by Samuel H. Wandell and Meade Minnigerode. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1925. 2 vols. 8vo. xxxvi+322, xii + 340 pp. Illustrated. $10.00.
IT is delightful to have at last a thorough, exhaustive, authentic narrative of a life so far-reaching and so picturesque as that of Burr. Parton’s Biography is completely out of date, and the still earlier narrative of Matthew L. Davis is scandalously uncritical. Messrs. Wandell and Minnigerode have investigated all the sources, and it is unlikely that future research will make any considerable addition or change.
I only regret that the authors could not have made their work more complete by footnotes explaining the character and origin of the quotations, so that one might understand a little more clearly what material is derived from earlier biographers and what comes from sources yet unprinted. In a book more likely to be read by scholars than by the general public it would seem that this might have been done with advantage.
The high light of notoriety in Burr’s career is of course the Hamilton duel. But the problem of the so-called Conspiracy is even more interesting in its bearing upon Burr’s character and aims and ambitions. It cannot be said, however, that these authors do much to clear up this confused and intricate subject. Final evidence is and must be wanting, and in default of it we are left to conjecture. That Burr dreamed of a great Mexican Empire, to be ruled over by himself and Theodosia and their descendants, is unquestionable; but what the relation of this empire to the United States might turn out to be remains as cloudy to us as it very likely was to him.
To me the best part of the book is the few concluding pages, which give an excellent summary of Burr’s character, with all its mystery, its complexity blended with a strange simplicity, its undeniable fascination. It seems to me that on the whole the secret of the character and of the fascination is that Burr did not take life too seriously. The group in which he lived and moved, — most of whom, by the way, are treated by our authors with a slightly unpleasant depreciation, —Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Marshall, took the politics and the future of their country with passionate earnestness, each in his own way. To Burr it was all and always an amusing, diverting pastime, full of clever, surprising tricks and turns, and the coolest, quickest gamester ought to win. And what makes the sovereign charm is that he did not take himself any more seriously than anything else. The love of woman, the caress of popular favor, the flight of bullets — all these accidents, so engrossing to average mortals, were to him toys, trifles, matter of merry comment to a pretty daughter at the end of a summer’s day. This attitude never failed in him, even in the darkest hours of adversity, and one cannot help being touched and drawn by it. Only, empires are not built by laughter and kisses, or even by daring dreams and cunning tongues, but by long self-denial and weary thought. Now Burr did not relish selfdenial, and he did not propose to think to the point of weariness.