Roger G. Kennedy. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. xix + 476 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-513055-3.
Reviewed by Andrew W. Robertson (Lehman College, The City University of New York)
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 2000)
The Perils of Aiming Too High
The Perils of Aiming Too High
In the twentieth century, politicians have preached Jeffersonian politics and practiced Hamiltonian economics. Burr, however, claims few political legatees, among the preachers or practitioners, at least until now. Roger Kennedy has attempted a revisionist interpretation on Burr designed to give him his moment of reconsideration. To Kennedy, Burr is a proto-feminist, abolitionist, and respecter of Native American rights. He is a naif who trusts too much, hopes too grandly, and counter-productively hides his emotions for self-protection. For Kennedy, Burr seems always to have aimed too high, except on the morning of July 11, 1804, when he might have spared himself and Hamilton.
Kennedy does not believe Burr entirely responsible for the killing of Hamilton; he revives the argument first raised by Hamilton's grandson, that Hamilton's death at Weehawken was "assisted suicide" (p. 80). According to Kennedy, Hamilton projected on his "evil twin" Burr all the "voluptuary" and mercenary excesses he wished to destroy in himself. Burr enabled Hamilton's self-destruction by pulling the trigger. While offering his psychological observations, Kennedy has little to offer on the political perspective of dueling. Kennedy acknowledges Joanne Freeman without building on Freeman's understanding of dueling in a partisan political context.
Kennedy's book is not really an academic history. It is more of a meditation on the character of its three subjects, and mostly on Burr, with a fractured narrative that begins in the mid-eighteenth century and follows a wayward course through a series of absorbing episodes in New York, Princeton, Washington, Weehawken, West Florida, and back to New York again. At its best, this book has some of the stirring tone and the old-fashioned prose style of Francis Parkman. Kennedy has taken pains to present his three linked lives in a new-fashioned woven narrative.
This narrative structure is a brave attempt, though often a confusing one. We are not presented with three lives but with three overlapping stories, and the text presents them in thematic, rather than chronological form. Early in the text Kennedy argues that Burr is more bound by conventions of "Cavalier" honor than either of his non-Puritan contemporaries (p. 10). Kennedy's meditation might be characterized as cavalier itself, careless perhaps in some respects, but bound by its own inner convictions against prevailing historical conventions.
The book begins with a series of vignettes on his protagonists' character from Hamilton's, Burr's and Jefferson's early lives. In the first section, Kennedy's speculations on Hamilton's early years in the West Indies make for better reading and fresher insights than his corresponding descriptions of Jefferson and Burr. Hamilton seeks his fortune among the merchants of St. Croix rather than among the planters, one of whom may have been his father. Burr comes alive in this narrative only after Hamilton encounters him. Kennedy describes Hamilton as forming an intense attachment to Burr in his first years on the American continent. Burr was the son of Aaron Burr and the grandson of Jonathan Edwards; he made his way easily at the College of New Jersey, while Hamilton was a scholarship student at Kings College.
The middle portion of the book covers the period when Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr had arrived at power in Philadelphia. Kennedy's treatment of this middle period of his protagonists' lives is perfunctory: it does not delve very deeply into their experiences in Richmond, Paris, Philadelphia, and New York. He does tell us a great deal about how each of these founders related to race and gender issues in the 1790s, an era Kennedy calls the First Jim Crow Period. Burr, and Hamilton, in Kennedy's view, acted from sincere abolitionist convictions, and Kennedy points out that both were active in the Manumission Society. Kennedy persuasively takes issue with Flexner's contention that Hamilton's anti-slavery activities lacked conviction.
On the matter of their views of, and relationships with women, Kennedy's views are circumspect concerning the wives and lovers of these Fathers. Of Jefferson's wife Martha, we know little, and of Sally Hemmings, we know less. Even after his friendship with Maria Cosway, and his exposure to the salons of Paris, however, Kennedy's Jefferson writes condescendingly to women. Jefferson's letters to his male proteges and Hamilton's letters to his sons do seem far more engaged than the patronizing letters these Fathers wrote to their daughters. Burr achieves a higher score on proto-feminism in Kennedy's estimation, based on the very real intellectual relationship Burr had with his wife Theodosia and later, more extensively, with his daughter of the same name. While perhaps reading too much into Burr's admiration of Mary Wollstonecraft, Burr is undeniably the most involved of fathers in his daughter's education and his letters to her are certainly those to an intellectual equal.
The latter half of this book is devoted to Burr between the duel and the trial. Kennedy describes Burr as comfortable in the lower reaches of the Mississippi Valley and West Florida, since he had spent a portion of his youth with his uncle Timothy Edwards among the Stockbridge "Mahicans." In Kennedy's view, Burr made his way in the "middle ground" (p. 234) culture of the Berkshires, thus Burr was well suited to maneuver between the many European and American tribes who played at Gulf intrigue, including the Spanish, Americans, Creeks, Choctaws, as well as lingering French, British, and large numbers of runaway slaves.
Kennedy's account of these murky intrigues plays well against the landscape of Mississippi Territory, Louisiana, and West Florida. His work has much to recommend it in these passages, particularly his indictment of James Wilkinson, whom Kennedy sees as the prime mover in any double-dealing. He gives absorbing descriptions of such Burr compatriots as Silas Dinsmoor, whom he sees as a closet abolitionist and respecter of Indian claims, and Robert Ashley, who seems a kind of early Huckleberry Finn, travelling down the Mississippi with runaway slaves, one step ahead of their outraged masters.
Kennedy's portrayal of the prosecution witnesses in the Burr treason trial shows them to have been a discreditable lot. Kennedy, like Leonard Levy before him, sees Jefferson at his worst in the prosecution of Burr for treason. Kennedy believes Jefferson acted out of a complex mixture of motives that included rivalry, chagrin at failing to extend a real Empire of Liberty, from class and sectional interests, and from real foreign policy concerns.
I normally take exception to reviewers who fault a book for not being the one they wished to see written. I must say in this case, however, that I wish that Kennedy had restricted himself to Burr. There is much to like in Kennedy's revisionist treatment of Burr, but his comparative analysis of Jefferson and Hamilton worked less successfully. Burr certainly deserves a meditation on his character. Kennedy, by unveiling Burr in all his contradictions and confusions, has made this good father and flawed founder a more sympathetic figure.
. Joanne B. Freeman, "Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser. 53, (April 1996): 289-318.
. Leonard W. Levy, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1963.
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Andrew W. Robertson. Review of Kennedy, Roger G., Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character.
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