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Summer reads 2022

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August 17, 2022

In my own unreliable cultural memory, the age of Hamilton enthusiasm in American life belongs emphatically to Barack Obama’s presidency in its optimistic phase — to the last period of unabashed liberal patriotism and confidence.

In reality, though, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical didn’t premiere until early in 2015, just four short months before Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator and inaugurated the age of populism. This means that Hamilton enthusiasm was partially a lagging indicator, and partially just something for stunned liberals to desperately grasp onto, a thread running backward to the cosmopolitan American future they had lost.

I do not come to bury this kind of fandom: the Miranda musical is terrific no matter its ideological baggage. But it still might have been more intellectually productive if the Trump era had inspired its fans to turn from Miranda’s version of the Founding to the one found in Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel Burr.

Burr already had one cultural moment, dropping originally amid the squalor of Watergate, when its dose of cold-eyed iconoclasm was well-received by critics and bookbuyers alike. But today the novel can be read or re-read with new eyes, outside the long shadow cast by its late author’s famous media persona, and in a landscape where its vision has just as much to offer.

That vision is cynical on the surface. Vidal retells the story of the Founding era from the perspective of what one of Aaron Burr’s biographers called the “Fallen Founder” — the almost-president of 1800, the slayer of Alexander Hamilton in their 1804 duel, the man tried for treason for a supposed scheme to detach the western states from the Union.

The treason trial ended in acquittal but also ended Burr’s public political career; he bounced around Europe unhappily in search of patronage and then ended up back in New York City, where he lived quietly as a lawyer until a late marriage to a wealthy widow in 1837. That’s the point at which the novel picks up, through the agency of its narrator, Charles Schuyler, a young journalist on the make who befriends the aged Burr but also agrees to betray him, by gathering evidence intended to prove that the disreputable killer of Hamilton and famous ladies’ man is also the secret father of Vice President Martin Van Buren, whose pending ascent to the presidency Schuyler’s patrons hope to block.

With this hope in mind, the journalist induces the aging Burr to share his own unfinished memoirs, granting us first-person flashbacks to the Revolutionary War and early republic, in which Burr describes his own rise and fall while settling accounts with all his former friends and rivals.

Compared to the pieties of conservative founder-worship or even of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, these portraits can seem savage. George Washington is an incompetent general who, as president, obsesses over his own quasi-royal dignity. Hamilton, of course, is everything that he accused Burr of being: A man of vaulting ambition, eager for aristocratic style and monarchical power, “capable of any illegality including a military coup”, who actually engaged in an attempt to steal the 1800 election. (Vidal’s Burr writes: “I suspect that when Hamilton looked at me he saw, in some magical way, himself reflected. And so if one is an embryo-Caesar, accuse the looking-glass of that high treason and divert thereby the wrath of the plebes.”)

Finally Jefferson, in Burr’s telling, is expedience and ambition personified — a man who had the gift “at one time or another to put with eloquence the ‘right’ answer to every moral question”, even as in practice “he seldom deviated from an opportunistic course, calculated to bring him power”. A man whose principles committed him to an agrarian and decentralised confederacy, but whose presidency settled “with suspicious ease” on empire-building and executive power. A better Napoleon than Napoleon himself, since his empire-building in the vast Louisiana territory actually endured.

As readers we need not accept that Burr-the-narrator is reliable in all these details, or buy all of his extensive self-justifications. We only have to accept his unique observer’s position, as a man interested in his own honour and prospects but not especially keen on any grand ideological project, at a time when one of history’s grandest ideological projects — the age of revolution — was getting underway.

From that perspective, Burr’s account is cynical and deflating relative to mythmakers and ideological historians — and one of the points of setting the novel’s framing narrative in the 1830s is to see how quickly American mythmaking took hold. But even through the eyes of the Fallen Founder there is no escaping the fact that what he describes is a political success story: a republic established and then expanded, various disasters and civil wars avoided, the Caesarist appetites of even the most powerful figures checked and limited, and at least some revolutionary ideals put into political practice.

Indeed, the novel’s Burr often circles back to acknowledge as much. All his barbed comments about Washington culminate in the observation that: “He was the supreme creator of his union … [whose] powerful will and serpentine cunning made of a loose confederation of sovereign states a strong federal government graven to this day in Washington’s sombre Roman imperial image.” His war with Hamilton doesn’t conceal his partial liking for his rival, and his sneers at the self-made immigrant double as an acknowledgment of the Horatio Alger qualities celebrated on Broadway.

Even Jefferson, Burr’s final enemy and the instigator of his treason trial, is presented as, well, what he was — a dreadful hypocrite, with a tangle of competing motivations and ideals slicked over by self-interest, but also a remarkably effective politician who adapted himself to the new republic’s presidency rather than being carried into disasters by his radical inclinations.

So what is the novel’s un-cynical message? Perhaps that politics is an always unfinished and ambiguous vocation, whose moments of moral clarity are inherently exceptional, and whose normal workings require a constant balancing-act between idealism and realism, private probity and public vision, the necessary and the possible.

This balance needs to be struck within the individual statesman, first. The reader will observe that Burr falters and falls, relative to the other Founders, not because he’s worse and they’re better, but because he has the wrong proportions: too much concern for his private honour, which makes him miss crucial opportunities and also carries him into the fateful duel, and not quite enough concern for public ideals and great causes, which makes him an insufficiently inspiring leader for any of the new country’s clashing factions.

But then, in good Madisonian terms, the balance also needs to be struck between competing statesmen. The great good fortune of America in the Revolutionary era, in Vidal’s portrait, was not that all its leaders were uniquely public-spirited but rather that their talents and rivalries interacted in such a way as to mostly stabilise and strengthen the young country. Which is to say, while everyone was accusing everyone else of being a monarchist or Caesar in the making, the republic took form and proved stronger than any individual or faction.

This brings us to the book’s relevance for our own political era, in which accusations of incipient autocracy fly as freely as they did in the United States of 1800. There is a certain relief in recognising this similarity. It’s a reminder, among other things, that periods of stable consensus politics are almost as exceptional as moments of total moral clarity, and that the people who have constantly asserted this-is-not-normal about some feature of the age of populism are mistaken. It’s quite normal for small-r republican politics to be shadowed by the fear of tyranny, corrupted elections, misinformation, destabilising foreign influence, the fate of Rome. (Before there was the reductio ad Hitlerum there was the reductio ad Rubicon — and perhaps the exhausted response: “A Catiline-conspiracy analogy, again, really?”)

These similarities also hint that the politics of the late-18th and 19th centuries may be more relevant to our own fragmented era than the mass movements and ideological tyrannies of the early 20th century. The category to which Burr belongs, the political adventurer — the none-too-principled but also none-too-ideological figure seizing opportunities as they come to him — seems especially relevant to the rise of Trump or, for that matter, Boris Johnson. And of course Andrew Jackson, hovering in the wings of Burr, remains the crucial antecedent for all American populism, past, present and yet to come.

But to the extent that aspects of our own era can be glimpsed in Vidal’s vision of the American Founding, the recognition also brings with it a sense of the depressing difference. We have the adventurers, the fears of Caesarism, the conspiracy theories and fake news, but the qualities of leadership and vision that Burr grudgingly acknowledges in his rivals seem altogether absent. Instead of vaulting ambition counteracting vaulting ambition, our adventurers stand out, clownishly, amid a landscape of greying mediocrity. This is far less dangerous than the alternative, but it is a sign of decay rather than life.