Burr
by Gore Vidal

The life of Aaron Burr as a novel. The same character who narrates 1876 narrates this novel, although much of it is transcriptions of Burr's fictitious memoirs.

The plot involves the narrator trying to get evidence that Burr is Martin Van Buren's father in time to publish a pamphlet that will ruin Van Buren's presidential campaign.

Jefferson comes out as a hypocrite, back-stabber, liar, coward, and a tyrant who used the power of his office to violate free speech and even frame people for crimes punishable by hanging.

The War for Independence
Considering that the British forces were far from home and considering that there were over two million Americans in the colonies, it ought not to have been difficult for us to overwhelm them in every way. (42)

At this point in our affairs Congress was faced with a true dilemma. It was now plain to everyone that Washington was not—and never would be—sufficiently competent to defeat the British. Either Gates or Lee was preferable. But neither Gates nor Lee nor anyone else had the authority to keep together what army we had while holding in check the pack of thieves and rhetoricians that called itself the Congress. (88)

Banks
Incidentally, no one—not even Leggett—has yet made clear why the federally supervised Bank is so much worse than a thousand banks that are unsupervised. Yet for some mysterious reason the Bank is thought "aristocratic" while the banks are "democratic." The poor of course are as certain to be fleeced by the many as they were by the one. (126)

Political Parties
How topsy-turvy it is! Those of us who were for the Revolution were Whigs. Those for Britain were Tories. Then there was the fight over the federal Constitution. In our state Governor Clinton wanted a weak federal government. So some of the Whigs became anti-Federalist, and some like Hamilton became Federalist. Then the Tory-Federalists became Republican. Now Tory-Federalist-Republicans call themselves Whig though they are anti-Whig while the anti-Federalist Republicans are now Jacksonian Democrats. Oh, names are magic here! (130)

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a ruthless man who wanted to create a new kind of world, dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves. It is amazing how beguilingly he could present this contradictory vision. But then in all his words if not deeds Jefferson was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers. Proclaiming the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves, Indians, women and those entirely without property), Jefferson tried to seize the Floridas by force, dreamed of conquest of Cuba, and after his illegal purchase of Louisiana sent a military governor to rule New Orleans against the will of its inhabitants. (160)

Jefferson saw the whole continent as a kind of Virginia, filled with honest yeomen enjoying the fruits of black labor. (169)

It is true he did a great number of things, from playing the fiddle to building houses to inventing dumb-waiters, but the truth is that he never did any one thing particularly well—except of course the pursuit of power. Yet his exuberant mediocrity in the arts is everywhere admired today, and quite unrecognised is his genius for politics. (219)

All I ever wanted was a life to myself, inside my own head. (345)

What a family to have produced Randolph, Marshall and Jefferson. The first mad, the second eccentric, the third a passionate hypocrite.

Year Read: 1998


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