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Don't Judge His Heart
From Harper's August 1, 2000.
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BURR, HAMILTON AND JEFFERSON:

A STUDY IN CHARACTER

by Roger G. Kennedy

Oxford U.P., 476 pp, $30

0 19 513055 3

REVIEWED BY JAMES BOWMAN

 

Roger G. Kennedy's book is subtitled "A Study in Character," but it is also a study in historical reputation. Kennedy's aim is to shock received opinion by rehabilitating Aaron Burr while simultaneously and necessarily derogating from the reputations of Burr’s two most prominent political enemies, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. His is an advocate's case, argued with passion and, I think, some justice, but it raises certain questions of historiographical propriety. For Kennedy attempts to reorder our sympathies in regard to these three Founding Fathers by a minute examination of their own sympathies (towards blacks, women and Indians, for example) as well their psychological makeup in ways that would have been inconceivable in their own time. Does this anachronism matter?

In particular, the "honor" for which the three were professedly fighting has scarcely any meaning for us today. That honor at its most basic was reputation, and the last two centuries have not been kind to the reputation of reputation. Today, our assumption tends to be, like Kennedy’s, that reputation and reality are at variance. At best the reputation for virtue will roughly correspond with those internal qualities — compassion, consideration, tolerance, kindliness, and so forth that we value most highly, but reputation itself without them is worthless. It would amount to hypocrisy, insincerity, and these are among Kennedy’s most damning charges against Hamilton and Jefferson. But is it quite fair for us to blame them because they valued other things, including reputation, more highly?

For the idea of "character" is not something fixed and permanent. Even if the contemporaries of these three men were not in a better position to judge of their characters than we are, they would have meant something different by "character" than we mean. The word itself, in the sense of the sum of a person’s moral qualities, was little more than a century old at the time Burr and Hamilton were born (the OED's first citation, an ambiguous one, is from 1647). During their lives it probably had something of the sense — a sense that it still bore in living memory — of the moral qualities we assign to someone else. Hence, a housemaid in search of new employment used to ask her mistress for "a character" that would help her to another job.

Alexander Pope famously announced in 1735 that "Most women have no characters at all," but perhaps he should not be so roughly censured for the opinion as he might be if the word meant what it does today. His is the first citation under the usual meaning today of "moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed" and an illustration of the fact that, in the 18th century, where the word "character" did not mean simply "reputation" it referred to (or at least implied) masculine, military and upper-class qualities of mind and heart. Before "character" was "honor," the word which, as we know, was still habitually in use by Burr, Hamilton, Jefferson and their contemporaries and which was the traditional word for these same qualities.

Or, as one should more properly say, for the reputation of them, since the two things are generally impossible to disentangle before the mid 19th century when, in English speaking countries at any rate, it began to be possible to say that a man’s actual character and his reputation were at variance without having to fight a duel over it. Women could have honor, but it was different in substance. For men, honor meant reputation for courage (recalling its knightly origins) and, later, probity; for women it meant reputation for chastity. Officially, reality didn’t matter so long as reputation was preserved. Thus in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D'Arthur, Sir Launcelot thinks his affair with Queen Guinevere perfectly OK and no stain on the honor of either of them just so long as he is strong enough to kill in single combat any knight who dares to impugn the Queen's chastity.

How foreign such attitudes appear from the perspective of the present! And yet they were still familiar to the generation whose "character" Kennedy is writing about. Of course, he is free retrospectively to apply more contemporary notions of character to the past, so long as it is clear that this is what he is doing. And few today will refrain from joining him in applauding, for example, Burr's hypertrophied "sympathies," of which he hastens to apprise us at the outset. These, he says,

were more inclusive than Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s, and his style was more personal than Washington’s. He treated people of African descent as respectfully as Europeans, and, alone among the Founders, Burr had Indian friends. With Hamilton and John Jay, he was among the leaders of the battle to end slavery in New York. And . . . his protofeminism required more of him than his wearing an amulet of Mary Wollstonecraft during most of his adult life. But such a symbolic act, so long sustained, "signifies," as he might have said.

