Aaron Burr: “An active and scheming mind …”

An interesting character study of Aaron Burr – from Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History) by John Ferling.

Of the candidates in 1800, Burr is the most difficult to understand, in part because he revealed so little of himself, but in large measure because most of the surviving assessments by his contemporaries were colored by his controversial behavior during and after this election. What seems clear is that Burr was a striking figure, at first blush quite likely the most dazzling and captivating of the four candidates. He was only average height — he stood five foot six, about an inch below the median height of native-born Americans — and his body was small, even wispy. Many thought him handsome, and indeed in the Gilbert Stuart portrait, for which he sat when in his mid-thirties, he bears a resemblance to a middle-aged Henry Fonda, a Hollywood leading man. Ten years later, in 1802, the artist John Vanderlyn captured the same qualities, depicting a subject who radiated a pleasant and attractive countenance beneath long thick gray-black hair that was receding dangerously. In both portraits, and according to numerous observers, Burr’s features were dominated by great, expressive hazel eyes and an air of earnest urbanity. Many were struck, too, by his gentlemanly bearing — some thought it an aristocratic manner — as well as by his self-assurance and, above all, an unconcealed pride in his superior intellect. Some thought him graceful, most found him to be friendly and agreeable, and all regarded him as a delightful conversationalist. Burr brought to public life better-than-average oratorical skills, a talent honed in countless courtrooms where he gradually jettisoned the pistonlike delivery and overbearing habits of his youth, substituting instead a “slow, circumspect manner that convinced listeners that careful deliberation and reasoned reflection underlay his every word. Yet for all his compelling qualities, aspects of his demeanor caused him harm. For instance, when Burr came to Virginia in 1796 to court support, some who met him not only discerned an active and scheming mind but concluded that he was not passionately committed to any political principle. Winning laurels and holding power, they suspected, were his only real objectives. They were not alone in this judgment. Throughout his career, many detected in him a frenetic ambition, an insatiable, indomitable craving for more wealth, material possessions, power, and acclaim — more of everything, a gluttonous avidity that they assumed drove him relentlessly.

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5 Responses to Aaron Burr: “An active and scheming mind …”

  1. red says:

    And here’s a trivia question for those of you who got this far:

    Who was the fourth candidate for President in the election of 1800?

    Obviously, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were … so was Aaron Burr. Who was the last one?

  2. Dave J says:

    Pinckney of South Carolina. And I have no idea how or why I know that.

  3. red says:

    Because it’s an excellent thing to know, that’s why.

  4. qualityg says:

    I’m more of an Alexander Hamilton person but Burr has always intrigued me with his plan for a separate country out west.

    Currently reading “His Excellency” and “Alexander Hamilton.” Enjoying both books but I still like “Adams” the best.

    I read “Burr” by Gore Vidal many years ago. It was a really interesting novel told partly by Burr in an imagined memoir based on fact.

  5. Ara Rubyan says:

    I read His Excellency, read the Election of 1800, tried to finish Hamilton, loved Burr.

    I especially liked Burr’s/Vidal’s assessment of Washington. It is so bitchy, saying that people were mistaken in thinking that Washington was a great general and a lousy politician, pointing out that the exact opposite was true.

    And also pointing out that he had a big butt.

    (…which oddly enough, Ellis confirms, more or less, in His Excellency. I’m just saying.)

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