Aaron Burr owns a place in history books as the villain who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel (and we think todayâ€™s politics are dirty). AÂ more complete and nuanced view of his character is revealed inÂ this digestible portrait by narrative historian and Pulitzer Prize nominee H.W. Brands. "The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr" is enriched by the texture of correspondence between Burr and his bright and exceptionally educated daughter, Theodosia. Against a backdrop of drama and scandal, and through his roles as Revolutionary War officer, New York politician, and vice president under Thomas Jefferson, we discover a father doing all that he can for his daughter. Her tragic disappearance at sea delivers the most forceful blow to his heart -- and ours, too, after dwelling in their world. Author H.W. Brands joins us here to expand upon Burr's passions and his own in writing the book.
Biographile: What drew you to this topic?
H.W. Brands: I had long known the story of Aaron Burr, but when I heard about his remarkable daughter, Theodosia, about the relationship between the two and about her tragic disappearance, I knew I wanted to tell their story.
B: You draw extensively from letters -- particularly between Aaron Burr and his daughter, Theo. How did you conduct your research?
HWB:Â Â The letters are available in various forms: published, unpublished, online. I patched together these different versions. Also correspondence from collateral collections: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson. And court records for the famous treason trial.
B: Did anything you learned surprise you about Burr?
H.W. Brands: I had no idea how charming he was. This explains something I had wondered about: why all his enemies were men. Women loved him.
Biographile: Can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between Aaron Burr and his daughter? How did his daughter shape his views on educating women, or vice versa?
HWB: Burr was centuries before his time in believing that women were as intelligent as men and as worthy of education. He tested his belief on his daughter, Theodosia, who confirmed it by becoming one of the most accomplished young persons of her generation.
B: Why did the tides turn against Burr? How does history remember him? What do you hope to show in these pages? Why was Thomas Jefferson set against him?
HWB: Burr fell afoul of both political parties of his era. He killed Hamilton, a Federalist, in a duel, alienating the Federalists. And Jefferson, the leader of the Republicans (precursor to the modern Democrats), distrusted him as having ambitions that didn't toe Jefferson's line. So the Republicans hated him, too.
I try to show that Burr was not the unmitigated scoundrel most of his contemporaries made him out to be, but a witty, charming fellow and a loving father. Ambitious, to be sure, and maybe a bit of a scoundrel, but someone worthy getting to know beyond his dark reputation.
B: Aaron Burr is known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. What led to their feud? Why does history remember Hamilton in such a more positive way?
H.W. Brands: Hamilton had said some very scurrilous things about Burr in a political campaign. Burr demanded a retraction, which Hamilton refused to give. So they dueled, and Hamilton lost. His death restored his reputation, which was in decline as a result of his feuding even with members of his own party. This is a good illustration of the old principle that a well-timed death works wonders for the historical reputation.
B: I was surprised to learn that Thomas Jefferson did not always have the best of intentions. What other historical figures played a part in this tale?
HWB: Jefferson. Hamilton. John Marshall, who presided over the treason trial. Andrew Jackson, who befriended Burr in the West. James Wilkinson, who actually was the foreign agent Burr was accused of being. Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and reformer, who befriended Burr in Britain.
B: What does Burr's story mean to American history?
HWB: It reveals the deep divisions among the Founders, who were hardly the demigods they are often deemed today; the poisonous nature of party politics in the early republic, which make modern politics look mild; the contested character of American expansion, which threatened to outpace the country's political evolution; and the abiding ability of love to transcend ambition, disappointment, distance and even death. Burr's story isn't every American's story -- his life was too remarkable for that. But the love he displayed for his daughter is like the love almost everyone has given or received at some time.