Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The theme of Burr centers on the meaning of the Constitution. Is it a document that will endure, or is it subject to changes brought about by the exploration of a vast continent composed of many different peoples who may seek many different forms of government which the Constitution cannot absorb? Vidal shrewdly shows that with the exception of Madison and Washington, most of the founding fathers, at one time or another, undermined the authority of the Constitution. Jefferson, when it was convenient for his politics, argued for nullification, the right of any state to reject a federal law deemed injurious to its interests. Hamilton favored a government closer in structure to the British parliamentary system. John Adams suppressed dissent and took, in some respects, a far more authoritarian view of his powers than the Constitution permitted.

Burr, in line with many other young men of his day, entertained the idea of a separate country west of the Mississippi and dreamed as well of liberating Mexico. Whether in this atmosphere his views were treasonous has never been clear in spite of Jefferson’s best efforts to demonstrate that Burr’s Western expedition was for the purpose of seizing territory and declaring a new nation.

What is clear is that Burr is the perfect tool for Vidal’s debunking of several of America’s revered national figures. The novelist does not deny their greatness, but he shows that it was of a different kind from that commonly celebrated. It is political craft, not political principle, that Vidal lauds and criticizes. Figures such as William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving, discreet upholders of pious maxims and diplomatic versions of American history, would like to remove Schuyler from the fluid political realities that enmeshed Burr and Jefferson and in which politicians today, Vidal implies, are still trapped.