Aaron Burr at 255: Still Ticking People Off

Repeatedly over the last several months, Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota has blamed Aaron Burr for her lurch to the Far Right.  Her epiphany came during her college years in the 1970s, when she read of Burr’s jaundiced view of the true character of the men who founded the country.

“He was going after our founders,” she said recently, “and he was mocking them, and he was making fun of them.”  The Republican congresswoman’s dismay, it turns out, was not over statements by the historical Aaron Burr, but over the fictional version rendered by Gore Vidal in his novel Burr — which she recalls as “snotty.” 


Am Emperor44.jpgI would never quarrel with someone who finds Gore Vidal’s books snotty.  Indeed, I suspect Vidal would take no offense from the characterization.  They are, of course, terrifically entertaining and convey a remarkable amount of good history.  His Burr, as I remember it, is wonderful.  So good, in fact, that I did not re-read it when I was working on my (non-fiction) account of Burr, which will be published in October, American Emperor.  I did not want my own presentation of Burr to be over-influenced by Vidal’s.

It is a wonderful thing that Burr — who would have turned 255 earlier this month — still can have such an impact on modern political figures.

This episode, however, raises some fairly significant questions about Rep. Bachmann.

  • Can she distinguish between fiction and non-fiction?  This seems a fundamental talent we should seek in political leaders and one that yet lies beyond her grasp.
  • Did she ever inquire as to what Burr’s actual views were of his contemporaries at the head of the American political scene?  He thought Jefferson a hypocrite and a pantywaist.  He found Washington lightly-educated, stiff and self-important.  Hamilton, alas poor Hamilton, he thought had an ungracious personality.  Those judgments, though perhaps overdrawn, were hardly without factual support.
  • How did Burr’s critique drive the congresswoman into the arms of the Far Right?  Why not anarchism?  Or liberalism?  Burr was hardly a progressive, democratic political figure.  Though a Republican in the early 1800s, he was no Jeffersonian, had distinctly elitist views and many Federalist friends.  He was often discribed as a “quid,” which derived from the term “tertium quid,” or “third thing” — the point being that he did not fit any either major political party.

Bachmann also neglects one characteristic of Burr that should endear him to her.  Of all the Founding Generation, Burr had by far the highest regard for the talents and potential of women.  He once noted that young girls routinely outperformed little boys when they both were taught in the same class, but that girls were forced out of those classes by age 10 because the males were so obviously superior in talent.  Wouldn’t it be better, he suggested with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, to keep the girls and boys together in the same classes and thereby prove, once and for all, the superiority of the boys?


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