Page Turners

Burr: History Written By the Loser

Burr Cover

I really love history. I think it’s because I love stories, and consider myself an attempted storyteller, and history s just stories. That’s all it really is. You can bury yourself in historical documents and biographies, but in the end, its all stories. Unless we lived it, we can’t be sure what actually happened. We learn so many historical facts in school that mainly come from sources that could easily be questioned. And that’s primarily due to the old axiom, History is Written By the Winners. Which is completely true. There are plenty of civilizations that we really only know about due to references from other civilizations that conquered them. We usually don’t learn about the losers of historical conflicts, or at least learn about them from an objective source. I’m sure if the Axis forces had won World War II their version of the war would be radically different from the one we know. And honestly, I don’t know if either is more or less true. America looks at World War II from the stance of the victors, and we could easily be “forgetting” or ignoring things that happened that don’t fit the narrative that we’re the heroes. And that’s the big thing. History is narratives. They’re stories that are passed down and accepted as fact, without the slightest grain of salt used, because if it’s history it must be right.

I’ve only ever lived in America, so I don’t know if other countries are like this, but we have a very interesting relationship with our history. Students are taught about the formation of the United States pretty much from elementary school, and you start to realize as you get older that more and more of the information we were taught was incorrect. You learn about Christopher Columbus, and the early settlers getting along with the American Indians when you’re a kid. Then you get older and find out about the genocide we perpetrated against the Native people, even though we still don’t like to use that word. But there’s one time period that I feel like we’re never really given the full story about. The time of the Founding Fathers, and those men themselves. We learn all about the Revolutionary War, and the early days of our country, but overall I feel like we learn about these men like their deities. They’re these perfect, self-less beings who shaped a democracy out of a dictatorship just because it was the right thing to do. And that’s kind of all we’re taught, even after we’re shows that most of the other stories we hear about American History are kind of fake.

And that’s where this book fits. This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Gore Vidal, after years of being intrigued by him. But after seeing that documentary Best of Enemies about his debates with William F Buckley I decided I wanted to look into his work. I checked his bibliography, and learned about his series of novels that he calls Narratives of Empire that are historical novels about various periods in American history where he tries to look at things from a different light. So I picked up the chronological first in the series, Burr, and checked it out. And it was fascinating. Aaron Burr is a very intriguing character in the narrative of American History. I mentioned early that we deify members of the American Revolution, but that’s not fully true. There are a couple people that have become villains in that story, people that end up serving a foils to the Founder Fathers. We all know Benedict Arnold, and how evil he’s portrayed in American history, but if there’s anyone more hated from that time period than him, it’s Aaron Burr. A soldier in the Revolution, prominent lawyer and politician, and the third Vice President, he should be thought of as a hero. But when you’re taught about Aaron Burr in school, it’s usually two things. The fact that he killed the deified Alexander Hamilton in a duel while he was still Vice President, and the fact that he was accused of treason for trying to cause states to secede. And that’s pretty much it. I’ve never even really thought much about Burr, just kind of assuming that what I learned about him in history classes was accurate, and that he was just this greedy guy that we should shun.

Now, I want to be clear right off the bat, I don’t think that this novel is 100% accurate either. It’s not like this movie showed the real history, by showing Burr as this misunderstood scapegoat that the other Founding Fathers, who were all actually pretty terrible idiots, blamed for everything. But I really do believe that reality was somewhere more in between this novel and what we’re taught. I’m sure that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton were still decent men who were doing their best to make a functioning country using styles of government that had never been attempted at this scale, but at the same time they’re still mortal men. They made mistakes and weren’t perfect, which I think is the real message from this book.

Burr tells the story of Charles Schuyler, a young man living in 1834 who is friends with Aaron Burr and works at a law office with him. Burr is this larger than life character that most other people hate, but that Charlie finds fascinating. He begins spending more and more time with the old man, learning of his exploits, and is eventually approached by some newspapermen who want Charlie to learn more about Burr’s life, with the intention of learning dark secrets about him. In the book, and I’m not quite sure if this was a true theory, people think that Martin Van Buren is actually Aaron Burr’s bastard son, so these newspapermen want Charlie to get Burr to admit this, and then publish a pamphlet explaining the fact so that people won’t vote for Van Buren. That’s the main plot of the novel, and aside from some plot points revolving around Charlie’s love for a prostitute, it mainly sticks with him spending time with Aaron Burr in 1834 and chapters that are Burr’s recollection of his life. We learn about Burr’s childhood, his time in the Revolution, his time as the best lawyer in New York, his eventual entrance into government first as a governor and eventually as the Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, his becoming a pariah after killing Hamilton in the duel, and eventually him being tricked into a plot to go to war with Mexico while simultaneously convincing the Western states to secede. Most of this is all historically accurate and verifiable, but the real interesting part of the novel is how it looks at all these events from Burr’s point of view.

Aaron Burr is a villain in American history. We don’t typically care what things were like from his point of view, but this book tries to guess what Burr would say about the infamous parts of his life. We try to look at the things he did with him as a relateable and sympathetic character. Which he probably wasn’t, at least not as much as the book tries to make him out to be. Once again, he’s probably somewhere in between. Then there’s the way that all the Founding Fathers are presented. George Washington is incredibly incompetent and just extremely lucky, Thomas Jefferson is incredibly hypocritical and back stabbing, and Alexander Hamilton is a shrewd schemer who is trying to play everyone like a puppet master. That’s interesting to me. Too often we see these men as perfect humans, without a fault, and it was actually very refreshing to see them portrayed in a different light. Yeah, the probably weren’t actually exactly like this, but I also doubt they were actually like they’re always thought of in history books.

I just found this novel endlessly fascinating, and I really enjoyed it more for the concept of showing these grand historical characters, that have essentially become myths in our world, as real people. In the modern day these men are treated like saints, and their words and idea like gospel. We’re constantly having fights between people who think we should live life to the letter of the Constitution, and those who live in reality and realize that it was document made by flawed human beings over two hundred years ago. We get so blinded by the glory of the Founding Fathers, and assume that they know what it means to live life in the year 2016, when they were just men, living in a time when it was totally okay to own another human being. We never think about history from the point of view of the people who lost, because more often than not we learn about them from their enemies, who of course aren’t going to paint an accurate picture of them. Who knows how many historical villains we shun and hate were actually okay people who just drew the short stick in history, and were remembered as the villain because they were the loser in some battle. I do think Burr was a good novel, but the thing that I’ll remember it more for was the idea it broached of seeing historical figures as characters in a story, because that’s all they really are. Who knows if we’re getting them right.

Burr was written by Gore Vidal, 1973.

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