Thursday, December 24, 2015
December 24, 2015: Wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves: Burr
[For each of the last few holiday seasons, I’ve made some requests to the AmericanStudies Elves. This year, I thought I’d highlight some amazing American stories that are ripe for telling in historical fiction films, novels, TV shows, you name it. Share the stories you’d like to see told, or any other wishes for the AS Elves, ahead of a wish-full crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the (con-)Founding Father who’s enjoying a bit of a comeback, but still needs more.
As reflected by the fact that he sings much of the opening, title song of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton (2015), Aaron Burr plays an integral role in this theatrical smash hit that’s bringing all sorts of new attention to the Revolutionary era and many of its focal figures. Yet because Burr was (as he puts it in that song) “the damn fool that shot him,” in the most famous duel in American history, any text focused on Hamilton is of course going to portray Burr first and foremost as an antagonist, and while Miranda’s musical does some justice to Burr’s complexities and depths (particularly his relationships with two key women, his wartime lover Theodosia Prevost and his talented daughter Theodosia Burr Alston) when it focuses on him, he consistently takes a back seat to Hamilton and does ultimately play that antagonist’s role in the story.
No offense to Hamilton, whose own life and story are as compelling as Miranda makes them, but when it comes to complex and interesting Founders, no one has Aaron Burr beat. Gore Vidal knew it, and his historical novel Burr (1973) is for my money not only the best historical novel of the Revolutionary era, but one of the greatest American historical novels. That’s partly because Aaron Burr’s life story is ridiculously full of dramatic incident, so much so that the duel with Hamilton is probably only the fourth or fifth most historic and interesting moment. And it’s partly because his story opens up so many complex and forgotten Revolutionary and Early Republic moments and issues, from the Revolution’s 1775 Quebec campaign to the hugely contested 1800 presidential election to the thin, thin line (if one exists at all) between Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and Burr’s mysterious, potentially traitorous plans for an empire in the West. And oh yeah, Burr lived for another three decades after that treason trial, becoming a pivotal figure in the rise of New York as a major American city, as well as the political careers of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.
Seriously, AmericanStudies Elves, let’s make this happen!
Last wishing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other wishes you’d share?