Any biographer venturing on a life of our third vice president less than six years after Gore Vidal's sparkling pseudo-memoir, "Burr," has a hard act to follow, and Milton Lomask is nowhere equal to the assignment. But those who seek here the answer to the question so common at the height of "Burr's"popularity - "was he really like really like that?" - will find at least the skeleton of fact, the essential bony frame that the novelist fleshed out.
And the skeleton alone is all that the documents house. Despite the fact that the early period of U.S. history is one in which principal figures wrote and saved voluminous letters, the true Burr is elusive, never committing himself carelessly to paper. "Things written, remain," he told his law clerks, which was fine for case preparation but dangerous for one who described himself in the third person as "a grave, silent, strange sort of animal...we know not what to make of him."
Nonetheless, he is not easily forgotten. He was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who turned one of the most brilliant minds of the 18th century to the service of Calvinism. His father was likewise a minister and president of Princeton. Aaron enrolled there as a sophomore in 1769, age 13 and already orphaned for 10 years. He proved a brilliant scholar when he chose to work, although he did so only intermittently.
The Revolutionary War, that theater of budding ambition, called him from his law books at 19 to the tented field. He served hard and ably, taking a brief turn on Washington's staff where he angered the commander by impertinence of manner. After the war, endowed permanently with the title of colonel, he finished his legal studies in a blaze of application, moved to New York and was presently known as one of the best attorneys in that rising city.
Politics came as a matter of course; and a twisting and stormy course it was. The young war hero was first sent to the state legislature, then named the state's attorney general, and at 34 went to the U.S. Senate. As he climbed the ladder he made and broke alliances - first with Hamilton and Hamilton's powerful friends; then with George Clinton, the Hamilton faction's chief rival; then, finally, with Thomas Jefferson, whose followers were gathering themselves, in the 1790s, into the first, or "Democratic" Republican Party. Burr brilliantly organized New York for the Jeffersonians and was rewarded by considerations as a vice-presidential candidate.
In 1800, under the clumsy system prevailing before the Twelfth Amendment, he finished in an electoral-vote tie with Jefferson that had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, dominated by the outgoing Federalists. Though clearly intended for the second spot, Burr did not unequivocally take himself out of the presidential running. "No man's language," one contemporary wrote, "was ever more apparently explicit, & at the same time so covert & indefinite." Jefferson, after finally winning, suspected Burr of "intriguing" with the Federalists to get the White House for himself and thereafter detested and undermined his potential successor. Thus, by age 48, Burr was politically isolated and steeping in bitterness. He ran as an independent with Federalist support for New York's governorship and lost, and possibly flirted with New England "Feds," who were muttering sucession.
Then he earned his blackest immortality. He demanded that his constant enemy, Hamilton, acknowledge or deny a newspaper report that credited him with a "despicable" opinion of Burr. Hamilton tried to avoid the fight thus picked, but the colonel bored in. Both parties were governed by the foolish code that, though dueling was technically illegal, could ruin a public man if he allowed his "honor" to go undefended by arms. On a steamy July morning in 1804, on the New Jersey shore above the Hudson, Burr killed his rival with one shot to the belly.
The bottom was not quite touched. The vice president was indicted - termporarily - by both New York and New Jersey. In flight he visited Florida, the first of several journeys that would lead to the charge that he planned to liberate Spain's North American possessions and join them to the American southwestern states in a new empire. For this alleged conspiracy he was later tried (and acquitted) on a charge of treason. But in December 1804, he returned to Washington as a fugitive, to preside impeccably over the Senate until his term ran out in March 1805, when Lomask leaves him for a future volume. The years ahead would see the trial, a flight to Europe to escape creditors, and an eventual return to law practice in New York and a quiet death at 80.
Now, the key to Burr's fascination is in how far his life departs from the virtuous restraint favored, if not always practiced, by the Founding Fathers. He came off in the history books that they inspired as the wily, satanic presence in an Eden of disinterested patriotism. He never lacked for defenders either; there is still an Aaron Burr society that will tilt with anyone who suggests unkind things about him.)
So there he stands in history with his few attachments, his egocentric charm, and above all his terrible pride - too vast for him either to renounce ambition or to stoop to fulfill it. A man gifted, one Virginia elector noted, with "an unequaled talent for attaching men to his views and forming combinations of which he is always the center." Yet, he was a loner, inevitably attracting suspicion. He paid the price of his character in suffering the constant sense that others, less deserving, were awarded prizes rightfully his.
No wonder Vidal seized on him as the perfect vehicle for mocking certain pretensions of post-Revolutionary heroes who willingly entered into political and financial deals as shady as any that Burr was charged with. Make no mistake: No American has achieved fortune or election without convenient astigmatism from time to time. The pedestal under each bust is fattened by hypocrisy, which was not one of Burr's sins.
Lomask does not present Burr as the ironic and eye-opening figure he can be. He adds little, in fact, to Nathan Shachner's 1937 biography. To a slight extent he sketches Burr's world for us in a way that helps to clear the gap between its social textures and ours, its definitions of such terms as "party," "honor" and "country" as contrasted with our own. But there is not enough of this. A fascinating man has fallen into the keys of a generally uninspired typewriter. For Burr's world it is better to stock with Gary Wills, Fawn Brodie, James T. Flexner, Celia Kenyon and others - even Gore Vidal.