The character studies in Burr are extraordinarily vivid and often amusing. George Washington is portrayed as an inept military commander but an astute politician who realized at an early age that he would have to play the aloof, austere, American “god.” Thomas Jefferson is a canting hypocrite of the highest order, who nevertheless earns Burr’s accolade as the greatest politician and empire builder of his age. James Madison, aware of Jefferson’s duplicity, is treated as a complex figure doggedly loyal to his mentor and most impressive in his subtle construction of constitutional principles. John Marshall appears as a titanic figure in support of the Constitution, yet he is not immune to fears of his cousin Jefferson’s efforts to undermine the chief justice and the United States Supreme Court. Alexander Hamilton, fiercely ambitious and contentious, finally goes too far (perhaps sensing his political failure in New York, which leads to Burr’s leadership of the Federalists) in accusing Burr, not of political impropriety, but of incest with his beloved daughter Theodosia.
In Burr, politics and personalities are finely fused, so that it is not certain whether Hamilton and Burr fight over personal or political insults. Both men, it is clear, are deeply disappointed when they do not achieve their highest ambitions. While the novel is dominated by Burr’s obviously partisan view of his opponents, it is clear from the dialogue between Burr and other political figures and from the questions that Schuyler asks him that Burr’s central failing has been his inability to articulate his understanding of the Constitution and of his country’s future. What puts Jefferson ahead of Burr is not simply his superior maneuvering for power; rather, Jefferson enunciates, however ambiguously, a national purpose that transcends his own person. Burr, on the other hand, has depended throughout his life on the personal loyalty of his followers. In his own words, Burr has been too frank in admitting that he is “equivocal” on the Constitution.