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A Study in Character

by Roger G. Kennedy

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-513055-3
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

In a study of three Founders, Kennedy, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a prolific author (Hidden Cities, 1994, etc.), demonstrates his devotion to underdogs, in particular Aaron Burr. New York attorney general and vice president of the US, Burr was once tapped as Jefferson’s successor to the presidency, but his political career shriveled when he lost a gubernatorial election, and in 1806, Jefferson accused him of treason. His papers were lost, and his daughter, his most promising hagiographer, died before beginning a biography of her dad. That 19th-century notables including Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Quincy Adams maligned Burr as a womanizing rapscallion didn’t help Burr’s reputation. A spin doctor’s nightmare? In Kennedy’s hands, Burr appears admirable: a proto-feminist, taken with Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings; a defender of Kennedy’s other favorite underdog, Native Americans; and a committed abolitionist. Kennedy explores the careers and characters of Hamilton and Jefferson as well, arguing that they cannot be understood without first knowing Burr. If Burr is the hero of this book, neither Jefferson nor Hamilton is quite the villain—each was “ambitious,” each “on occasion noble, generous, and touching in [his] willingness to express [his] affections.” Kennedy has a penchant for unsubstantiated psychobabble. Pause critically when he waxes Oprah-esque about the psychic damage done to Burr and Hamilton by traumatic childhoods; raise a quizzical eyebrow at his suggestion that Jefferson’s vitriol was stoked by Burr’s matchmaking—in introducing James Madison to Dolley Payne, Burr no doubt altered the relationship of “the great little Madison” and the Sage of Monticello, two “brilliant and lonely men” who had toiled together as “bachelor partners” for 14 years after the death of Jefferson’s wife, though that’s hardly grounds for branding your VP a traitor. Kennedy is no Gore Vidal, yet, in an engaging and lightly ironic tone, he offers a worthwhile portrait of powerful politicians in early America. (30 photos) (First printing of 40,000; Book-of-the-Month Club and History Book Club alternate selections; author tour)