Elsewhere, he cites among the reasons for Burr’s fallings out with his fellow Republicans his "abolitionist alliance with Hamilton and Jay, as well as that peculiar insistence upon the intellectual equality of blacks and women to white males, for which Mr. Jefferson had said ‘the public is not prepared nor am I..’" As if all this were not recommendation enough, "he had the irritating habit of reminding his contemporaries of European ancestry that there were Indians . . . who had to be included in planning for the future of the North American continent."

So. Burr was undoubtedly a man of character for our times. Does it matter that none of these admirably tolerant and multicultural attitudes would have signified anything at all about his character to his contemporaries? Some few progressive and sympathetic spirits of the time may, like Burr, have thought the less of Jefferson for his attitudes towards blacks, women and Indians, but most people did not. Most people — at least those who were not blacks, women or Indians themselves — shared them. Ought this to be a historical datum of any interest to those of us who (belatedly) share Burr's more enlightened attitudes, except as a measure of how remarkable an exception he was?

Perhaps there is some virtue in making the imaginative effort to put ourselves not only in the place of the unprivileged blacks, women and Indians of the era but also in that of their white male masters. At any rate there seems a certain smugness, a certain circularity in arguing that Burr was a better man than Hamilton or Jefferson because he was more like us, more like what 21st century America and not what 18th century America thinks a man ought to be. This kind of exercise is a subcategory of what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig Interpretation of History — the sort of triumphalist progressivism which holds that history’s implicit purpose is revealed by the fact that it has produced enlightened fellows like ourselves. It follows that, if the past is only interesting to us insofar as it has produced the present, then its most important and valued figures will be those who are most like us.

In other words, it may or may not be true that Burr was a more modern man than either Jefferson or Hamilton (at least as strong an argument could be made for Jefferson, it seems to me), but it is possible to make him appear in a more favorable light by appealing to those qualities in him which are distinctively modern. We are prepared to like Burr better than people used to like him because he is more the kind of thing we like, as Gore Vidal first recognized in his own, fictional rehabilitation of the man in his novel, Burr, written nearly thirty years ago.

Kennedy shares a number of Vidal's assumptions, finding in Burr not just a misunderstood and falsely maligned figure, a tarnished star among the glittering galaxy of the Founders in need of polishing up, but in some ways the only one of them that deserves still to shine at all. Even Washington, memorable from Vidal's novel for his stupidity, his military incompetence, his political cunning and his enormous rear end, also suffers by comparison with Burr in Kennedy’s account. Washington on this telling, "was unforgiving to anyone unwilling to subordinate personal preference to patriotic duty — defined by Washington, as by most Great Men, as duty to him." Jefferson, it is hinted, was not only a slaveowner and a hypocrite but also a coward and draft-dodger avant le lettre — and an incompetent governor of Virginia to boot.

Most strikingly, Kennedy also follows Vidal in speculating that the enmity between Burr and Hamilton had deep psychological roots — to wit, Hamilton's seeing in Burr a kind of doppelgänger, a "projected" image of himself that ultimately had to be destroyed. On a letter of Hamilton’s critical of Burr, he writes that "the portrait of Burr presented by Hamilton was of his own shadow-self, a picture that would have been more compelling had he criticized Burr for qualities not conspicuously his own — for example, qualities such as irresoluteness or being pathetically credulous beneath a cynical demeanor." A chance remark that Hamilton found Burr’s manners "fascinating" is glossed by Kennedy as follows:

What can this mean? What is "fascination?" Clinically, it is being powerfully drawn by the gravitational force of oneself, in projection. And in Hamilton’s case that projected self was a person whose "ambition is unlimited," whose "sole spring of action is an inordinate ambition." Burr's ambition! That from a man who had written of himself: "The love of fame [is] the ruling passion of the noblest minds." Burr was not given to passion; Hamilton was; yet he wrote of Burr: "He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprise." That is exactly what John Adams said of Hamilton.

Hamilton, it should be noted, was probably half-quoting Milton's "Lycidas"—

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind). . .

But in any case it is not quite fair to equate this "noble" love of fame with "ambition" — a word which, in the English of Hamilton’s time, still retained much of its original pejorative sense. This is its usual sense in Shakespeare, who makes Brutus cry out to the crowd after the murder of Caesar: "Ambition’s debt is paid" and Wolsey warn Cromwell, "I charge thee, fling away Ambition" for "By that sin fell the Angels." In the same way Macbeth attempts to draw back from the murder of Duncan by noting that

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on the other.

