This is a review of Roger G. Kennedy’s biographical book, Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson: A Study in Character.
Kennedy’s is not the sort of book one should read when not familiar with the history of the United States, the Revolutionary War, early American politics, or the specific life stories of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Because Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson is not written in chronological order as a straight narrative, but instead groups events by topic for the purposes of character analysis, the book might be confusing to the uninitiated. But if you are so thoroughly familiar with the basic facts underlying the analysis that you are able to understand at all times the wider frame of reference, Roger G. Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson: A Study in Character is an excellent tool for deepening your knowledge. You can open the book on any page and learn something new and interesting about people and events you thought you knew everything about.
For me, the different experiences of the three men in the Revolutionary War were brought into sharper focus when compared and contrasted in this way. The comparison between what Burr did during the war and how Jefferson occupied his time was especially telling and left a strong impression on my mind.
Military service, of course, is a tricky subject. All three men were active and prominent. All three could claim to have been of service to their country in the Revolutionary War. But the way in which they served reveals their character. Jefferson sat on the sidelines and avoided action. Hamilton was involved in military campaigns and worked toward personal advancement. But Burr was the one who fought on the front lines, or was sent to deal with difficult issues of discipline but who declined a desk job under George Washington. Because his relations with Washington were not sufficiently deferential, Washington snubbed Burr and failed to commend him for his service. When military pensions were handed out, Burr did not get one. (This did not change until toward the very end of his life, Burr’s service was recognized by President Andrew Jackson.)
Kennedy’s study covers many other facets of the personalities of the three men. In matters of religion, Hamilton claimed great piety, Jefferson shielded the people from knowledge of his theism by using fancy words such as “endowed by their Creator”, while Burr refused to put on a show of religiosity. In matters of the heart, Hamilton had many affairs and was irresponsible, while Burr tried to help women who had gotten into trouble by finding themselves on the wrong side of social mores. Jefferson spoke out publicly against slavery, but did not free the slaves he owned, even those with whom he was intimate. On the question of honorable treatment of adversaries, Hamilton threw calumny around without conscience, Jefferson declared Burr guilty before he was tried and bypassed constitutional provisions to see him convicted, but Burr did not in fact speak out against his adversaries. He practiced a very honorable silence, which in the end did his reputation much harm.
In discussing Burr’s letters to his daughter Theodosia from Europe, Kennedy touches upon the unusual candor that Burr practiced as a father. It could not have been easy for Theodosia to read some of her father’s avowals, but he can never be said to have misrepresented himself as a paragon of virtue to his child. That he nevertheless won her undying respect and admiration is something worthy of contemplation.
The issue of slavery and the attitudes of the three men toward it was also a big part of this book. Also touched upon lightly were the fiscal policies of all three. Each of the three men was a bad manager of his own personal assets. Each might well be termed a spendthrift. But Burr got there because of his generosity towards others and his willingness to spend his own money for public ends such as the conquest of Mexico, whereas Hamilton wanted to spend and tax, and Jefferson favored purchasing land at the expense of the people.
To me, the most telling contrast when reading Kennedy’s book was Burr’s willingness to put his life, his fortune and his sacred honor in the service of his country where Jefferson was only penning such words. Undoubtedly Jefferson was an eloquent writer, but Burr was a doer of deeds.