Book Review: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Author: Nancy Isenberg
Title: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2007), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 0143142283


This biography attempts to make up for two-centuries of scholarship on Aaron Burr that’s been informed by myth and fiction.  Isenberg makes Burr’s case – while not ignoring his mistakes and flaws – as one of the important leaders of the early United States republic, albeit one whose career ended in failure.  Not only that, but since his posterity has had no supporters, much of what is taught about Burr comes from the writings of his political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Isenberg also makes it clear that Burr had many positive qualities that have been overlooked:  a war hero in the Revolution, an excellent lawyer, an intellectual, a feminist, an innovative political campaigner and someone who often refused to play the game of sycophancy nor venomously maligning his political rivals.  These last traits though honest would hurt him in both his military and political careers as less noble figures would claw their way past him.

In this book Hamilton comes across as the Fox News pundit of the Federal period willing to wield his poison pen to bear false witness against his political rival.  Jefferson on the other hand is intent on building a Virginia dynasty and while willing to have Burr get him votes from New York did not want to lose power to the Northern Democratic-Republican Party.   Isenberg explores all the famed events of Burr’s life – the contested election of 1800, the duel with Hamilton, and the western filibuster – and Burr comes out looking pretty good in all of them, at least on a relative scale.  For if Burr is ever immoral, corrupt, or dishonest he is no more so (and often less so) than his contemporaries who have much better historical reputations.

Isenberg’s final paragraph sums it best:

These were our founders: imperfect me in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities.  That they did good for our country is understood, and worth our celebration; that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography.  What seperates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.

Recommended books: Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Aaron Burr by Milton Lomask, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels and Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy
Rating: ****

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