In all these uses of the term there is an underlying assumption of a hierarchical social order in which it would still have been thought a virtue to know and keep to one’s proper place. Honor, too, and therefore character, depended on giving and receiving respect to others according to their places in the hierarchy. "Ambition," therefore, could mean either a passion to rise above one’s place illegitimately or through criminal acts, as it so often does in Shakespeare, or the noble desire to distinguish oneself in one’s proper sphere. Yet this state of affairs was also changing in the new Federal Republic, and Hamilton, "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler" (as John Adams called him) from the West Indies, had more reason to know this than most Americans of the period. Having risen by his own talents and efforts to the highest rank among his contemporaries, he made the aristocratic assumptions and used the aristocratic language of the time while in himself he summed up the two historical tendencies which were already undermining them.

The first of these was what we now call industrial capitalism. Hamilton’s rise in the world, assisted by the patronage of the great, was remarkable for his time; in the time to come it would be less so, and even more the product of individual effort. The economic liberty and dynamism of the early Republic were sweeping away social hierarchies where they were strongest and, by the time that Hamilton's widow died, aged 97, in 1854, the aristocratic conventions that had both schooled and killed her husband hardly survived in America outside the plantation economy of the Deep South. More important, however, was the second development, which displaced the aristocracy of birth and wealth and honor with the aristocracy of feeling whose earliest grandees were the European Romantics but whose most congenial territory was and still in many ways is that of American democracy.

The best intellectual road-map tracing the growth and development over the past two centuries of the Empire of Feeling is still Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, but we must now attempt the difficult imaginative leap of trying to put ourselves in the place of those who did not take for granted that Empire's sway, and to adopt for a moment as our own the habit of mind to which reputation, called honor, had a value in its own right. Only thus can we learn to see Kennedy's revisionism in its proper light.

First we must notice how striking is his book’s audacious attempt to sell us on its hero, Aaron Burr, as an early prototype of contemporary man, man in the Age of Feeling. True, he seems to have anticipated some distinctively contemporary feelings, but what similarities of this kind could be half as striking as the staggering differences between us and those to whom dueling seemed a natural way to settle disputes? The "affair of honor," like honor itself to a greater or lesser extent, is one of those features of the historical landscape — like monasticism or monarchy, the Crusades or the Inquisition, slavery or the subordination of women — that we must simply accept, often by condemning them, because they seem so impossible to understand.

The seminal recent work in attempting to understand it, cited by nearly all historians who write on the subject, is an article by the "historian-ethnographer" Joanne B. Freeman, called "Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel" (William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, liii.2 (April, 1996), 289-318). Kennedy himself cites it, with gratitude, in a footnote adding dryly that "she does not, however, seem to support the view that Hamilton was psychologically driven to make Burr his executioner, as I do." No indeed! What she does do, however, is nicely sum up for us what Kennedy's efforts are up against, the reason why Burr’s reputation has been in eclipse almost since the fatal morning of July 10th, 1804, when, as Vice President of the United States, he shot and mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton on Weehawken Heights, New Jersey.

Most duels of the period, writes Ms Freeman, were "intricate games of dare and counter-dare, ritualized displays of bravery, military prowess, and, above all, willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s honor," but it was relatively rare for them to end in fatalities. Hamilton himself had been involved in eleven previous "affairs of honor" and in none had a shot been fired until the shot that killed him. The game usually involved a search on both sides for a formula that would nullify the insult that was the casus belli without requiring anything so blatant as an outright apology — which was usually considered tantamount to an admission of cowardice. Burr, however, not only insisted on the apology that Hamilton could not in honor give but refused to specify the precise offense, referring only to a third party’s vague report that Hamilton had expressed "a still more despicable opinion" of Burr at a dinner party.

