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Postscripts To History

July 2024
3min read

To the Editor,

We feel that in his article on Colonel Aaron Burr (A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1966), John Dos Passos reveals himself as a writer of fiction, as a propagandist and as a distorter of the truth rather than as an historian. From beginning to end, the article uses ugly words, gross misrepresentations and amazing misuses of facts. …

At the beginning of the article, readers are presented with three alternatives: 1, Burr was a traitor (which never has been proven); 2, Burr was a “Con-Man” (a position which he would have disdained); or 3, Burr was a mere adventurer (the facts are quite to the contrary). It would have been much better to have offered this point of view: Burr was the one who saw the possibility for the development of the great Southwest and who tried to hasten it. … a patriotic American who wanted to become a leader in making Texas an American state and who wanted a leading part in setting Mexico free from Spain.…

Mr. Dos Passos falls into the familiar pattern of those who seem to derive some sort of sadistic satisfaction from abusing Colonel Burr. Sometimes the abuse is subtle innuendo, sometimes it is naked and vicious attack. When other men talked or dreamed of what they might do, they made plans—but Colonel Burr’s plans are labeled “plots.” Burr did not use a means to an end, but it was a “ruse.” Burr was not asked to visit, he “wangled” an invitation. Those close to Burr were not his “associates,” they were his “accomplices.” Burr did not convince people, he “pulled the wool over their eyes.” Burr did not make any errors of judgment, he “deceived” people. So the article reads. … This is the language pf Propaganda—interesting but misleading. …

The final section of Mr. Dos Passos’ article is even more highly fictionalized than the others.… As he presents them, the details and the motives involved in Colonel Burr’s travels in Europe during the four years from 1808 to 1812 have only the faintest semblance of truth. Mr. Dos Passos misinterprets The Private Journal of Aaron Burr . It might be- of value to ask if he referred to the Bixby Edition (which is acceptable) or to the Davis Edition (which is not acceptable). Colonel Burr’s papers and documents %vere seized while he was in England. Later they were returned to him, with official apologies, but he realized that they might be seized again. Some of the entries in the Journal may have been made to confuse his enemies rather than to inform the members of his family. …

Colonel Burr had a large and successful law practice in New York City from 1812 until 1836. A number of other lawyers were associated with him as partners or as assistants. Even though he gave away considerable amounts of money during this period of his life, he left an estate of considerable financial value. The impression that he was alone and povertystricken at the time of his death is another one of the usual falsehoods which various writers have presented from time to time.

We feel that we must look upon the Dos Passos article unfavorably. We believe that it is not a fair or openminded statement of those portions of the life of Colonel Aaron Burr which it covers.

Truly yours,
Samuel Engle Burr, Jr. President General THE AARON BURR ASSOCIATION

Mr. Dos Passos replies:

Aaron Burr was one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived. I don’t blame the Aaron Burr Associa- tion for wanting to stick up for him, but 1 don’t understand why they won’t accept him as he was.

Let me refer the Association to Henry Adams’ account of Aaron Burr’s western adventures in Adams’ History of the United States . This was based on researches in the British, French, and Spanish archives. The transcripts are still available at the manuscript division of the Library of Congress. Then there are the Joseph C. Cabell papers at the University of Virginia, the Wilkinson papers in Chicago, and the accounts of the trial in the newspapers of the time in Richmond and in Kentucky and in Washington and Baltimore. The Blennerhassett papers are very revealing, as are William Wirt’s letters to Ninian Edwards, and William Plumer’s Memorandum, where Burr is described without animus by a New England senator who knew him as Vice President. My estimate of the inner hollowness of the man came largely from careful reading of a large part of the Bixby edition of the Journal ; of Burr’s own letters to Theodosia; and of [Matthew L.] Davis’ biography, which, though a campaign document, is full of interesting sidelights. I tried to base my account on current appraisals rather than on later writing, though I admit I was influenced by Adams’ History , which I consider about the best historical work written in America.

It is extraordinary how different men can with the best will in the world arrive at totally different conclusions from a study of the same evidence. I did not approach the character of Aaron Burr with feelings of hostility. My mind was tabula rasa when I started reading up on him. My feeling was more of astonishment at the strange complexities of the human character. Aaron Burr’s career offers such a complication of motives and passions that it is quite possible that much that the Aaron Burr Association has said about him and much that Henry Adams and I have said might be true at the same time.

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