The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr, a Revolutionary War officer, U.S. senator, investor, vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, and killer of Alexander Hamilton in a duel. He was acquitted of charges of treason associated with trying to separate the western states from the Union. The Burr of the plot is seventy-seven years old at its opening. He marries a rich widow who spends the next four years, his last four, suing him. He enjoys life in spite of two strokes and continuing financial disasters, and he mildly enjoys his reputation as “the hellish Aaron Burr [who] meant single-handedly to disband the United States.” Colonel Burr, as he is now called, is “an eighteenth-century man,” inspired by the words of Voltaire and the deeds of Napoleon I, who, after the trial, refused offers of his service. Burr studiously aided and indulged his young protégé, Schuyler, giving no hint of paternity and skillfully avoiding the furious politicking that sought to deny the election of 1836 to Martin Van Buren by associating him with Burr. The Burr of the memoirs displays a strategy for taking Quebec that was correct and ignored. Even his view of ambivalence on the Constitution was closer to Supreme Court decisions and amendments than Jefferson’s position. Burr, in the memoirs, is never wrong. He could have been elected president in 1800 but chose honor over deals. Burr died without regret “that history, as usual, has got it all wrong.”

Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr

Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr, Burr’s second wife. Wealthy and litigious, she hoards treasures and memoirs of a past both sordid and elegant; she claimed intimacy with Napoleon I.

Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston, Burr’s daughter, named for her mother. A plump, dark girl, she was lost at sea. Eliza said that she was the only person whom Burr truly loved. Intelligent and well educated, she corresponded with Jeremy Bentham, whose economic principle of utility is discussed in the novel. She represents a noble side of Burr’s character. She was, Burr told Charlie Schuyler, the cause of the duel.

Charles (Charlie) Schuyler

Charles (Charlie) Schuyler, the narrator of the novel, twenty-five years old in 1833, Burr’s law student and a writer for the Evening Post. Under the pen name “Old Patroon,” he achieves local fame. With blue eyes and yellow hair, he is, he writes, “the caricature of a Dutch lout.” He is paid to find proof that Burr is the real father of Van Buren and to write an anonymous pamphlet that will cause Van Buren to lose the election. Burr gives Charlie his memoirs and recollections and, in his way, his love. In 1840, as U.S. consul in Naples, Charlie learns that Burr was his father...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)