Whatever the "opinion" was, it has been lost to history (Gore Vidal speculates the charge was that Burr had slept with his own daughter), but for whatever reason Hamilton’s attempts to smooth things over were rejected:

Burr later received criticism for challenging a man for an unspecified affront. Hamilton himself objected that Burr's inquiry was too vague for "a direct avowal or disavowal." But Burr felt such a compelling need to prove himself a man of honor and a political leader that he responded to Hamilton’s protests by broadening his demands: he demanded an apology for any "rumours derogatory to Col: Burr’s honor . . . inferred from any thing he [Hamilton] has said." In essence, he called on Hamilton to apologize for any personal abuse that Burr had suffered throughout their fifteen-year political rivalry. Burr demanded a humiliating apology in order to force Hamilton to fight.

All this was bad enough, but worse was to come. On the night before he crossed the Hudson to Weehawken, a favorite dueling ground, Hamilton wrote a letter to his wife in which he stated his intention not to fire at Burr with his first shot because of his "Scruples as a Christian." Moreover, in an equally Christian spirit, he insisted that he bore no ill-will to Burr.

Kennedy expresses doubts about both these statements. Two shots were fired almost simultaneously that morning. One passing above Burr's head broke a branch of the tree under which he was standing. The other hit Hamilton in the abdomen. Hamilton had told his second, Nathaniel Pendleton, that he would fire in the air, but there was no way of knowing for sure if he had done so or if he had merely missed. The pistols they used had a hair-trigger that Hamilton knew about but Burr did not. Hamilton is said to have asked that the hair-trigger not be set, but it may have been anyway, or unbeknownst to him. More seriously, thinks Kennedy, it cannot be the case that Hamilton bore no ill-will to Burr "distinct from political opposition," even though his "animadversions on the political principles, character, and views of Col. Burr . . . have been extremely severe." Kennedy asks: "was Hamilton's self-deception so complete that he could be conscious of no ill will toward a man he charged with dishonesty, profligacy, Caesarian ambition, and Catalinian conspiracy?" Why is it "self-deception" for Hamilton to attempt to preserve a distinction between his moral and rational censure of Burr’s political actions and his private and personal feelings about him? It’s true that public and private have always been mixed up together in politics, but that does not mean that there is no point in attempting, as Hamilton does, to distinguish between them. It is Kennedy who has to break down this distinction in order to make his case that the quarrel between Hamilton and Burr must have been owing to "fascination" or some such private and personal feeling. Thus he writes that "Hamilton, the man of passionate affection, was also given to passionate antipathy; as to Burr, envy wore channels into his psyche until it became a fascination ‘settled and implacable.’ Burr’s reciprocal animosity settled in more slowly. . ."

But even if Kennedy is right, the elusive reality of the two men’s state of mind was irrelevant before the Empire of Feelings held sway, and, strictly speaking, is irrelevant now. For what matters now, and what was beginning to matter then, was public opinion about the state of those feelings.

A duelist who killed his opponent [writes Ms Freeman] could erase his crime only by proving himself a man of honor who had conformed with the rituals of the duel. But in seizing on a vague offense and exhibiting uncompromising hostility in his correspondence, Burr left himself open to charges of dishonorable conduct. . . Though he defeated his opponent on the field of honor, Burr thus became a failed duelist, for he was unable to sway public opinion in his favor.

Later he was to compound the offense by abusing his dead opponent for "malevolence and hypocrisy" at a time when Hamilton’s final letter was revealed, "an intimate, heartfelt statement," as Ms Freeman puts it, "that professed his willingness to die for the public good." In it, she writes, "he depicted himself as an exemplary duelist, compelled to fight, unwilling to kill, gaining nothing, sacrificing all. There was no more effective way to prove oneself a martyr and to prove one’s foe, by default, a fiend." Besides, whether or not Hamilton threw away his first shot, it was widely believed that he had, and this too helped him to win — posthumously, to be sure — the battle for public opinion.

It is this emphasis on public opinion that is Ms Freeman’s real contribution to recent thinking about honor. For centuries the gentry in all European countries engaged in duels among themselves without caring what those not in the honor group of fellow "gentlemen" thought of them for it. To be sure, public opinion was involved (it always is in matters of honor and reputation), but the public was a very small one. Ms. Freeman shows how, in the early days of the American Republic, the duelists found themselves for the first time performing, as it were, before a wider audience. The aristocratic pastime of challenging and being challenged, of making a show of one’s honor, were now taking place in a democratic arena where honor depended not only on the opinion of one’s honorable friends but also that of the base multitude.

