Friday, February 7, 2014

The Founders, properly considered.........

     Aaron Burr's life represents the antidote to lazy history.  His experiences, his mistakes, and his radical insights combine to give us a better picture of the political culture that defined his generation.  To conceive of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and their ilk as they were on their best day is to compress the life of any modern president into the most memorable line in an inaugural address that someone else wrote for him.  The founders were far more numerous than popular history suggests, and far less righteous and dignified.  The historic memory does not hold much history.  That is why Burr, the fallen founder, is more representative that one might otherwise suggest.
     The founders contributed wisdom and often exhibited courage.  But to remove them from political time as if they were ever, on a single day, holy men or paragons of virtue misses their true vocation and their true motivation.  They did not live inside an impossibly romantic political forum where great minds communed on a regular basis to remind each other of their noblest ideals.  They did not spend the bulk of their time sitting at their desks writing treatises, or standing before their congressional peers making sublime speeches.  The lawyers among them were more typically engrossed in the ugly details of a property case, or in a dogged debate inside a courtroom;  many speculators among them mulled over the looming threat of debtor's prison.  They spent their time engaged in the polite banter of the tea parlor, and indulged in secret sexual trysts with prostitutes, mistresses, and in the South, slaves.
     These were our founders:  imperfect men in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities.  That they did good for their country is understood, and worth our celebration:  that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective, and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography.  What separates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.
-Nancy Isenberg, as excerpted from her conclusion to Fallen Founder:  The Life of Aaron Burr

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