Roger Kennedy graduated from Yale University in 1949 and from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1952. A lifetime Republican, he served in the Justice Department under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was special assistant to the secretary of labor under President Richard Nixon. He acted as vice president for financial affairs at the Ford Foundation from 1970 to 1979 before becoming director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution from 1979 to 1992. After retiring from the Smithsonian he became the director of the National Park Service, serving until 1997. Prior to this volume, Kennedy wrote nine books dealing with American architecture and American history.
In an appendix to the book dealing with his biases, Kennedy describes himself as sympathetic to historical losers and skeptical of the claims of historical winners. Although most historians view Aaron Burr as a black sheep among leaders of the Early Republic, Kennedy, while praising the actions of Hamilton and Jefferson, would like to reverse that judgment. He admits that many who knew Burr viewed him as the shiftiest, the least reliable, and the most devious of early nineteenth century political leaders, but Kennedy argues that the historical record does not support their judgment. Kennedy contends that Burr was the most honorable of the three men. To support his opinion Kennedy consistently belittles Hamilton and Jefferson. As he examines Burr’s relations with his two opponents, Kennedy provides the reader with a fascinating description of the life of a colorful political leader too often ignored in general histories.
Burr came from a distinguished lineage. His father, also named Aaron Burr, and his grandfather, the renowned theologian Jonathan Edwards, were presidents of Princeton University. Young Aaron had a difficult childhood. He was orphaned at the age of two and brought up by an austere uncle whose discipline the boy hated; he tried to run away and go to sea several times. He entered Princeton at age thirteen, graduating with distinction in 1772 at age sixteen.
When the American Revolution broke out, Burr immediately volunteered. His bravery during the failed attempt to capture Quebec in 1775-1776 made him one of the first heroes of the war, earning him rapid promotions. He was appointed to the staff of General George Washington, but the two men did not get along and Burr shifted to the staff of General Israel Putnam. During the battle of New York in 1776, Burr rescued several brigades that were nearly entrapped by the invading British. In the winter of 1777- 1778, Colonel Burr commanded a regiment entrusted with the defense of the Valley Forge camp. In March, 1779, Burr resigned from the army on grounds of ill health. Kennedy notes that in contrast with Burr, Hamilton served unheroically as a staff officer with Washington, while Jefferson never joined the army at all.
Admitted to the New York bar in 1780, Burr soon became one of the leading lawyers in the city, often opposing Hamilton on important cases. In 1789 Governor George Clinton appointed him as New York’s attorney general. However, President Washington refused to offer Burr a position in the new national government. Kennedy suggests that Washington was jealous of Burr’s heroic reputation. Others have speculated that Washington distrusted Burr, suspecting that he had secretly supported the 1777 “Conway Cabal” that tried to remove Washington from his position as commanding general of the American army.
Burr remained active in politics, representing New York in the United States Senate for one term. He joined Republican critics of the national administration, often clashing with Hamilton, the outstanding Federalist leader in the state. When Burr’s supporters won a majority in the state legislature, he was accused of using his position to pass legislation that enhanced his own investments, a charge Kennedy ignores.
To improve Republican chances of carrying New York’s electoral votes in 1800, party leaders chose Burr to run as Jefferson’s vice presidential candidate. Until passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, presidential electors did not vote separately for president and vice president. Each elector cast two votes; the candidate with the highest number of votes, if a majority, became president and the candidate with the second- highest number of votes became vice president. All Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr, and the two tied. The choice then went to the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote; the votes of nine of the sixteen states were needed to win. The Federalists controlled enough states to prevent Jefferson’s victory. When they voted for Burr, a stalemate developed that lasted for thirty-six ballots, until Federalists finally permitted the election of Jefferson.
Kennedy claims that Burr was the only honorable politician in 1800. He publicly stated that he would not compete with Jefferson for the presidency and remained in Albany, far away from the maneuvering in Washington, D.C. Kennedy condemns Jefferson for carrying out surreptitious negotiations with the Federalists to secure his election. Hamilton wins Kennedy’s scorn for successfully preventing...
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