Hamilton, the illegitimate West Indian of no particular birth, may have understood this better than the more aristocratic Burr, whose father and grandfather were presidents of Princeton. But in any case, public opinion has been anti-Burr for 200 years. Kennedy devotes a major part of his "Postscript" to the reasons for Burr’s poor reputation down to the present day. More important even than Hamilton in this regard, he says, was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of him as an unscrupulous womanizer in her novel, A Minister's Wooing. He also speculates on John Quincy Adams’s possible later regret for having said, at the time of Burr's trial for treason in 1807, that Burr had "no religious principles, and little, if any sense of reverence to a moral Governor of the Universe." Kennedy takes Adams to task: "How could even an Adams purport to know such a thing?" he says. "John Quincy Adams’s theologically trained father would have been aware that one makes a statement about the state of another person’s soul at great peril to one’s own." Well, up to a point. It is true that Christians are enjoined to "judge not, that ye be not judged," but this commandment has never until our own time been thought to prohibit judgment of behavior, or all inferences from behavior to a general state of mind, in particular the mens rea. Most likely, Adams was simply appending to the general bad character Jefferson had succeeded in fixing on Burr the observation that he had never been particularly noted for his piety either. Kennedy reads into this an act of cosmic presumption and arrogance, I think, because it is central to his case, that the disposition of the inner man is of supreme importance in determining "character" and therefore that character must be as completely disjoined from reputation as in Burr’s time it was bound up with it. Elsewhere he quotes James Thomas Flexner's opinion that Hamilton "was not seriously wrung by the plight" of the slaves because he did not do much about it and adds: "How can a historian be confident of what was in another man's heart?" Here we have what is perhaps the culmination of the "sincerity" craze of the last two centuries.

Of course, his censure of Adams and Flexner doesn’t interfere with the fact that the entire tendency of his book is to venture himself into these sacrosanct realms, to explicate the unknowable soul of Aaron Burr and pronounce it superior to that of his rivals. In doing so he makes the case not only for a retrospective politics of feeling for the age of Hamilton and Burr but, obliquely, for the actual politics of feeling that has become dominant in America since, roughly simultaneously, the Cold War ended and Bill Clinton announced to wide applause that he felt the pain of those who suffered from economic privation. Now, the contest to elect his successor promises to be a competition of feelings. It is slightly odd, then, that George W. Bush has turned the Kennedy-like phrase "Don't judge my heart" into almost an exculpatory mantra. But he is not so much reserving the inward man from scrutiny as he is insisting that whatever he may have done that you don’t like, for all you know his feelings may be creditable.

Somehow Kennedy doesn’t strike me as being a Bush supporter, but, judging by his book, he would certainly applaud the Bushite reservation of his feelings from the harsher sort of political censure. Meanwhile, John McCain, the man who was in some ways the most popular politician of the year, made his first and to many his greatest claim on our approval with his military record — his record, that is, not of conquering our nation's enemies but of suffering at their hands. In this it could be said he was indirectly paying tribute to the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, the first saint and martyr of the American Founding, who, intentionally or not, was the first to benefit by the expansion of the old, aristocratic notions of honor into the new and democratic realm of public opinion.

The old aristocrats would naturally have been as contemptuous as Shakespeare was of the sweaty night-capped mob in Julius Caesar, for example, who were impressed with Mark Antony's ostentatious emotion in his funeral oration for Caesar. "Poor soul, his eyes are red as fire with weeping." But the new elite has had to accommodate itself to democratic demands — which is why Kennedy’s rehabilitation effort is ultimately doomed. Like that other Vice President, Dan Quayle, poor old Burr made his bad impression in the public eye and could never thereafter live it down — still cannot live it down even after 200 years have passed. True enough, his heart, like George W. Bush’s, might well be a veritable gusher of creditable feelings and, could we but know it, prove him a better man than either Hamilton or Jefferson. But history, as Kennedy himself reminds us, cannot judge the heart. In can and will judge only what our leaders are prepared to say about their hearts, and what they are able to make people believe about them, in order to be allowed to lead.




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