of the rest seems inexplicable.


Harriet Beecher Stowe explains it all, but she had a soft spot for bad boys like Burr, according to Wilson.

Fearless as always, Harriet Beecher Stowe enters the fray in The Minister’s Wooing  (1859) and Oldtown Folks, by presenting two fictional versions of Aaron Burr. In The Minister’s Wooing, Senator Burr is brought up short by the memory of his mother as his better nature struggles with his darker side:

Burr was practised in every act of gallantry; he had made womankind a study: he never saw a beautiful face and form without a sort of restless desire to experiment upon it, and try his power over the interior inhabitant. But just at this moment something streamed into his soul from those blue, earnest eyes, which brought back to his mind what pious people had so often told him of his mother—the beautiful and early-sainted Esther Burr.

In Oldtown Folks, Burr is “Ellery Davenport,” grandson, as Burr was, of Jonathan Edwards. Davenport challenges his grandfather’s doctrine of predestination and points to the sorry state of Christianity as it is practiced to support his point:

Taking the mass of human beings in the world at this hour, they are in such circumstances, that, so far from it ‘s being reasonable to expect the morals of Christianity of them, they are not within sight of ordinary human decencies. . . . That ‘s what I call visible election and reprobation, get rid of it as we may or can.”


Edmund Wilson, who in person could be as terrifying as this picture.

As the critic Edmund Wilson sums up Stowe’s argument:

Her point is that Jonathan Edwards, in his overweening spiritual pride, had put the Calvinistic qualifications for Election and Salvation so high, at a level so unattainable by the ordinary man–this matter had been much on Harriet’s mind ever since her brother Charles had been driven to despair by reading the treatise by Jonathan Edwards–that Aaron Burr, also the son of a clergyman and brought up in his grandfather’s shadow, had from the start been discouraged with religion and led by a powerful intellect completely to discard morality in furthering his own career.  This picture of Aaron Burr is thus a part of Mrs. Stowe’s expose of the pernicious effects of Calvinism (Patriotic Gore 49).

Wilson adds, “The truth is that this sort of character–sophisticated, clever and fearless–rather piques and excites Mrs. Stowe” (49), as she was later to show in The True Story of Lady Byron (1869), where she shows sympathy for Lord Byron despite his misdeeds.

The complexities of human nature are such that no one thing can explain Burr. But Stowe’s (and Wilson’s explication of Stowe’s answer) give the reason for Burr’s behavior in logic that my students often point out when we study Edwards: if you’re already predestined not to be saved, why be good?


What does the painting “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” have to do with Edith Wharton?


Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (1820)

What does the surrender of Lord Cornwallis after the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, have to do with Edith Wharton?

This sounds like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s famous riddle “How is a raven like a writing desk?” but there actually is a connection.

John Trumbull’s painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, which is in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, depicts, obviously, the surrender. Cornwallis wasn’t there but sent his second-in-command, so General Lincoln (on white horse), Washington’s second-in-command, accepted the sword of surrender. (Based on this chart, I’ve labeled Hamilton, Laurens, Knox, and Lafayette.)

But at the rear of the painting, between Lincoln and Washington, is  Ebenezer Stevens, Colonel of American Infantry, who later rose to the rank of General. The picture and the man are noteworthy for obvious reasons, but they also feature prominently in Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance–for Stevens was Wharton’s great-grandfather and the man who built the original dwelling called “the Mount,” after which Wharton named her house near Lenox, Massachusetts.

Here’s an excerpt from pp. 11-14 of A Backward Glance, with some added bolding (mine, not Wharton’s) for emphasis:

My great-grandfather, the Major-General Ebenezer Stevens of the Rotunda,
seems to have been the only marked figure among my forebears. He was
born in Boston in 1751 and, having a pronounced tendency to mechanical
pursuits, was naturally drafted into the artillery at the Revolution. He
served in Lieutenant Adino Paddock’s artillery company, and took part in
the “Boston tea-party,” where, as he told one of his sons, “none of the
party was painted as Indians, nor, that I know of, disguised; though,”
(he adds a trifle casuistically) “some of them stopped at a paint-shop
on the way and daubed their faces with paint.” . . .  At Ticonderoga,
Stillwater and Saratoga he commanded a division of artillery, and it was
he who directed the operations leading to General Burgoyne’s surrender.
For these feats he was specially commended by Generals Knox, Gates and
Schuyler, and in 1778 he was in command of the entire artillery service
of the northern department. Under Lafayette he took part in the
expedition which ended in the defeat of Lord Cornwallis; his skilful
manoeuvres are said to have broken the English blockade at Annapolis,
and when the English evacuated New York he was among the first to enter
the city.


