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The Revolutionary Bookshelf, Part Two: Aaron Burr, Sir

He might be the villain in our history, but I think we can all agree that Aaron Burr's portrayal in Hamilton is no simple heel turn. Complex, sympathetic, and nuanced, it's in many ways an overdue rethinking of one of the more misunderstood figures in early American politics.

But because Hamilton's life story is the one that Lin & Co. are spinning, a lot of Burr's biographical details are understandably glossed over or on the margins of the musical. (Or they happen after the duel, which… sequel, anyone?)

 

Unlike the copious writings, correspondence, and essays left by first-gen founders like Adams and Jefferson and contemporaries like Hamilton, presenting a complete picture of Burr through a biography is difficult given the lack of primary source material. Most of his papers were lost at sea, presumably drowned along with dear Theodosia (NO REALLY!) when she was (also presumably) captured by pirates somewhere off the South Carolina coast on her way to visit her father in New York.

You really want to read more about Burr now, don't you?

The man truly did lead a fascinating life, and despite the frustrating lack of his own writings, there are two biographies on the market that, when read in tandem, fill in a great deal of the details. H.W. Brands' The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr is a slim volume and a quick read, written in a conversational style and breezing through Burr's many travails and travels. 

Once you've swung through that, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg, is also worth a read for greater detail on events like Burr's alleged treasonous attempt to lead an expedition through the Louisiana territories into Mexico, seize the lands, and establish a new government. Allegedly.

The only caveat I give with this book is with the author's tone: while I don't blame any author for taking a personal interest in the subject they're writing about, Isenberg seems to go out of her way to portray Burr as the victim —Burr against the world at every turn. In his Rolling Stone interview, LMM says, " I read a book that really humanized him for me, The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr, by H.W. Brands. And then I read another Burr biography that I couldn’t even get through two chapters of because it was so defensive in its tone." Hmmmmmm…..

Regardless, if you can in fact get past Isenberg's writing style, this is a more in-depth look at Burr's life, as well as his relationship with both Theodosias.

One more thing: I'll admit that I have yet to read Gore Vidal's famous—and fictional—book on Burr, and given the stack of historical non-fiction on my nightstand, it's pretty likely I won't get around to it for decades if at all. But never say never!