Few public figures in the history of America have provoked as much controversy as Aaron Burr. He has been maligned, misunderstood, labeled adventurer and traitor, and, quite recently, romanticized in a fictional biography. The general public, for the most part, still tends to think of him as the man who callously killed Alexander Hamilton in a mismatched duel. Those who recall their American history more clearly may remember Burr as the provocateur who engineered an unsuccessful conspiracy against the United States aimed at creating for himself a western empire from Spanish and American territories beyond Louisiana. Few of us have a clear picture of this brilliant, compelling, and enigmatic American, and historian Milton Lomask has attempted to close this gap. In a new study of Aaron Burr, Lomask addresses himself to a sympathetic and thoroughly documented biography grounded in carefully detailed scholarship. Although Lomask is no apologist for some of the more controversial actions of his subject, he does provide some convincing arguments which help explain Burr’s erratic behavior, much of which seemed contradictory and self-destructive.
In addition to revising the imperfect portrait of Burr which many of us carry, Lomask is concerned with the man’s political and legal morality, which, on several occasions, tested the strength and flexibility of the newly created American government. With the nation barely in its second decade, Burr questioned the authority of the executive office, forced the drafting of a Constitutional Amendment, and challenged a Federal Circuit Court with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding to redefine the meaning of treason. Lomask also investigates other aspects of Burr’s life and provides a vivid account of this revolutionary patriot, military figure, state representative, financier, and public servant. In addition, the intellectual and cultural life of pre- and post-Revolutionary America is reviewed, with Burr’s contribution carefully assessed. Not only is Lomask a qualified biographer, but he also faithfully re-creates the age in which Burr flourished before his ignominious exile in 1805. Of particular interest are the regional studies of New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York—states in which Burr lived and worked before rising to the position of Vice-President during Jefferson’s first presidential term.
Aaron Burr was born into a distinguished New England family in 1756. His maternal grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, was the Puritan divine who organized the Great Awakening during the 1740’s. This religious revival kindled intense fervor among its followers, who emphasized the power and impatience of God and the total depravity of man. Edwards was Colonial America’s prophet of doom and hellfire, and his movement had an enormous influence on the quality of religious life in mid-eighteenth century America. Burr’s father was also a clergyman, but he was better known for his contribution to Colonial education, not religion. During the year of Aaron’s birth, Reverend Burr became president of the College of New Jersey, soon to be renamed Princeton University. Aaron’s own education took place at Princeton, and although he showed considerable scholastic promise during the early years, he was unwilling to exert himself, graduating in 1772 without distinction. His restless disposition led to several career indecisions and nearly four years of semi-idleness. His parents had died during his infancy, so he was denied the strong guidance of a Puritan father, an influence which might have urged him to pursue a religious vocation.
When the New England governments rebelled against the authority of George III and the Continental Congress ordered the formation of an army, Burr’s career dilemma was temporarily resolved. He enlisted in General Richard Montgomery’s volunteer unit, which had orders to march from the Colonies into Canada, capture Montreal, then join General Benedict Arnold’s forces to...
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