From A Backward Glance, p. 15.

The war over, he declined further military advancement and returned to civil life. His services, however, were still frequently required, and in 1812 he was put in command of the New York Brigade of artillery. One
of the forts built at this time for the defence of New York harbour was called Fort Stevens, in his honour, and after the laying of the
foundation stone he “gave the party a dinner at his country seat, ‘Mount Buonaparte’,” which he named after the hero who restored order in

My great-grandfather next became an East-India merchant, and carried on a large and successful trade with foreign ports. The United States War Department still entrusted him with important private missions; he was a
confidential agent of both the French and English governments, and at
the same time took a leading part in the municipal business of New York,
and served on numerous commissions dealing with public affairs. He
divided his year between his New York house in Warren Street, and Mount
Buonaparte, the country place on Long Island created by the fortune he
had made as a merchant; but when his hero dropped the u from his name
and became Emperor, my scandalized great-grandfather, irrevocably
committed to the Republican idea, indignantly re-named his place “The
Mount.” . . . In his Bonapartist days General Stevens must have imported a good deal of Empire furniture from Paris, and one relic, a pair of fine gilt andirons crowned with
Napoleonic eagles, has descended to his distant great-grand-daughter;
but much was doubtless discarded when the mantelpieces went, and the
stuffy day of Regency upholstery set in.

If I have dwelt too long on the career of this model citizen it is
because of a secret partiality for him–for his stern high-nosed good
looks, his gallantry in war, his love of luxury, his tireless commercial
activities. I like above all the abounding energy, the swift
adaptability and the joie de vivre which hurried him from one adventure
to another, with war, commerce and domesticity (he had two wives and
fourteen children) all carried on to the same heroic tune. But perhaps I
feel nearest to him when I look at my eagle andirons, and think of the
exquisite polychrome mantels that he found the time to bring all the way
from Italy, to keep company with the orange-trees on his terrace.

Alexander Hamilton, Gertrude Atherton, and John O’Hara Cosgrove

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 11.42.20 AMI’ve recently been reading through some letters from John O’Hara Cosgrove (link) , the editor of Everybody’s Magazine, to Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian (1902). My principal interest is Cosgrove’s connection with Frank Norris, who had worked at The Wave when Cosgrove was its editor, and his thoughts on Jack London, but this excerpt gives a good sense of what editors–or at least this editor–was thinking might sell in 1902.

In 1902, the California novelist Gertrude Atherton (today best known for her novel Black Oxen, 1922) published The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1902). By the time she republished it in 1916, the book had acquired a slightly less sensational title: The Conqueror: A Dramatized Biography of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916).

Responding to the book, Cosgrove pitched Wister, as he often did, about participating in a series of articles “treating real men as though they were characters in fiction”:

I have just been reading Mrs. Atherton’s book on Alexander Hamilton. The form, which is really a departure, gave me a very clear impression of the subject’s individuality.  It represented a form of treatment that I have often urged using and treating real men as though they were characters in fiction.  I mean using the fiction method to project the personality of the individual.  This seems to have been done very well by Mrs. Atherton, and if we could have in the magazine a series of five-thousand word interviews with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Daniel Webster Henry Clay and their like, selecting a strenuous moment in their careers & putting in an appropriate background, it would make a capital series.  Mrs. Atherton has the Hamilton one under way. (23 July 1902)

But apparently what worked well for a “romantic story” did not translate as well into the type of fictional interview that Cosgrove had in mind:

Entre nous, Mrs. Atherton tried Hamilton for us, and turned out a mighty poor thing, which I had to return.  It was slap-dash, rather common, frivolous, and quite outside the idea—rather crude journalism, in fact.  It is mighty difficult to get that sort of thing accomplished just as it must be done. (6 August 1902)

“Mighty difficult,” indeed. This raises a question for all those who would undertake biography or speculative biography: How much more sensationalism or sentimentality did Atherton’s unpublished draft contain to be labeled “common, frivolous” and “crude journalism”?