TOKYO (Reuters) - Aaron Burr, a lawyer and politician in the early years of the United States, has long had a reputation as a villain, mainly due to his famous killing of political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.
But in his book, “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr,” author Henry Brands paints a vastly different picture of a modern, progressive man who believed that women were the intellectual equals of men, and who was devoted to his only daughter, Theodosia.
“I knew the story of Aaron Burr as a public figure. I knew that he was considered to be one of the great villains and scoundrels of American history. I know that that was a somewhat suspect interpretation, because the history has all been written by people who had reasons to despise Burr,” Brands said.
He added that he was immediately struck by the fresh view of Burr that his research revealed.
“The first thing was the extremely modern, progressive sensibility of Aaron Burr, who was a century or two ahead of his time in believing that women were fully the intellectual equals of men, and therefore, that education would not be wasted on them - which was the common view of the time.”
This showed in his education and treatment of Theodosia, who became his confidante as soon as she was old enough and wrote him letters in an unusually close and frank correspondence for most of her life, and one which Brands used as the basis for much of his book.
“These letters reveal Burr to be enormously charming, and with a wonderful sense of humor,” Brands said.
“In fact, in the journal that he kept when he was in exile in Europe, which really was intended as an extended letter to Theo, he’s able to deal with his reverses and always keep his sense of humor about it, even when it’s clear that he’s slowly starving. He had to peddle all of his books, sell his clothes, had to give up decent wine.”
But the relationship between the two ended abruptly when the ship that Theodosia was on disappeared at sea on her way to visit Burr in New York from her home in South Carolina. It was either shipwrecked or attacked by pirates in the winter of 1812 and 1813. The tragedy is the heartbreak of the book’s title.
“The image that I had that just haunted me was Burr walking the waterfront in New York, waiting for the ship to come in, day after day. But the ship never came in, and he never found out what happened, whether she had been taken by the British, or taken by pirates,” he said.
“Almost certainly the ship went down at sea with all hands and all passengers, but it was odd that there was no wreckage. These are wooden ships, and wood floats. But nothing. Nothing.”
Burr himself lived for another 23 years.
Brands decided to write the book in the present tense, part of an experiment in what he calls telling history “from the inside out” by illuminating individual moments in history and stripping them of the framing, with prefaces and so on, common to so many history books.
“My belief is, my hope is, that readers will be attracted simply because it’s a good story, and they’ll keep reading simply because it’s a good story,” he said.
“And when they get to the end, without realizing it, they will have learned something they didn’t know about American history.”
Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Patricia Reaney