This week I completed Fallen Founder, the story of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg. Then I wrote a short review of the book as I always do. When I perused what others had written, I discovered that several of the other reviews were negative. Many of the other reviewers thought Isenberg was wrong about Burr because they had read other accounts of Burr’s life by Ron Chernow and David McCullough.
In my opinion fellow historian Isenberg has written a balanced version of Burr’s life, using the first rule of a good history, ‘refer to original documents’ or what historians call primary sources, wherever you can. And verify, verify, verify. (I’ve done this while working on my family tree and discovered some amazing things.)
The problem with secondary sources is that if they include a lie, mistake, innuendo or hearsay, and they often do, it gets transmitted and repeated until folks think it must be true. Isenberg says, this is what happened with the Aaron Burr story. Sadly this miscarriage of truth has been turned into a Broadway smash hit. In 2007, Isenberg challenged most of what had been written about Burr and she found the truth far more complicated.
I came away from the book thinking less of the Federalist Hamilton who was a gossip and a dirty politician, and less of Thomas Jefferson a Republican-Democrat (anti-Federalist) who said stupid things that almost incited a lynch mob.
However, I came away from the book impressed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, who seemed at times to be the only sane person at Burr’s travesty of a series of trials.
Once again, I had impressed upon me, that everyone is owed their day in court, and that double-triple jeopardy is a bad thing. In court after court, when Burr was found ‘not guilty’ of the charge of mounting an insurrection, there were those who pressed for another and another trial, so sure were they of his guilt.
Today we have trial by Facebook, or TV or the newspapers and it is as evil as it always has been.